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How 'Shark Week' Became Cable's Longest Running Brand

In the mid-1980s, the heads of the fledgling Discovery Channel gathered at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C. to brainstorm ideas for fill-in summer programming. It was Steve Cheskin, now a programming VP at TLC, who blurted out the words that would make Discovery Communications and change cable forever.

Shark Week.

The annual shark-a-thon, which is cable's longest running event, began its twenty-third year Sunday night. More than 130 hours of programming will be devoted to the chompy chondrichthyes and, if history is precedent, some 20 million viewers will check in to Discovery before the last bite is delivered next Sunday. You can read about the growth of the program on The Daily Beast.

Discovery's handling of its hit teaches some great lessons about brand management. Here are three of them.

  1. Don't over-saturate. Held just once a year, there is plenty of time for producers to round up celebrities and scientists who add spice and knowledge to the proceedings. The scarcity also builds anticipation among viewers -- "Shark Month" would have sunk a long time ago.
  2. Leverage hits. After SW became firmly entrenched with viewers, Discovery used its lure to sign up many more cable outlets -- a classic 'tent pole" strategy. Discovery avoided the trap of creating lesser quality spinoffs, although Panda Week must have been awfully tempting.
  3. Invest in the brand. Discovery wasn't content with just running shark videos once a year. It actively promotes the cause of shark protection and helps underwrite research. Its shows are credited with "discovering" the ability of great whites to leap out of the water up to 15 feet to snare prey, an image that has become iconic with the program.
What lessons do you find in Discovery's handling of the Shark Week phenomenon?