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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."