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Shark Week’s Executive Producer Tells Us What to Expect From the 25th-Anniversary Specials

Brooke Runnette, the woman behind one of the favorite events of summer television, talks about bringing science and scares together.

The Discovery Communications building in Silver Spring. Photograph courtesy of Discovery Communications.

It’s that time of year again. The time for thrills, chills—and Chompie, of course. It’s Shark Week number 25. So far, Silver Spring-based Discovery Channel has created 143 fin-filled specials since Shark Week’s creation in 1988, and last year more than 26 million people tuned in to learn about the many-toothed predators. Perhaps this stalwart of summer has kept keep us captivated because each year it removes a bit more of the mystery surrounding the last great wild predator. Or perhaps sharks are just scary-awesome.

This year’s Shark Week starts Sunday, August 12, at 9 PM. We talk with Brooke Runnette, Shark Week’s executive producer and one of our 2012 Green Award winners for her work revealing what really happens in our oceans, about what it takes to keep the pop-culture phenomenon fresh and growing.

How has the Discovery Channel managed to keep Shark Week fresh for 25 years?

The shark is the star. We are working with something powerful and amazing and awesome. It is still mysterious. But the camera technology has also gotten so much better. We are literally seeing them in ways we couldn’t before.

Can viewers expect anything special to celebrate a quarter century of shark awesomeness?

Locally there is going to be a public screening in Silver Spring on August 10 of [the Mythbusters special] “Sharkzilla”; Philip DeFranco will host Chompdown, a roundup of the 25 best bits from the past 25 years; and all week we will be running throwback shows during the day, and a few old shows will be updated with new facts popping up onscreen.

What went into creating the eight specials for this year? The production must be a logistical nightmare.

We actually commission these shows a year or two early. They have to plan what they are going to do, when they can do it, and how they are going to get the shots once they get there. We’re sending people all over the world and getting them to do some dangerous things. You need to respect the fact that they have a big mouth full of teeth, but these [filmmakers] are willing to put themselves at risk. And that is what Shark Week is all about.

Since you took over as executive producer of Shark Week in 2009, what have you done to put your own mark on the show?

Basically I starting turning it toward natural history. It had gone more toward what scared people about sharks, so instead we wanted to make it about what’s amazing about them, not just what’s scary.

After four years, what is the most “sharktastic” fact you’ve learned?

There are so many things! I can’t even pick out my favorite. One of the first things that really stands out is when Craig Ferguson hosted a few years ago. He was just amazed when he found out nurse sharks have two penises.

Is it hard to balance education and entertainment? Or are shark just inherently entertaining?

It is always hard. Clearly the sharks are awesome, but the stories we are telling are really about the drama of these scientists. It would be easy to make the show without much science in it, but it wouldn’t be as fun and it wouldn’t be as good. These are science action heroes doing stuff that is really dangerous.

Why do you think Shark Week has struck such a chord with the public and become a cultural icon?

It is really just a pillar of the summer. It’s kind of like the Olympics—you know it’s coming, and you know people are going to be talking about it. People are having Shark Week parties now, and we are going to do a lot with social media this time because we want them to show us their stuff.

Any other “weeks” in Discovery’s future?

We do do stuff like that, but are we going to launch another 25-year franchise? I don’t know. This is the one that sticks. It’s just fun. It’s really a cocktail napkin idea; they had no idea it would last this long.

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