Why Is Discovery's Shark Week So Beloved?

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America, rejoice! The best week of the year—the six nights that you spend 51 weeks pining for, longing after—is finally here. Shark Week reared its toothy jaws last night on the Discovery Channel with the premiere of Ultimate Air Jaws. For the 23rd year in a row, Americans will spend a hot summer in the tranquil refuge of their air-conditioned living rooms, watching cool, comforting images of sharks diving, swimming, and ripping chunks of flesh off unsuspecting sea mammals. There is Shark Week merchandise. There are shark-themed libations. And yes—did you have to ask?—there are gory attack videos aplenty.

In some ways, the Shark Week obsession makes sense. It's a sadistic fascination with the horrific misfortunes of cute surfer boys, friendly marine biologists, and completely innocent dolphins. But it's also a little boring, considering how formulaic and repetitive the actual programming is. So why do people tune in? And, even more perplexingly, why is it the most ironically hip, guilty TV pleasure since The Price Is Right?

Because appreciations are the currency of small cable channels (see also: The Weather Channel's love of all things storm related). Shark Week is, on its face, a truly genuine admiration of the majesty of "nature's perfect killing machine." But frankly, if you've watched five minutes of the ballyhooed event, you've seen the whole thing. Four of the six Shark Week specials airing this year include references to shark teeth in their titles, and the other two are also about attacks—they just have more boring names (Shark Attack Survival Guide and Day of the Shark 3). That fact that this year's Day of the Shark is a three-quel, by the way, should give you a clue as to how little the programming varies year to year.

So why do viewers keep coming back? For one thing, Shark Week helps galvanize environmental-rights groups, which see the TV event as a chance to shed light on the difficulties faced by sharks in the wild: more than 100 million sharks are killed around the world each year by commercial fishing. Sen. John Kerry has even sponsored a "Shark Week bill" (the Shark Conservation Act of 2009) to help curb shark finning. What's even more remarkable is that Shark Week actually unites both sides of the eco-divide: the tree huggers who want to save every minnow in the sea, and the red-state good ol' boys who like to watch things get smashed to smithereens just for the heck of it. The bilateral appeal of watching sharks in their natural habitat translates into a big ratings booster for the Discovery Channel; Discovery Communications experienced a 2 percent "Shark Week bump" in shares today. There's a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem here: does the Discovery Channel promote Shark Week mercilessly because it's the only thing that gets people psyched about the Discovery Channel, or is the show successful because of how cleverly it is marketed?

That said, perhaps to ask why is to miss the point. "I'm watching Shark Week!" is a little like saying "I'm on a boat!" It's not about sharks, man. Like Snakes on a Plane, Piranhas 3-D, or any other over-the-top animal-attack fest with a blunt, obvious name, Shark Week has bite—albeit the self-conscious, meticulously styled, trying-so-hard-to-be-cool kind.