Discovery Channel founder enthusiastic about Shark Week

081012_OA_bw_John_Hendricks

Not that it’s a competition, but if it were, John Hendricks might win the award for America’s biggest shark fan.

Hendricks, founder and chairman of Discovery Communications, which owns Discovery Channel, and founder and owner of Gateway Canyons Resort, is the man behind Shark Week.

As the name suggests, Shark Week is a week of programming dedicated to sharks. It’s a week Hendricks looks forward to, both as executive and shark enthusiast.

As Shark Week turns 25 on Sunday, Aug. 12, Hendricks spoke in a recent phone interview about how Shark Week began and how it has grown into a pop culture phenomenon with a website (http://www.sharkweek.com), Facebook page (http://www.facebook.com/sharkweek) and Twitter handle (@SharkWeek).

Melinda Mawdsley: Congrats on 25 years of Shark Week.

John Hendricks: I remember how it all came about. It was 1987, only 24 months after I launched the organization. We got together at a hotel in Washington, D.C. We were brainstorming, and no idea was a bad idea. ... Steve Cheskin raised his hand and said, “You know how those independent stations have themed movie weeks? What if we had a shark week?” ...

Even by that time we had a number of programs about sharks. ... It’s proved to be an incredible success. People have this innate fascination with sharks. They are at the top of the food chain and live in a place where we can’t survive.

Mawdsley: What are some of the biggest changes and/or improvements Discovery Channel has made to Shark Week through the years?

Hendricks: The biggest improvement is around camera and video technology. High definition came along, and we started in 2001 off the coast of South Africa and aired “Air Jaws.” That was the first-ever footage of great whites breaching 15 feet in the air to attack seals. ... We all know that famous scene of a great white shark breaking fully out of water, and no one had ever seen that before. ...

By 2012, there was state of the art slow-motion photography. One sequence we got of a shark breaching took only a fraction of a second, but we expanded it to 43 seconds on air. It’s the same kind of slow motion photography that you’d use to try to capture a bullet or arrow going through a watermelon. Our visual system can’t see it.

Mawdsley: When do preparations for the next Shark Week begin?

Hendricks: We’re now actually commissioning for Shark Week 2013, so here we are a full year in advance. We are already filming for a show to air next year. We have great footage that’s in our library, so we always show people some of our greatest hits through the years. We will this year, too.

Mawdsley: Do you personally get feedback from viewers about Shark Week?

Hendricks: From the time we first put it on the air, which was before email, we got letters. We knew we were onto something just by the volume of letters and phone calls we’d get. People wanted to order videos. Remember VCR tapes? We have social media around Shark Week now. You’ll see how our viewers and fans can comment and blog on our shows.

Shark Week has been a hit with people who watch it live, who tape it and watch it on DVR, or people who watch segments online. Because of all that activity, it’s one of our favorites with advertisers. We love it when there’s spoofs on Saturday Night Live and when it’s mentioned in movies.

Mawdsley: Have you ever swam with sharks?

Hendricks: No, but it’s on my little list of things to do in the next few years. We’re planning a trip to South Africa to Seal Island in 2013.

Mawdsley: You know you could ease into this whole swim with sharks thing before going to South Africa.

Hendricks: No. If I’m going to do this, it’s got to be a great white.

Mawdsley: Were you fascinated with sharks even as a little boy?

Hendricks: Oh yeah, absolutely. I remember when I was a kid, probably a teenager, my mom and dad got me a little science series, a Time Life series of books. I remember as a kid being fascinated looking through the encyclopedia and these Time Life books on sharks. It was a treat. That was part of my entire interest in starting Discovery: using television to help people explore their world.

Mawdsley: Well, I love Shark Week, so thank you.

Hendricks: It’s one of those rare events on TV that people have parties around. It’s something people kind of bond around. ...

It also shows the value of a company getting away for a retreat. In October, we’re having a retreat at Gateway Canyons Resort.

Mawdsley: Let me know if you want me to come.

Hendricks: (Laughing) OK.



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