Why 'Shark Week' Sells

Executive producer Brooke Runnette explains the 25-year success of Discovery Channel's 'Shark Week.'

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The terror of the deep swims onto television screens this week as the Discovery Channel's beloved 'Shark Week' kicked off Sunday evening. Celebrating its 25-year anniversary, Shark Week was conceived by "a bunch of people around a cocktail napkin," explains its executive producer, Brooke Runnette, "No one knew that it would work." But work it did.

Last year, Shark Week programming attracted 26 million viewers, many of the women and children, bringing a near gender balance for the typically male-skewing Discovery audience. Additionally, video streaming traffic on the Discovery Channel website doubles during Shark Week, compared with usual summer months.

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Over the years, Shark Week has seen some important developments, from profiling a rare shark never before seen on television until 1995's In Search the Golden Hammerhead to capturing a Great White "Air Jaws" jump for the first time on film in 2001.

"'Air Jaws' was a tale until it was gotten on film," says Runnette. A new program, Air Jaws Apocalypse, continues to study the majestically terrifying feat of a shark hurling its full body out of the water. "The camera that first got it was good, but the cameras now are crazy," gushes Runnette.

New programming this year includes How Jaws Changed the World, which explains how the 1975 film that frightened audiences across America both vilified the predators and encouraged marine biologist to study the creatures. "There wasn't shark science before Jaws," explains Runnette. In Sharkzilla, scientists reverse engineer at 52-foot Megaladon, a prehistoric shark with a massive jaw and 7-inch long teeth (which viewers will see devour a beer keg and a jet ski).

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The Discovery Channel works with scientists across the world to produce the programming that has made Shark Week the staple of every shark enthusiast's summer. Runnette says marine biologists often pitch ideas to her and the network provides funding for their projects. Discovery Channel also works with the Ocean and Pew Charitable Trusts to sponsor legislation and public service announcements to promote shark conservation.

Runnette, who took over the helm of Shark Week in 2010, says the animal is the ultimate reason for the event's success. "The shark is the star," says Runnette. "You don't have a 'Grizzly Bear Week' or 'Big Lion Week. It doesn't grab you the same way."

Tierney Sneed is associate editor of U.S. News Opinion. E-mail her at tsneed@usnews.com and follow her on Twitter.