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Entertainment

August 11, 2012

Network aims to keep 'Shark Week' relevant by allying with conservationists

WASHINGTON — On Sunday night, millions of viewers across the country will tune in to what has become an annual ritual of summer television, a combination of fear and morbid fascination: Discovery Channel's Shark Week.

Cable television's longest-running and most popular series celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, proving yet again that Americans have a seemingly insatiable appetite for stories about the ocean's top predator. But as Silver Spring, Md.-based Discovery seeks to keep its annual shark fest relevant, executive producer Brooke Runnette has begun to build an alliance with national conservationists who have spent years decrying the channel's programming as simplistic and short-sighted.

The campaign to transform Shark Week's image — entailing events ranging from a closed-door meeting at a Stanford University biology lab overlooking the Pacific Ocean to a screening and cocktail reception hosted by one of Washington's most influential ocean-advocacy organizations — is a work in progress. But it is already a case study in how two very different interest groups have decided they are better off together than apart: environmentalists who see the rehabilitation of sharks' image as critical to their continued survival and a cable company that needs something beyond the next "Air Jaws" shot.

In an interview, Runnette, a former news producer who took over the show in 2010, said part of her work is driven by a straightforward motivation to drive audience with fresh material: "What can I still do that's new, for god's sakes, after 25 years?"

After all, Discovery already ran "The 10 Deadliest Sharks," "Anatomy of a Shark Bite" and "Bull Shark: World's Deadliest Shark," more than a decade ago. So Runnette has sought to have viewers "see a shark differently," whether that's through advanced technology or an alternate story line.

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