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Discovery's iconic ‘Shark Week’ lurking

Cable network finds success in adrenaline-pumping programming
/ Source: The Associated Press

British TV executive Jane Root is still learning the peculiarities of the American television market, but she already knows to keep away from the sharks.

This is the Discovery Channel's 19th annual Shark Week, six days of programming in the midsummer heat that will make you want to stay away from the water. It's usually the network's most popular week of the year, despite airing at a time of low TV usage.

"It's one of the icons of the American summer," said Root, executive vice president and general manager of Discovery, "and you mess with it at your own peril."

Two years in charge, she's presiding over an effort to (forgive the pun) return Discovery to its roots with more informational programming and specials, and has started an unlikely hit series featuring crab fishermen off the coast of Alaska.

Discovery had been sagging a bit in the ratings before Root was hired from British television, its prime-time average declining from 1.3 million five years ago to 1.07 last season, according to Nielsen Media Research. There have been signs of life recently; this season's average was 70,000 above the year before.

More importantly, Root wanted Discovery to stop looking like something targeted strictly at auto mechanics.

Led by the just-ended "Monster Garage," the machine-oriented shows had begun to dominate Discovery's schedule. Root didn't get rid of all of them — "American Chopper" is still popular — but Discovery has confined them now to Monday nights.

"You can have too much of a good thing," she said. "We weren't careful enough about the brand. We didn't stretch it as far as it could go in terms of being thoughtful and engaging and exciting."

Stunning even the people at Discovery, the Tuesday night show "Deadliest Catch" became the network's highest-rated series of all time in the series' recently concluded second season. The finale on June 13 captured 2.8 million viewers.

"Deadliest Catch" follows five boats in the Bering Sea as they fight the elements to catch as many crab as possible. It's backbreaking work in abysmal conditions, with mountainous seas, howling winds and subfreezing temperatures.

It's great fun to watch from the comfort of a living room couch.

Jake Johnson and Damon Wayans Jr. on the "Let's Be Cops," red carpet, Selena Gomez is immortalized in wax and more.

Root has added another adrenaline-producing series in "I Shouldn't Be Alive," which tells survival tales. Discovery has returned to topics such as anthropology and history, while adding flair by reconstructing scenes with actors and adding dramatic visual effects. Last year's Discovery Channel special about the plane forced down by passengers after being hijacked on Sept. 11, "The Flight That Fought Back," attracted a strong audience of 7 million viewers.

Those ratings, and another strong showing by the recent Tom Brokaw-narrated documentary on global warming, reminded Discovery of the value of doing high-quality, high-profile specials. Several more are in the works.

On four Sunday nights in October, the network will present the first of 30 planned specials that serve as travelogues to individual countries, examining their geography, culture and people. "Discovery Atlas: China Revealed" is first, followed by shows on Italy, Brazil and Australia.

A Discovery crew followed 11 adventurers on a climb up Mount Everest last spring, using such things as cameras mounted on Sherpa guides. A six-part series on the climb begins in November.

"There are a lot of media brands out there that people would like to mean something but don't," she said. "This one really does. For a long time it was absolutely the flagbearer for thoughtful and intelligent television. My job was to go back to that, to make that sing again."

In September, the work of former ABC News "Nightline" host Ted Koppel and his production team begins to air on Discovery. Koppel will have three prime-time hours Sept. 10, the eve of terrorist attacks' fifth anniversary, for a special about the conflicts inherent in the need for greater security and the tradition of personal liberty.

Sounds pretty serious for a network whose corporate headquarters is currently encased in a giant inflatable shark.

On the air since 1988, Shark Week still hasn't jumped the shark. But it must be getting hard to find new topics, as Friday's special "Science of Shark Sex" hints. Discovery's "Dirty Jobs" host Mike Rowe also gets to create and test a shark repellant.

They'll have another year to think up new ideas. Shark Week is as much of a tradition as cable television gets, and the fearsome fish will be lurking for the foreseeable future.

"I think it's our own `American Idol' or something," Root said.