"Sharks put us in our place," says Brooke Runnette, executive producer of Discovery Channel's Shark Week. "There's something right with the world if something else is bigger than us in the food chain. The world is awesome--you fall back and get humbled."
"Awesome" is what more than 30 million viewers say about the channel's weeklong series of shark shows in August. Runnette, who has produced the 25-year-old series since 2009, has upped the ante, adding humor with hosts Craig Ferguson and Andy Samberg while increasing Discovery's investment in environmental education.
The idea is to convert viewers from being scared to being amazed about sharks. "The conventional wisdom is that 'blood in the water' means high ratings," Runnette says. "We're taking a risk that conservation-minded stuff that's fun will still rate with viewers." It's working: Ratings for the shows are higher than ever.
Runnette works closely with Oceana and the Pew Charitable Trust's Global Shark Conservation, among others, to make sure shows are accurate and give viewers a good sense of what's happening in our oceans. She also pushed for Discovery's financial support for Stanford marine biologist Barbara Block's work tracking great white sharks that migrate to the area near the Farallon Islands by San Francisco. This summer, Shark Week's audiences will meet Scargirl, Mr. Burns, and Tom Johnson, three of the great whites that MacArthur "genius grant" winner Block is tracking. Runnette hopes viewers will identify with the creatures as individuals and appreciate the perils sharks face from human predators.
It can be a tough job--but Runnette recognizes the opportunities Shark Week offers: "Thirteen-year-old boys all over the country probably have crushes on me for all the things I do here," she laughs.
This article appears in the May 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.