What do the world’s biggest trout, the giant honey bee of India and the Danube Delta (Europe’s largest nature reserve) have in common? Besides their immense proportions, they are all niche topics hand-picked by Universum, the dual natural history strands on Austria’s ORF (Osterreichischer Rundfunk). The two weekly primetime series cover more than just natural history, according to commissioning editor Dr. Walter Kohler. While one slot focuses purely on wildlife, featuring classical blue-chip wildlife films for a German-speaking audience (Tuesdays at 8:15 p.m., 45 minutes), the second features a mix of topics including wildlife, archaeology, science, natural history and ancient civilizations (Thursdays at 8:15 p.m.).
In total, Universum fills 105 slots per year, 25% of which are produced in-house. The other slots are filled with international coproductions with such partners as the BBC, Discovery and National Geographic. The few remaining slots are purchased from producers around the world. According to Kohler, coproduction is most beneficial. ‘We coproduce due to the long production time of nature programs, as well as ORF’s insistence on achieving a very high standard of product.’
Universum has an in-house production unit that consists of a group of experienced executive producers who work with independents (especially from Austria, but also from around the world). ‘With in-house producers, we can keep our overhead low and can tailor the production teams to the needs of every individual film to bring most of the budget on screen.’ A good part of Universum originations are distributed by international companies – led by Docstar in Paris and London-based Explore International – as well as ORF itself.
Kohler picks The Magic Trees of Assam as a good example of the fruits of his programming strategy. The doc, which aired last October, focused on the migrational behavior of Assam’s giant honey bees from the Himalayan foothills to the plains of the Brahmaputra river, and was coproduced with National Geographic Television, ZDF, Canal+ in France and the BBC. The production team was an English/ Austrian combination, using an Austrian crew and cameramen. The budget was US$450,000 (DM 1 million). Universum contributed approximately DM 300,000.
Programmers are attracted to Universum’s output due to its unique mandate to create docs on niche topics, according to Kohler. ‘Anyone can enter South Africa to make a film about the elephants, for example. And lots of people do. So to cut our competition we strive to fill a more niche market. We try to find international
stories which nobody has touched before.’
Universum has won 20 awards at international wildlife film festivals for The Emerald River (1997), about the Soca, the Slovenian upper reaches of the Italian Isonzo and the last refuge of the world’s largest trout, the Marmorata. For St. Stephen’s: The Living Cathedral (1997), Universum was recognized internationally for revealing the natural history of St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna: the breeding kestrels on the towers; bats in the belfry; hunting martens on the roof; and the micro fauna in holy water fonts.
Kohler believes that Universum is partially enabled to seek out such niche topics due to its situation in Austria. Being a neutral country (and not a member of NATO), Universum has good political contacts with certain Arabic nations. For example, Umbria: From Wreck to Reef was filmed off the port of Sudan. The Umbria, an Italian battleship which sank off the port in 1940, has become a new habitat for marine life. Says Kohler, ‘We were able to gain permission to enter in order to film by the government of Sudan, whereas an American or English company would have much more difficulty or not be able to at all.’
Several coproductions are scheduled to be completed by the end of 2000. Currently in post-production, Realm of the Golden Eagle is a three-part series about the Alps. The film is backdropped by a landscape of extremes and depicts areas inhabited by a diversity of surviving fauna: the wolf; the brown bear; the lynx; the bearded vulture; and the golden eagle. Blue Danube Black Sea is about the Danube Delta, Europe’s largest nature reserve and refuge for vast colonies of pelicans and cormorants, giant fish, wolves and otters. The Ancient Amazon investigates the theory that 130 million years ago the original source of the Amazon was located in the Ounianga Kebir lake district of the modern Sahara. The expedition looks at the natural history, geology and archaeology of a remote and seldom filmed region of the Sahara bordering Lake Chad, and travels all the way to the modern-day Amazon.
Kohler believes these projects reflect the mandate of his strands. ‘Finding the right niche and avoiding already covered topics, and producing with the highest possible production values, is the strategy for Universum and will remain so for the future.’