The Jaw-some Tech Behind Shark Week - InformationWeek

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8/16/2012
11:26 AM
Michael Endler
Michael Endler
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The Jaw-some Tech Behind Shark Week

As Shark Week celebrates its 25th year with jaw-filled images, a slew of new technologies drive both content production and distribution.
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We humans might take pride in our upright posture and big brains. But as an evolutionary experiment, we don't compare well to sharks. These sea predators first appeared more than 400 million years ago and managed to survive the great extinction that reduced dinosaurs and most of their Mesozoic contemporaries to fossilized museum attractions. What's more, sharks did so while undergoing relatively little revision in the millennia since. It's almost as if nature reasoned, "If it's not broke, don't fix it."

Shark Week, on the other hand, has evolved plenty since it swam into the Discovery Channel's programming on July 17, 1988. In that first year, the primetime ratings nearly doubled the channel's average audience numbers. By 2011, at which point the annual tradition had aired a whopping 143 different programs, viewership had grown to 26.6 million. It now holds the distinction of being cable television's longest-running programming event; so ingrained is Shark Week in popular culture that when a character on the sitcom "30 Rock" declared, "Live every week like it's Shark Week," the advice actually registered as earnest and wise.

The 2012 line-up, which has been airing on the Discovery Channel this week, marks Shark Week's 25th anniversary. The impact of new technology on the event is particularly clear in the current iteration, with new--or, in some cases, newly affordable--gadgetry enabling researchers to study the creatures more closely. Sophisticated devices have likewise allowed producers and documentarians to share the results of these studies in increasingly dynamic ways. (It looks like those big brains are useful after all.)

Some of these advances include the application of special cameras that are capable of extending sharks' most ephemeral and intimate moments into slow-motion television that allows viewers to carefully observe details. Others include new tracking technologies that have allowed scientists to learn just what sharks are up to when they're not inspiring anxiety among beach-goers. For those who prefer to keep sharks safely enclosed in the digital realm, Discovery Channel has also beefed up its online offerings, producing not only a more robust website replete with dozens of factoids, photos, and videos but also an iPad App and social networking integration that have allowed shark enthusiasts of all kinds to bond over their shared interest in gaping maws and ominous dorsal fins.

The programming's trademark quirkiness--marked by, among other things, the continued participation of the "Myth Busters" team--has advanced by virtue of technology as well, with this year's programming including not only a life-sized recreation of the prehistoric Megaladon, which was so massive it could bite a Tyrannosaurus Rex in half, but also, and even more ostentatiously, a shark cage in the shape of a Volkswagen Beetle.

Dig into our slideshow to take a look at the full range of Shark Week tech.

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