The Truth Behind Shark Week

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Shark Week
Chris Fallows/Discovery Channel
Here's what's long been the official story on the creation of The Discovery Channel's blockbuster annual stunt programming event "Shark Week." Or maybe this is the official story. Or this. Or this.

Whatever. They're all pretty much the same general tale: three guys in the early days of TDC, sitting around a hotel bar, boozing and brainstorming and strategizing the network's next move at a time when it wasn't yet a household name and cable staple. Somebody blurts out "Shark Week!" or someone else posits "Wouldn't it be a great idea if...." and the rest is television history.How it happened
I suppose what's been reported is true, as far as it goes. But it's not the whole story. I know, because I was there the first time "Shark Week" got brought up - in the non-executive brainstorming meeting at the office before the executive "meeting" at the bar.

I know, because it was my idea.

As usual, reality is far more interesting - and ironic - than legend. And trust me, this was no stroke of genius. It was 1987, I was a 20-something gung ho idealist who had very recently joined the programming department at The Discovery Channel, which was based at the time in low-rent Landover, Maryland, just past the D.C. line, in a big dark ugly office building near the next-to-last Orange Line Metro stop, a high-rise the network's tech guy at the time (now at ESPN) Bob Liguori aptly deemed "The Darth Vader" building.

I'd been hired by and was working for my former T.A. from the University of Maryland's now-defunct Radio, Television & Film department, Steve Cheskin, and my beloved old RTVF professor, the late Mike du Monceau. Discovery in the early days was ocean-deep with Terrapin alumni, so I already knew a lot of people there - Mark Kozaki, Rex Recka, Danny Salerno, etc.; all smart, good guys, as were Steve and Mike.

I'd spent the previous two years teaching high school English in the Deep South for reasons not worth going into here, but Steve and I had stayed in touch. I was already grateful to him for hiring me during my final college years to sell Storer Cable TV subscriptions door-to-door in the leafy Maryland suburbs of D.C.: I ended up making enough cash to pay for school and later support almost a year traveling through Europe and Africa.

So I owed Steve a favor to begin with, and it doubled when he reached out to me during my second year teaching in Hinesville, Ga., where I was just about ready to put a bullet in my head, to see if I'd like to join him at Discovery. It wasn't a hard decision. Graduation came, and I left.

But The Discovery Channel in 1987 was still somewhat struggling to grab a foothold in American homes. It had investors like BBC, but I don't think it had broken 50% penetration, and ratings had plateaued. At the time, it wasn't a particularly mainstream channel, either; Discovery showed a ton of documentary nature programming - some of the sardonic jokes around the office called it "The Animals F#cking Channel" - and populist reality programs like "American Chopper" and "Naked & Alone" were a long way off. In my mind, Discovery was going to be a National Geographic for television (the real NatGeo channel wouldn't launch in the US for almost 15 years), a noble endeavor, and I was lucky to be getting in on the ground floor.

Reality meets fantasy
So when Steve rustled up the programming department for a brainstorming session at the office literally one of my first Discovery days, I was in for a rude awakening. People were not desperate, but there was a sense of urgency in the air. The network needed increased carriage from more cable operators - remember, again, in these early days before mass consolidation of media companies there were a ton more cable systems and a lot fewer channels ("57 Channels and Nothin' On," was Springsteen's lament as late as 1992) - and increased ratings were critical when angling a way onto more systems' limited list. Most of summer TV would be in reruns, which offered a huge chance for Discovery to make a splash in the homes of viewers who had access.

I was young, naive and aghast. I thought I was joining a TV network that wanted to change the world for the better, but I was in a room full of people who had one thing and one thing only on their mind: ratings.

Ideas were spitballed, gimmicks were discussed, stunts were propositioned, but budget was limited. Discovery needed to pull from the network's inventory of already-purchased programming, It certainly couldn't afford to create anything new.

Finally, self-righteously disgusted as I realized I was surrounded by philistines, I said, sarcastically, something close to: "Look, we know the bigger the animal, the bigger the ratings, and if it can kill you, that's the best. So why don't we just air shark shows all summer?"

Again: Not a stroke of genius. In fact, not even meant as a serious idea. I was just making a dark joke, snidely commenting on what I thought was the pursuit of the lowest common denominator for money. You know: television.

But the room went quiet for a moment. "That's really not a bad idea, actually," somebody said, or something like that. There was some discussion about it, me sitting there flummoxed that people were actually taking this seriously, and then we all moved on. It had credence, but it was not a "Eureka!" moment. Until later that night when Discovery's founder and CEO John Hendricks heard it. Then suddenly there was a scramble for shark programming.

If I remember correctly, the first Shark Week didn't even have enough original programming to fill a full week, and some of the shows were rerun during prime time. There was also a struggle to get together a limited marketing strategy, because it all had to be turned around in a matter of weeks. I got zero credit for it, Steve Cheskin and Mike du Monceau and another guy named Clark Bunting, who were all at the offsite meeting with John Hendricks, took the glory, though it really wasn't glory at first. Only when the ratings came back, nearly doubling Discovery's usual numbers, did people really get excited about Shark Week.

Loyal soldier
I still mostly kept my mouth shut, because I was young and loyal and felt I owed Steve my job - twice! - and I bought into the whole corporate bullish!t that we're all on the same team, everybody'll look out for everybody else, blah blah blah. But when Shark Week II was gearing up in 1988, I went out of my way to find and tell John Hendricks that it was actually my idea, that I had come up with it at the meeting before the meeting (I left out the part that I was only being sarcastic), and asked him if he knew. I knew he didn't, but figured that was the better way to position it. He looked surprised and told me no, but that was the end of it.

Ultimately, Steve and I had a falling out that had nothing to do with Shark Week and I left Discovery after a couple years. In the quarter century since, I've watched with bemused amazement as Shark Week has become a part of the American conversation and zeitgeist, telling the truth to family, friends and co-workers but never actually putting it to paper. I really had no hard feelings towards anybody about it, it wasn't like I was going to be making any money from it, and I didn't relish the potential pissing match or worse that could ensue if I made the claim. I did reach out to somebody else who was in that initial brainstorming meeting via email a couple years back, who vouched for my version of events, but because a lot of the old Discovery crew still hang out, I'm not going to put him on the spot.

So why now?
Basically, I got asked by the right person at the right time. Laurie Petersen, the AOL Jobs editor, is a longtime friend, and she asked if I'd write something about Shark Week.

But I still probably would've begged off if it wasn't for Comic-Con a couple weeks back. There was a panel devoted to the writer Bill Finger, one of the creators of Batman. Finger was a quiet, humble guy who didn't like conflict, and he got bulldozed out of the picture by artist Bob Kane and DC Comics. He went to his death basically unknown, and only in recent years has there been a movement to recognize his pivotal contributions to The Dark Knight.

In a recent New York Times story that addressed the plight of Finger and other comic book creators who don't get a piece of the action even as they see their heroes turned into billion dollar franchises, Marvel Comics' Guardians of the Galaxy co-creator Keith Giffen told the Times he advises his grand-daughter, "Don't be a creator. Be the exploiter. They get rich. You never will." Well, for Shark Week, I was even less than that. What does that make me?

So those were both influencing events. But ultimately, more than anything else, I just wanted to tell everybody the truth, because it's so much more interesting than the legend. "Shark Week" isn't a great creative idea, it's a cynical joke made by a young idealist getting his first real glimpse of what happens when the best intentions meet the cold hard financial facts. And that's no fish story.

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