Bitten by the Exploration Bug

In the competitive world of factual programming, broadcasters are increasingly looking for projects which will brand their channels as innovative and unique. Rather than waiting for the stories to happen, they are taking the initiative and financing their own scientific expeditions,...
April 1, 2000

In the competitive world of factual programming, broadcasters are increasingly looking for projects which will brand their channels as innovative and unique. Rather than waiting for the stories to happen, they are taking the initiative and financing their own scientific expeditions, or paying for exclusive access to missions that are already underway.

In both scenarios, the broadcaster puts up extra cash and takes on the risk of filming an exploration that could find itself on bumpy ground at any time. On top of that, the film’s ending remains a gaping unknown until the mission is over. Despite the risks, broadcasters are signing on, and are getting to tout the cachet of involvement in an expedition that treks into unknown territory, searches for new species, or uncovers lost treasures.

On top of the world

The Weather Channel, based in Atlanta, is the latest broadcaster to jump on the expedition bandwagon.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab, which was heading the April ’99 Everest expedition, approached The Weather Channel as a sponsor to help defray the costs, says Sidney Moore, executive producer of special projects for TWC. The broadcaster was interested in possible scientific experiments, such as putting weather probes on the mountain, and jumped at the chance to show viewers the various weather changes on Everest.

The Weather Channel sponsored the expedition for a ‘small’ sum of money in comparison to overall costs. The cable channel does not have the budget to be the sole sponsor of a mission but will come on board missions already in place.

‘We are a lean operation,’ says TWC’s exec VP and general manager Patrick Scott. ‘We are not in the business of commissioning hunts for the Titanic or raising the mammoth. Ours is a much more modest programming budget, so we cannot sponsor full expeditions. But where there is a weather tie-in, we will look at making a financial contribution. We’re talking in the low tens of thousands of dollars. We aren’t talking mega-bucks.’

Instead of sending a crew, TWC provided the climbers with satellite phones for interviews, as well as digital cameras. The footage and voice recordings were sent by wireless communication, and were packaged into daily updates on the channel. This scenario kept production costs low, but it also created the challenge of ensuring that the climbers would provide the required information to the producers at specified times for use in daily segments, says Moore.

During the six weeks the program aired on The Weather Channel, there were a few times when the climbers could not stick to the schedule, but the producers had set their deadlines far enough in advance to come up with alternate programming.

Interest in the great peak has attracted more than one broadcaster’s attention. Boston’s WGBH has shot several films on Everest for its science series NOVA. The strand’s latest project was ‘Lost on Everest,’ a 1999 coproduction with the BBC, in which the broadcasters teamed up with a group of climbers to mount the mission. The BBC and NOVA kicked in the lion’s share of the sponsorship money, says producer Liesl Clark, though the expedition also attracted additional sponsors. In 1997, however, NOVA put together and financed its own expedition

in which the filmmakers were also the climbers. The program, ‘Everest: The Death Zone,’ was a partnership with the U.K.’s Channel 4.

Ironically, the 1999 expedition turned out to be more expensive than the 1997 mission because of the large number of people involved in the joint expedition.

‘If I had a choice, I would choose the first scenario [1997],’ says Clark. ‘On ‘Everest: The Death Zone,’ it was solely our expedition, so we were able to make decisions affecting the budget – cut corners where we thought we needed to and spend money where we saw fit for production purposes. Because the climbers were actively involved in making the film, we were doubling up on job descriptions, and it made for an easier and more amicable situation. It can be difficult to piggyback on an already existing expedition because you often feel there are ‘the climbers’ and ‘the filmmakers,’ and that’s not always an ideal scenario.’

However, Melanie Wallace, NOVA’s senior producer for coproductions and acquisitions says that many expeditions require broadcasters to join up with already existing missions because of high costs. She says their expedition films are budgeted at US$700,000 to $800,000 an hour, whereas a typical NOVA program runs around $500,000.

NOVA currently has two new exploration initiatives in development, and in both cases the missions were already in place. For ‘Kingdom of Mustan,’ NOVA will follow a group of art restorers and architects to a Buddhist monastery high in the mountains on the border between Tibet and Nepal. Their mission is to find the few remaining ancient Buddhist monasteries and restore the wall paintings inside.

The second project is a four-part series called ‘High Adventure,’ which will showcase the scientific discoveries made on expeditions to four high peaks.

Coming down to earth

National Geographic (based in Washington, D.C.) has the luxury of being able to fund many of its expeditions without external sources. The National Geographic Society’s Expeditions Council, which has an annual budget of about US$1.5 million, provides grants to the TV production unit, as well as Nat Geo’s magazines, online, educational and book publishing divisions. Money can also be accessed through the Committee for Research and Exploration, National Geographic’s scientific foundation, which annually makes $4 million to $5 million available for projects with a scientific goal.

If the expedition is between $20,000 to $30,000, the Expeditions Council will fund the entire mission, says Maryanne Culpepper, Nat Geo’s director of story development. However, if the budget is closer to the $150,000 range, the Council will come in for as much as $50,000 and leave it up to the expedition leader to find other sponsors.

The range of costs for an expedition can be as low as Nat Geo’s $30,000 mission to the Tsangpo Gorge in Tibet in 1998, to their highest priced expedition to date, ‘The Battle of Midway’ (the Pacific naval battle that marked a turning point for the Allies in World War II), which cost $750,000. On these larger projects, costs are amortized by featuring the expedition across Nat Geo’s wide range of outlets, such as the magazine, book and online content divisions.

Not all of National Geographic’s missions have achieved their quest. A case in point is the recent attempt to find a giant squid, which in the end proved to be a fruitless mission. Culpepper says the footage of the search will likely not be made into a film now, but may be used later to tell the history of the search, once the giant squid are finally located.

‘One of the nice things about National Geographic is that our programs are usually staff-produced [roughly 75% to 80%], and since we have been around for 35 years, sometimes we will work on a film for 10 years if necessary,’ she explains.

As was the case with Nat Geo’s attempt to find the elusive giant squid, Discovery Channel’s mission also proved unsuccessful. DCI’s program will be broadcast anyway because ‘the film is shaping up to be a terrific search film with really interesting science and characters,’ explains Mike Quattrone, exec VP and general manager at the Bethesda, U.S.-based Discovery Channel. All the projects they take on must have an interesting back story, he explains, ensuring the program is dramatic, whether or not the quest is achieved.

National Geographic will air unsuccessful missions in some cases. For example, the tale of a crew who recently tried to canoe down a river in China, but had to portage the final leg of the trip, will reach viewers. Says Culpepper, ‘Getting halfway down the river and having to stop and portage out is still a dramatic story.’

For Channel 4′s adventure series To The Ends of The Earth, science editor Charles Furneaux says he mitigates the problem of unsuccessful quests by turning the rigid story structure to his advantage. ‘The programs are quite formatted in that, from the outset, we clearly identify a quest and put together an interesting group of characters who pursue that quest. So, it doesn’t matter if they find what they are looking for or not.’ In fact, he says, some of the strand’s best programs are those which reveal the impact of the quest on those who undertake it, whether or not they succeed.

Riding the waves (and the odds)

While Culpepper says close to 80% of Nat Geo’s expeditions are successful, she will often increase the odds by giving explorers some development money (up to US$10,000 usually) to research the viability of the expedition before it is undertaken. For example, an adventurer who wanted to do a first descent down a river in the Andes was given $10,000 to fly over in a helicopter, at which point he realized the river would be impossible to travel by kayak. Development money is rolled into the production budget, so Culpepper says she encourages teams to use the money judiciously.

Discovery Channel also sets aside a special fund for development. The ‘Expedition Adventure’ fund finances scientific studies and expeditions, and while Quattrone will not reveal the amount of money in the pot, he says it is ‘substantial.’

Since most of Discovery’s expedition programs are budgeted at over $1 million, Quattrone says the broadcaster works with outside foundations and societies to help fund the exploration initiatives whenever possible. For example, Discovery worked with the Liechtenstein-based Hilti Foundation on Cleopatra’s Palace and Napoleon’s Lost Fleet (both produced by Toronto-based CineNova Productions). The Smithsonian Institute of Washington, D.C. helped fund the Quest For the Giant Squid, and the British Museum has also helped finance some expeditions.

However, in the case of In Search of Liberty Bell 7, produced by Partisan Pictures of New York, Discovery footed the entire expedition bill, with in-kind services from the Cosmosphere (a non-profit museum for space artifacts located in Kansas, U.S.), which offered to restore Liberty Bell 7 free of charge.

Beyond the success or failure of a search, numerous other problems can crop up during production – bad weather, running out of fuel, equipment breaking down (particularly cameras and search equipment in under-water exploration, due to the intense pressure in deep water) and injuries to crew – all of which can mean days of lost shooting time.

By working with highly trained technicians and experts, as well as planning for every possible crisis, some of these risks can be reduced, says Quattrone. For example, in the research phase of the Liberty Bell 7 expedition, Discovery found out there were explosive devices on the capsule. As a result, they brought in disarmament experts to detonate the devices as soon as it was brought on board the ship.

Contingencies are also planned for in the budget. ‘We knew we had a certain plot of ocean to crisscross in searching for the Liberty Bell,’ explains Quattrone, ‘so we figured out how long it would take under ideal conditions, then added extra days into the budget for bad weather. On a three-week expedition, we budget for four weeks of food, fuel, equipment and personnel rates.’

Nat Geo also plans for potential overtime and equipment damage, building 10 to 15% into the budget for extra costs. ‘If we know the inflatable boats will be going into a difficult area, then we budget for extra boats,’ explains Culpepper. ‘If we know the camera is going into a volcano, chances are a camera will be damaged so we budget for that.’ After that pot of money is used, the expedition has to be re-evaluated.

Of course, producers are sometimes caught off guard. On Discovery’s Raising the Mammoth expedition in Siberia (a partnership with the National Natural History Museum of France), temperatures dropped and the river froze, closing the passageway for the ship carrying kerosene, which was needed to fuel the helicopters raising the mammoth. ‘We had to pull lots of strings to get the kerosene and we didn’t budget for the extra expenses to get the fuel in – but we had to do it,’ says Quattrone.

Why it’s all worth it

‘There’s the pay-off in ratings but expedition programming is also how viewers have come to define Discovery as unique,’ says Quattrone. Raising the Mammoth, which premiered on March 12, pulled in a 7.8 Nielsen rating (in the U.S.), the equivalent of 10.1 million viewers. It is Discovery’s highest-rated program to date. The other broadcasters agree that expedition programs have become signature shows on their networks as well, and are definitely worth the investment.

While NOVA can only afford to produce an average of two expedition films per year, Wallace says she’s finding adventure and expedition programs to be the most natural way to follow the scientific process. Next year, NOVA will air a two-hour special about the discovery of a U-boat off the coast of New Jersey. ‘A lot of the scientific quests these days seem to take people far and wide, so we are now including the process of journeying to a place as part of the process of scientific study,’ she says.

Almost all of the 50 films commissioned each year for National Geographic Explorer are adventure or exploration films, says Culpepper. The development slate includes a trek into the Andes (where archeologists have uncovered a lost city), and in April an engineer is flying to the North Pole in an open cockpit bi-plane – after spending all winter sleeping with his windows open to get used to the cold.

While The Weather Channel has not produced any expedition programs since Everest, Scott says the channel is revamping, and plans to open up more opportunities for documentary programming – including exploration – on their schedule.

As television production technology advances alongside research and scientific technology, Quattrone sees exploration programming taking up an increasing number of hours on broadcasters’ schedules. ‘The equipment is available and becoming increasingly affordable, as is the expertise to take on these missions,’ he says. ‘We are at this wonderful moment in time where the technology to discover is being matched by the technology to record that discovery.’

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.