On a mission to show the drama of science

December 2, 2012

For most of my career I’ve been trying to combine two elements in television that seem to be at odds — excellent programs about science and ratings. It’s conventional wisdom that those two can never meet in the middle.

I don’t accept that.

I’ve always tried to show the drama of science and adventure.

Like a lot of people in Washington, I grew up somewhere else — in my case, overseas in Germany and London. My dad worked for PanAm.

A lot of us expatriates grow up as little anthropologists. You understand pretty quickly that there are many different ways the world can be, and you see how important culture and geography is.


Brooke Runnette is the new president of National Geographic. (Courtesy of National Geographic)

Journalism came easy.

I went into print for a couple years, but I knew I really wanted to go into television. Then I got one of those breaks.

A friend called me and said, “If you really want to be in television, be here tomorrow morning at 8:30, and you’ll be in television.”

So I did.

My first assignment was for a David Brinkley special about Pearl Harbor. They needed a blue or black 1939 Packard parked in front of a white picket fence at a particular address in Georgetown. And it had to be free.

Go do it.

I did.

I kept taking jobs where I wanted to do that every day — have fun with a purpose.

I bounced around at ABC News for a couple of years when I was offered a job in cable television. I remember my boss saying that cable was horrible and that I would wreck my career. I thought that maybe if I did it, I could help make it better.

After that, I was freelancing for years. I did A&E biographies, interviewing interesting people such as the Dalai Lama, Barry Goldwater, Ted Turner and Betty Ford.

Then the guy who headed “Nightline” under Ted Koppel recruited me. I worked for three months as the Iraq War was building up and they asked me to stay. I worked with them for a long time until I had my daughter.

Having a 1-year-old baby when you’re working until midnight every night is not so good.

My husband was working for the ABC bureau for “Good Morning America.” We found ourselves every day trying to figure out who was going to work that night. Whoever got tagged on a story first, the other person got to go home and put the baby to bed.

That is very stressful.

At the same moment, a friend called and asked if I wanted an executive producer role at TLC. At that time, TLC was all about weddings. I wasn’t even into planning my own wedding. I worked on really great shows that were heartfelt, such as “Little People, Big World.”

It was at Discovery where I had my greatest professional accomplishment. I helped to turn “Shark Week” around. Previously, it would not rate well unless people were getting killed, blood was running thick through the water, and the sharks were psycho killers.

I didn’t think that needed to happen.

We started twisting it a little bit so the sharks were the stars and not psychotic. The cameras showed us, guerrilla-style, the things we couldn’t see.

In 2010 everyone thought “Shark Week” was going to go downhill, but that week was the highest rated it had ever been in the 25 years of doing it.

That’s what is great about this job. I feel unleashed because it’s a job that is not only fun but has a mission behind it. It’s not just doing television production but communicating the message of the Society. When you have a job like that, you’re completely lucky.

Interview with Vanessa Small

Brooke Runnette

Position: President of National Geographic Television, the production arm of the National Geographic Society.

Career highlights: Vice president of development and special projects, National Geographic Channel; executive producer and director of development, Discovery Channel; executive producer, TLC; producer, ABC News “Nightline”; producer for other outlets including “Frontline,” “60 Minutes II,” Peter Jennings’s “The Century,” Michael Moore’s “TV Nation” and A&E “Biography.”

Age: 47

Education: B.A., special programs in humanities, Yale University.

Personal: Lives in the District with her husband and daughter.

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