“I remember arriving, and he was watching ‘Shark Week,’ ” Daniels told Anderson Cooper in an interview with “60 Minutes” on Sunday. “He made me sit and watch an entire documentary about shark attacks.”
“It wasn’t at that point a business meeting,” Cooper asked his interview subject. “It was just watching ‘Shark Week?’ ”
It was one of the odder vivid details to emerge from the L’Affaire Daniels currently engulfing the White House and the Trump orbit. Nor was it the first time Daniels mentioned “Shark Week” and Trump’s feelings for the animal.
“He is obsessed with sharks. Terrified of sharks,” Daniels told In Touch Weekly, again recounting Trump watching “Shark Week.” “He was like, ‘I donate to all these charities, and I would never donate to any charity that helps sharks. I hope all the sharks die.’ He was, like, riveted. He was, like, obsessed.”
But if Daniels is to be believed, the future president’s choice of programming is not much of a surprise.
Since launching in 1988, Discovery’s seven-day marathon of shark-related content has hauled in millions of viewers; “Shark Week” has become television’s longest-running annual programming event and claiming a unique pop culture footprint.
The week, which mixes “Jaws”-esque documentary footage of the ocean hunters with celebrity guests and educational shows, helped fix the Discovery Channel as a mainstay on cable. Stephen Colbert once said the event was “one of the two holiest of holidays” next to Christmas. Last year, “Shark Week” shattered its own best showing for a single telecast, earning 5 million average total viewers with a show featuring a simulated race between Olympian Michael Phelps and a CGI shark.
“Shark Week” will go down as one of the most profitable long shots in television history. It may have all started with an idea scribbled on a bar napkin.
In 2012, Brooke Runnette, then “Shark Week’s” executive producer, told the Atlantic the idea was the product of a “post-work brainstorming session” at a bar with Discovery executives John Hendricks, Clark Bunting and Steve Cheskin.
“As I’ve heard it, they were just talking about what kinds of things would be fun to do on Discovery,” Runnette told the magazine. “And one of them said something like, ‘You know what would be awesome? Shark Week!’ And somebody in that nexus scribbled it down on a napkin. You know how that is. An idea in a bar comes from many fathers.”
Two years later, Eileen O’Neill, then Discovery Channel’s group president, told the Week the idea’s genesis was more rooted in market knowledge. “It started with a scheduler and the founder of the company, John Hendricks, brainstorming,” O’Neill said. “They started with the premise that sharks are such predatory beasts, and rated well, and thought, ‘What if [we] took advantage of the August beach time?’ ”
Wherever “Shark Week” idea came from, the network needed it badly — something to jolt the interest of both viewers and cable providers.
According to the Washingtonian, when Discovery initially launched in 1985, the programming was dominated by nature documentaries that failed to snag ratings; the network hung at “1 percent of all television-owning households in the US.”
The “Shark Week” concept was also picking up on the tail-end of the “Jaws” phenomenon. Steven Spielberg’s 1975 thriller about a human-gobbling Great white shark became the highest-grossing film of all time (but was knocked from that perch in 1977 by “Star Wars”) and spawned three sequels. “Shark Week” gave viewers real-life footage of the deep sea nightmare stoked at the movie house.
The network’s “Shark Week” hit the airwaves on July 17, 1988. The schedule featured programs with titles like “Caged in Fear,” “Shark Callers of Kontu” and “The Shark Takes a Siesta.”
“It was intended to capture the attention of the operators but also to drive consumer demand to say, ‘We would like you to carry Discovery Channel,’ ” Clark Bunting, a former Discovery executive, told the Washingtonian. “Shark Week was a way for us to have some fun and also try to attract other cable operators to say, ‘Wow, who are those guys?’ and ‘We should carry them.’ ”
Ratings for the first shark week doubled the network’s usual prime-time viewership, the Atlantic reported. The programming also attracted more cable providers. By the next year, Discovery was in 40 million homes, according to the Washingtonian.
As the concept pushed on into the 1990s, ratings continued to rise. “Everybody was always fairly surprised that it kept working,” Runnette told the Atlantic. “It kind of taught us what it wanted to be, in a way.”
That meant changing the game plan along the way. In 1994, Discovery tapped Peter Benchley, the author of “Jaws,” to serve as the first “Shark Week” host. Five years later, Discovery ran its first live show, “Live from a Shark Cage.” Celebrities — Sugar Ray frontman Mark McGrath, singer Brian McKnight, professional volleyball player Gabrielle Reece — were filmed swimming with sharks for 2002.
But the basics — shark footage and a summertime slot — tapped into a reliable ratings gold mine.
“Shark Week’s longevity is rooted in two genuine and enduring insights about summer TV in the U.S.,” Joel Espelien, a senior adviser with the Diffusion Group, wrote last year in an analysis. “First, there’s just not much new on TV during July and August (especially in non-Olympic years). The combination of lack of competition and viewer boredom created an opportunity, and Discovery was savvy (or lucky) enough to fill it. Second, kids are not in school, which means families are not besieged by homework and after-school activities.”
Discovery’s own identity has become welded to the “Shark Week” brand. To promote the event, a 446-foot-long inflatable shark named Chompie was often stuck on the side of the network’s headquarters in Silver Spring, Md.
Over the years, the event has come under fire from animal rights groups and some scientists, who take issue with the sensationalized portrayal of the animals.
“‘What do you think of Shark Week?’ is the third most common question I’m asked as a professional shark scientist,” David Shiffman wrote in Wired in 2013. “And the answer is complicated. … At its best, Shark Week educates people about the most misunderstood animals on our planet while inspiring them to protect the ocean. At its worst, it perpetuates fear and misunderstanding.”
The programming hit a ratings dip in 2016, but the much-billed “Phelps v. Shark” set a new telecast record in 2017. The network will be celebrating the 30th anniversary of “Shark Week” in 2018.
“The shark is the star,” Runnette told the Atlantic. “Just keep showing that.”