The Discovery Channel's annual "Shark Week" is one of the longest running events on cable television. After 25 years on the air, the weeklong series of programming dedicated solely to sharks has become an American icon. Comedian Stephen Colbert has called it his second favorite time of year.
Legend has it that it all began as an idea scribbled down on a napkin during a brainstorming meeting.
"It was over drinks, I hear," Brooke Runnette, executive producer of the series, tells Talk of the Nation guest host John Donvan. "Late at night, a bunch of the early, early employees of Discovery Channel were sitting around and, cocktail after cocktail, ... one of the napkins was pulled out. ... They were trying to think of what would be most awesome, and this was pretty good."
Runnette talks about the allure of sharks and how the "Shark Week" team keeps the shows fresh and exciting year after year.
On recent changes to 'Shark Week'
"It's really hard to keep it fresh, but there have been a couple of things happening in the last couple of years that have made it possible to make it even more fun. ...
"When I took it over, one of the things that was happening at that time ... was that the camera technology had started to get so insane, that we were able to see things literally that you had not been able to see before ... The original air jaw shot ... we didn't even capture that on film until about 2001 ... The air jaw shot is the one ... where down in South Africa, there's a specific place where great white sharks leap 15 feet out of the water to basically hit a seal as hard as a car crash. And they lift their entire bodies out of the water and do a flip like a trout jumping out of a stream."
On re-enacting shark attacks
"One of the things that I always remember is the recipe for blood ... The good recipe for blood is part corn syrup, part red food dye and chocolate syrup to make it all work together well."
On the positive attributes of sharks
"The fact that they are the top predators is actually way more important than people give credit to ... They've done studies on coral reefs ... where the alpha predator, the sharks, ... have been hunted out and fished out because they're fished for their shark fins. Those coral reef ... communities just do a sharp decline ... It's not a direct correlation that you can obviously see right away. But what happens is the mid-level predators take over. They kind of get out of whack, and the entire thing just really cascades into a failing coral reef. This is pretty well-documented science.
"So, in fact, it's really necessary that we have these top predators. ... Each shark has its own ideal food. None of them is you."
On the possibility of a week of programming featuring other animals
"Nothing really works as well. ... Not even lion week or grizzly week, either. I mean, it really is about the sharks. ... It's really about something that is so other, that ... so represents the wild that can come out of the gloom ... in an ocean, which is two-thirds of the Earth. Anywhere they want to be, they can be, and then look at you, bare its teeth and sink back into the gloom. And it's almost more terrifying than anything."
On the allure of sharks
"The proper word is 'awe' ... And we don't really feel that that often. And I think it's actually comforting — in a weird way, in a counterintuitive way — to feel like there is something bigger than you ... that could actually kill you ... It's the tornado feeling. As you stand in front of a tornado, and if it doesn't kill you, you feel that nature is bigger than you, and that's the thing that's right with the world."
JOHN DONVAN, HOST:
This year, a giant shark showed up in Silver Spring, Maryland just outside of Washington, his huge head poking out of the headquarters of the Discovery Channel. It's more than two stories high. The gigantic great white has a name. It is called Chompy, and he's not real. But everybody knows what it means: It's the return of "Shark Week," the annual event on the Discovery Channel that is now celebrating its 25th year of bringing us captivating, educational and terrifying images of sharks in their natural habitats.
In just a moment, we're going to speak with the executive producer about what it takes to put together the programs and how to keep it relevant year after year. But first, we want to hear from you on this as well. We want to ask you: What is your favorite or most memorable "Shark Week" moment, past or present? Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Brooke Runnette is the executive producer for the Discovery Channel's "Shark Week." She joins me here in Studio 3A.
Brooke, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
BROOKE RUNNETTE: Thank you, John.
DONVAN: And I'm going to share with the audience that you and I were colleagues at "Nightline." We did many projects together, so we are familiar.
RUNNETTE: It's true.
DONVAN: But, to me, you're shark-related identity is a new thing. And...
RUNNETTE: I never made you dive with sharks. It's true.
DONVAN: So what is the closest you've actually physically been to a shark? Is it miles and miles, or is it pretty darn close?
RUNNETTE: It's pretty darn close, although I don't actually get in the water, I mean - and I want to. That's one of my biggest regrets about being the executive producer for all these years is - and not 25, by the way, but just a couple - is not having had time to actually get in the water myself. I totally intend to, but I may I have to take a sabbatical to do it.
DONVAN: So are you sitting on the boat, sending guys down?
RUNNETTE: Sitting on the boat, sending guys down, saying, come on, get in there.
DONVAN: So how did it start? It's 25 years ago, and when - you were just somebody home watching television. As you say, you've been doing - you've been in charge for three, four years now?
RUNNETTE: Yeah. Yeah.
DONVAN: OK. So do you have knowledge of the misty beginnings of "Shark Week?"
RUNNETTE: It was misty. It was over drinks, I hear. Late at night, a bunch of the early, early employees of Discovery Channel were sitting around, and cocktail after cocktail, it sounds like, one of the napkins was pulled out, and yeah. It's a cocktail napkin kind of idea. They were trying to think of what would be most awesome, and this was pretty good.
DONVAN: As the story is told, did they have this sense that they were really, you know, it was just another good week of programming? Or did somebody have the instinct that this was really going to be big?
RUNNETTE: By the time I heard the story...
DONVAN: Everybody was a genius.
RUNNETTE: ...everybody in the room was a genius. Yes, yes. And so I don't know what else got on the cocktail napkin that didn't make it this far. But this one, I think it's fair to say it surprised a lot of people that this is the thing that became - I mean, it is cable's longest-running stunt. It is something that really has even kind of lived, you know, had many different lives. It's something that kind of has had another new life in the past couple of years.
DONVAN: What's the new life in the last few years?
RUNNETTE: It's just gotten more ratings, higher ratings in the last couple of years, which you would think that something would sort of wind down. And, in fact, it's really hard to keep it fresh, but there have been a couple of things happening in the last couple of years that have made it possible to make it even more fun.
DONVAN: Such as?
RUNNETTE: Well, one of the things - when I took it over, one of the things that was happening at that time, and it kind of worked together with what I was hoping to do with it, was that the camera technology had started to get so insane, that we were able to see things literally that you had not been able to see before. So where the original air jaw shot, which wasn't ever...
DONVAN: Wait, define air jaw shot.
RUNNETTE: So the air jaw shot is the one that - if you've seen any of this, you've seen it. It's where - down in South Africa, there's a specific place where great white sharks leap 15 feet out of the water to basically hit a seal as hard as a car crash. And they lift their entire bodies out of the water and do a flip like a trout jumping out of a stream.
DONVAN: I'm going to interrupt you very quickly for an email from Kat, who writes: We'll never forget seeing a shark jump in the air with a seal for the first time.
DONVAN: Brooke, continue your story.
RUNNETTE: And that was - we didn't even capture that on film until about 2001. It's pretty recent. Before that, it was almost a fisherman's tale that this happens. So before, you know, Chris Fallows and a couple of teams caught it in about 2001, we had literally not seen that before.
The same sort of thing is happening now with the high-speed cameras. What we couldn't have seen before - even in sort of lower, you know, lower-speed cameras - now, when shooting at 1,000 frames per second, you can actually slow it down so that we can mark individuals. We can see - you know, you can just see the scars on an individual and say, like, oh, that must be, you know, that female is coming back from - we haven't seen her for two years. She looks like she has mating scars on her - I mean, that level of detail that we would not have been able to see on a live shark before.
DONVAN: Let's bring in Sally, who's in Thousand Oaks, California. Hi, Sally. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.
SALLY: Hi. Thanks for having me.
DONVAN: Hi. Sure.
SALLY: I just wanted to say that I love "Shark Week." I've been a fan for a long time. When I was younger, about 11 or 12, I used to keep a shark book. And I would write down a page with every species of every shark that they would talk about on "Shark Week." And when I would hear something new, I'd flip through it and write it down so that I'd have like an encyclopedia of sharks, if you will. And it really piqued my interest in nature and sharks, and especially the Galapagos Islands, when I saw the, like, horns, where the hammerhead sharks spin around and just...
SALLY: I love "Shark Week." I've been a fan for a long time.
RUNNETTE: Thank you. Great. It's fun to do.
DONVAN: Thanks, Sally, very much for your call. Brooke, is "Shark Week" good for sharks or bad for sharks?
RUNNETTE: It is good for sharks. I'll tell you why. Here's the thing about - when I sort of started doing this, I mean, there's a way in which - there are a lot of stories that we want to tell ourselves that are the campfire tales of how big were its teeth and when it bit this person, what where they doing. And we do want to hear those stories, because we want to know, just as humans always do, what's the thing you're not supposed to do. For example: Don't swim with seals when you see them.
I mean, one of the things we can do is put out that kind of information in "Shark Week" and just say, you know, OK. This was really fun to watch this show. But here's the thing that you can do to avoid shark-person interaction, which is what the trouble is. You know, any shark attacks and everything is - a lot of it is because there's so many more people in the water, and for longer times. You know, surfers will stay out there all day, surfing for hours and hours and hours.
But the other thing is it just allows us to give greater awareness. And one of the things I've been doing since I took it over was leaning more toward a conservationist idea, which is just - is not difficult because, you know, I don't need to say it directly so much as I just need to peel it back and make the shark the star.
DONVAN: But there is an argument that is made in relation to nature documentary work in general, that humans being out there in the field, period, is disruptive. Now, I know the ocean is a big thing, but do we know whether having men and women filming in the water is disruptive to the sharks, harmful to them in any way?
RUNNETTE: I mean, it is disruptive insofar as our presence in general is pretty disruptive to the planet.
RUNNETTE: I mean, I think that that...
DONVAN: You're a drop in the ocean.
RUNNETTE: I mean, I would say, well, you know, there are places where sharks are probably being habituated to certain behaviors. I mean, we know that that's true down in Stuart Coves in the Bahamas (unintelligible).
DONVAN: Meaning they're getting used to people?
RUNNETTE: Yeah. They're just getting used to people. They know that at a certain time, they can practically see the boat come in, and they know that they're probably going to get food because a tour dive is going down.
DONVAN: Let me bring in Craig from San Francisco. Hi, Craig. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.
CRAIG: Hey. How are you?
DONVAN: We're good.
CRAIG: Thanks for taking my call.
CRAIG: I am an art director at Goodby, Silverstein here in San Francisco. And, you know, watching "Shark Week," I keep wondering I keep wondering how you guys are going to evolve, you know, the - not just the content, but how you shoot it. And not too long ago, I shot the Olympians for the Summer Olympics with a guy Michael Muller, and he just - he couldn't show us everything because I think he was still shooting it for you guys. But he used a high-powered strobe to capture a shark, and it looked like nothing I'd ever seen before.
RUNNETTE: It's great. It's great. It's great. It's great. It looks like the Vanity Fair shot of sharks.
CRAIG: Oh, yeah.
RUNNETTE: It's unbelievable. It's - I mean, he does amazing work. We totally - we love him, and we want to work with him more.
DONVAN: Well, I'm not quite getting the picture of what this process is.
CRAIG: I could - you want to describe - I could describe it in a nutshell. Basically, a strobe allows the photographer to really be able to manipulate the thing they're shooting and really show it in incredible detail. That's easy to do in a studio. But he actually found a way to do this underwater, and not to mention he's swimming without a cage, with the great white, with a crew. And it just blew my mind. I've never seen anything like it. You could tell by looking at it right away that this is a new tech (unintelligible).
RUNNETTE: Well, the nice thing is what he's doing with that shot is what we're talking about before, which is the shark is a superstar. He makes, with that shot, the shark a star. And that's the thing that we keep coming back to in "Shark Week," it's making sure that we just put the shark first, and the shark is the star. And all that stuff, you know, whether or not we're doing - you know, whether we say we're doing conservation stuff, that is the thing that people really respond to.
DONVAN: But does - thanks very much for your call, Craig. Does "Shark Week" make people like sharks or are terrified of them and...
RUNNETTE: Love them.
DONVAN: But isn't the terror really the hook?
RUNNETTE: It goes together. What it is, I think, is the word - the proper word is awe.
RUNNETTE: And we don't really feel that that often. And I think it's actually comforting, in a weird way, in a counterintuitive way, to feel like there is something bigger than you that could actually, you know, that could actually kill you, and that yet somehow it all...
DONVAN: It's like that tornado feeling.
RUNNETTE: It's the tornado feeling. As you stand in front of a tornado, and if it doesn't kill you, you feel that nature is bigger than you, and that's the thing - that's right with the world.
DONVAN: But do your ratings depend on people being scared to death of sharks (unintelligible)?
RUNNETTE: Again, not scared to death. I don't want them to feel like they're psychotic killers, because they aren't. They're rational actors. What you should feel...
DONVAN: Are they?
RUNNETTE: Yeah. What you should feel is that if you see seals in the water, that's what they eat. They could bite you in half.
DONVAN: Go away.
RUNNETTE: They could if they wanted to. So you have to take your part in it and get out of the water if they're there.
DONVAN: Mark from Charlotte, North Carolina, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.
MARK: Yes. Hello.
MARK: I'm from Charlotte, but I grew up in New Jersey. And I can always remember that "Shark Week" where they talked about the summer of terror, where all these people were killed back in, you know, the turn of the century and...
RUNNETTE: 1916. Yup.
MARK: And the thing which always surprised me was how do they all those reenactments? I mean, that was just amazing. You really felt like you were there.
RUNNETTE: They did a good job. I'll tell you - like, one of the things that's - I mean, whenever we have to do reenactment, it's...
RUNNETTE: One of the things that I always remember is the recipe for blood.
RUNNETTE: The good recipe for blood is part corn syrup, part red food dye and chocolate syrup to make it all work together well. But the - I mean, that was shot by a great production company, and they did a great job with all the acting. But, you know, yes, "Blood in the Water" was the name of the show, and that's what made me think of that.
DONVAN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
We have an email from a Gerald Thomsen, who is a professor at Stony Brook Department of Biochemistry and Cell Biology. He asks this: Do you think - he points out that sharks are an important top predator in the oceans, but that many species of sharks are in decline now, if not actually endangered. Do you think "Shark Week" maintains or promotes negative values of sharks? Are positive attributes of sharks portrayed? Let's - you've already answered the first, but let's take the - are positive attributes of sharks portrayed, and what are they?
RUNNETTE: Yeah. I mean, the fact that they are the top predators is actually way more important than people give credit to. I mean, you know, apart from the fact that our primate brains can really much more easily see the metaphor of, like, what would be - you know, what would Africa be like if there were no lions? The hyenas would kind of take over, and that wouldn't necessarily be a good thing, or something like that. The same thing is true of the oceans. In any ecosystem - and they've done studies on coral reefs, where the coral reefs - where the alpha predator, the sharks are gone, have been hunted out and fished out because they're fished for their shark fins.
Those coral reef, you know, communities just do a sharp decline. And it doesn't - it isn't necessarily - it doesn't - it's not a direct correlation that you can obviously see right away. But what happens is the mid-level predators take over. They kind of get out of whack, and the entire thing just really cascades into a failing coral reef. This is pretty well-documented science. So, in fact, it's really necessary that we have these top predators. And again, you know, the things that great white sharks or, you know, each shark has its own ideal food, none of them is you.
RUNNETTE: One of the things is that, you know, people think they must be impossibly delicious, and they really aren't to a shark.
RUNNETTE: They want to eat at certain times of the year and at certain times of their lives. They want to eat certain fish. Sometimes they eat other sharks. And they always, you know, want a fatty marine mammal, sometimes.
DONVAN: Liz in Denver, Colorado, sends in an email: My family used to summer in Cape Cod, near Martha's Vineyard, where "Jaws" was filmed. Our time there always overlapped with "Shark Week." I will never forget coming home from the beach and then watching hours of Discovery Channel, captivated and terrified at what we might have been swimming with that day. It always made the vacation even more fun and exciting, although it also kept me from going into water above my head.
And Kelly writes from Gainesville, Florida: I will never forget seeing the man who was able to put sharks in a catatonic state by rubbing on their belly. Amazing.
DONVAN: Was that your era?
RUNNETTE: Yes. Tonic immobility, they call it. You can kind of turn them upside down or rub his nose or something. I mean, it's a certain kind of - you wouldn't do it with a great white, necessarily. You could do it with a reef shark.
DONVAN: Have you considered other animal weeks? Do you do other animal weeks that are as popular?
RUNNETTE: Nothing really works as well. It is really about the shark.
DONVAN: There's not a guppy week or something like that?
RUNNETTE: No, or not even lion week or grizzly week, either. I mean, it really is about the sharks. We - you know, it's not so much about whether or not we can put together something that's kind of rah-rah, walk to the beaches and wave flags. It's really about something that is so other, that is - so represents the wild that can come out of the gloom in a, you know, in an ocean, which is two-thirds of the Earth. Anywhere they want to be, they can be, and then look at you, bare its teeth and sink back into the gloom. And it's almost more terrifying than anything.
DONVAN: And are you worried about - literally worried about running out of shark ideas? It's a fish in the water.
RUNNETTE: Yeah. No, I know. I know. Yeah. I mean, I think I...
DONVAN: Any good ideas coming down the pike?
RUNNETTE: Yes. And, actually, one of the things that's most exciting is, again, new technologies, and new technologies for figuring things out. And one of the things - I've got a show that's on tonight that's called the "Great White Highway" that features a MacArthur genius, Dr. Barbara Block, who's at Stanford University. And she just got the Rolex prize, too, for Enterprise. And she - we helped fund her to do - she was part of the big census of marine life that was basically trying to tag everything. But she's basically sending out wave gliders and buoys into the water so we can tell where they are and when. So new technology is what's doing it.
DONVAN: Brooke Runnette, thanks so much. You're the executive producer of Discovery Channel's "Shark Week." You joined us here in Studio 3A. Brooke, thanks for your time.
Tomorrow, it's TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. Ira Flatow will be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.