By Lynette Rice
Updated June 24, 2010 at 10:40 PM EDT

Image Credit: Blair Bunting/Getty ImagesEW talked with Discovery Channel President and General Manager Clark Bunting about Capt. Phil Harris’ final episodes of Deadliest Catch, and what’s next for the extraordinary reality show about crab fisherman.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Talk about your decision to focus the final six episodes on the passing Capt. Phil Harris.

CLARK BUNTING: We really struggled, there’s no question. I think this is one of the harder stories in our history. We’ve gone through, unfortunately, some tragedy before. We did the Steve Irwin special, but it was a two-hour special after Steve passed. The storyline for Deadliest Catch is about the full arc of Phil’s life. It’s the full arc of going through not just what happened to Phil and the boys, but also the rest of the fleet, the captains sharing their experiences, and them becoming aware of the tragedy that happened. So, we think we’ve covered the full arc without going over the edge.

Did you ever expect this show to get so heavy?

Years ago, I looked at a special that (Deadliest Catch executive producer) Thom Beers had created that was really the forerunner for Deadliest Catch, and I sat there thinking, “Are you kidding me? We’re gonna do a show about crustaceans?” And then he showed me a segment about what happens on those boats, how rough the seas are. He brought us in a bunch of fresh crab and we ate crab while we watched the segment. I think it was, arguably, one of the best pitches I’ve ever seen in my 25 years and it immediately erased in my mind any doubt that this couldn’t be an amazing, heartfelt, exciting story that was, for me at least, the beginning. This is full circle. This is the full story of the captains. This is the full story of the sons. In the end, this is a generational story.

Have you been overwhelmed by the response to Capt. Harris’ death?

Oh my gosh — the number of pages of the posts we had on the blogs. I mean, literally, it was melting the servers. It’s just one of those things that if somebody told me about, I wouldn’t believe. I would go through them night after night to see what these posts were saying, and it was extraordinarily heartfelt. The sheer volume and the sympathy and emotion was unlike anything I’ve ever seen.

Is that reflective of the show’s ratings this season?

No. Honestly, I think the outpouring was disproportionate to the ratings. It’s TV. Some people watch or people sample. People see a show. But the emotion and the number of folks who wrote in are disproportionate to the number of people who watch the show. Obviously, there were a lot of fans, but above and beyond that, it was a sense of loss. I think, unfortunately, that sense of loss was something we all experience. The show has continued to do extremely well for us. It is our highest rated show on the air. They’ve always had a very loyal audience and that audience comes back week after week. Now, as you begin to get into these next episodes, my expectation is that the ratings will go up high.

Will there be a seventh season?

We will continue next year. And what that story looks like…I think we just want to get this one put to bed and give everybody a little bit of a break to decide where to go next year.

Will the show lighten up?

I think we have to. I think with any loss, there’s a process of healing. I think that’s part of what folks will naturally experience. And then, the question is, where does the story lead you from there? It’s like any great docu-soap. Part of the reason I think that people are drawn into this is that it’s genuine, it’s authentic, and the story has yet to play out. We don’t know how the boys are going to respond. We don’t know what the captains will do. We don’t know who will be the owner of the Cornelia Marie. There aren’t a bunch of writers sitting around and saying, “Okay, what are we going to do next year?” This is real. I think that’s what makes it as compelling.