Wildlife du jour

The law of the jungle and the animals who live by it have fascinated viewers for decades. Although evidence suggests that the appetite for wildlife programming remains healthy, viewers' palettes are becoming more sophisticated and more varied: what people crave one year, they tire of the next. 'The future tends to be around the corner much quicker these days,' says Bo Landin, head of programming at Scandinature in Sweden. 'It used to be that everyone wanted natural history films because they looked at them forever. That's not the case anymore.
August 1, 2001

The law of the jungle and the animals who live by it have fascinated viewers for decades. Although evidence suggests that the appetite for wildlife programming remains healthy, viewers’ palettes are becoming more sophisticated and more varied: what people crave one year, they tire of the next. ‘The future tends to be around the corner much quicker these days,’ says Bo Landin, head of programming at Scandinature in Sweden. ‘It used to be that everyone wanted natural history films because they looked at them forever. That’s not the case anymore.

The trends are fast. That’s one of the main problems for natural history filmmakers. The production schedule is anywhere from one to two years for a film, but within two years the television market can change twice.’ Jenny Cornish, managing director of Sydney, Australia-based Jennifer Cornish Media agrees, ‘Trends are a lot less predictable than they once were. It’s a gamble now.’

In the pages that follow, industry leaders forecast future trends in natural history programming and weigh in on what’s hot and what’s not.

Aristotle knew best

Broadcasters forced to compete with a growing number of entertainment outlets are looking for a dramatic hook that will catch viewers’ attention and hold it. ‘The clear trend of the last couple of years is towards personality-driven programming,’ says Barry Clark, executive producer of Mandalay Media Arts in Los Angeles. ‘The audience is eager for more actuality, more of a sense of immersion and engagement. The effect of this on natural history is to have killed off the scholastic approach, and rearranged the priorities of the commissioning companies so that they’re now looking for strong stories, adventure, and involvement. You have to put your character into jeopardy. The scientist has to lose his way and not be able to find his money; the lion cub has to get separated from the pride and be unable to find his way home. [There should be] the basic principles of storytelling that Aristotle set out: create empathy for the character, put the character in jeopardy, and then have a catharsis in the last few minutes when you find out things aren’t as bad as you thought.’

The trend towards character-driven drama has affected traditional blue chip wildlife films most acutely. ‘The so-called blue chip portrait of an animal or ecosystem is now considered soft for many reasons,’ continues Clark. ‘The turn-around time for the delivery of those programs is something no one can afford. Most of all, they don’t engage in that in-your-face, immersive level that a character-driven story can.’ Says Maurice Paleau, VP of development and evaluation for Discovery Networks International, ‘We have all been nurtured by wonderful bbc blue chips, but people started to tire of the sun rising on the plains of the Serengeti, and then the sun setting on the plains of the Serengeti. It became stale.’

That said, predictions favor a resurgence of the blue chip film. Commissioning editors hungry for never-before-seen footage recognize that the research required to produce blue chip docs is necessary for generating fresh material. Adding character-driven drama allows the genre to embrace a dynamic that’s more enticing to today’s audience. Carole Tomko, VP of development for Animal Planet, explains, ‘My gut says there will be a return, not to the long-lens, presenter-less programming, but to bigger natural history events that might be covered in specials rather than series. There’s always a return on the large, never-before-seen events for animal programming.’

‘My prediction is that within 18 to 24 months, there’s going to be a surge in the old, classic natural history films, but with a twist,’ echoes Landin. ‘Maybe a little less didactic, and with more people in them, of course, but I think [viewers] are going to be asking for films where they say, ‘Wow, I didn’t know that.”

People need people

The most pervasive buzz about wildlife films concerns the interaction of people and animals. ‘Presenters gave natural history a personality that suddenly made it more accessible,’ says Tomko. ‘All of a sudden anything can be animal programming. It really expanded the genre. Now it’s much more of a blend, and I see the trend going towards an interception of danger or jeopardy, with a reality twist to it. You put a presenter with it and suddenly the audience has this vicarious thrill. It has definitely changed.’

Even Nat Geo, which has always focused on human adventure and exploration, is giving its wildlife programs a stronger people presence. ‘We have expanded considerably the number of shows where we have presenter-led story lines,’ says Keenan Smart, head of the nhu at National Geographic Television. ‘There are a lot of emerging personalities based in countries ranging from India to the u.s. that we’re trying to nurture and develop.’

Like Tomko, Smart believes presenters bring viewers into wild kingdoms by adding a vicarious quality to the program. Cornish agrees, but thinks an audience’s familiarity with a presenter lends an added value to wildlife series in particular. ‘For the audience, the people are the continuity that keeps them coming back to the story, although the animals are their interest. This can be for short run series as well, from as little as three and up to 13 [parts],’ she explains.

But for Paleau, who commissions for an international audience, one of the perks of natural history films is that animals don’t speak. Adding a presenter introduces the issue of language. ‘Host is a word we manipulate very carefully here at dni, because we run into the issue of dubbing and subtitling. Crocodile Hunter is very successful nationally as well as internationally, but it is very difficult for us to customize because the show is essentially action driven. When Steve Irwin addresses the camera, it plays well in the original language, but when you dub it, it becomes somewhat staged. What we’re trying to do is create a [human/animal] dynamic within the content of the show itself.’

Paleau offers dni’s upcoming program Swimming Elephants, a copro with Cinema Direct in Belgium that looks at elephants that swim as they labor for the local Indonesian population, as an example. ‘There’s drama in the program as the young elephants learn to swim for the first time,’ he explains. ‘Humans are always there, because they’re telling the elephants where to go. When you see them swimming together, the interaction is very organic. This is where we would like to be internationally far more coexistence of people and nature, and there is a trend to re-value this inheritance. I believe this trend will continue for some time.’

Gadgets a go-go

The impact of technological developments on wildlife programs continues to grow. As innovative cameras and capture techniques are introduced, the subjects available for exploration expand and old ones are revisited. ‘We’re seeing a lot more technology come into the budgets of natural history films,’ reports Cornish. ‘Infrared and camera triggers are now within the realm of not-wealthy natural history producers who can afford to experiment with the gear to get results for a story. This will open up new stories as we get to see animals in environments that we can’t see with the naked eye.’

‘There’s no question that camera technology, the way in which remote sensing can be used, and the deployment of cameras into difficult and unusual positions will have a huge impact going forward,’ says Nat Geo’s Smart. ‘They will help resuscitate the enthusiasm for subjects that require an incredible amount of effort and time. A lot of the big challenges in wildlife filmmaking – the giant squid stories, the snow leopard stories, these holy grail species that are rarely observed – you can do by deploying special cameras. You have more ways to have the camera spend time in the field instead of humans.’

Smart also believes new technologies are opening the door to wildlife subjects, such as birds and invertebrates, which were previously considered boring and had difficulty garnering the attention of commissioning editors. Indeed, Smart reveals that Nat Geo is presently working on a doc about the peregrine falcon. ‘That film will involve a tremendous amount of interesting camera techniques,’ says Smart. ‘The falconer will be skydiving with the birds with cameras attached to him, there will be cameras on the birds, there will be cameras on the wing tips of the plane, there will be cameras on the ground…’

In fact, the technology used to film the falcons is featured in the film. Explains Smart, ‘We will want to cover that material as sequences for the main film, because it’s so interesting to see the way these camera units are deployed. That element becomes a storyline in the film and I think we’ll do this increasingly in the future. This is an intriguing and different way to reveal to the audience the trials and tribulations filmmakers encounter accomplishing the work they do.’

The ability to blend different technologies and bring low end formats up to broadcast quality is also affecting the genre. A general consensus reveals that although budgets have gone up for large scale natural history specials, there continues to be downward pressure on general budgets. Considering this and the project at hand, broadcasters and filmmakers often choose to opt out of film. ‘The 24p is experiencing a surge now,’ explains Tomko. ‘We’re seeing a lot of people come to us with that format, because it has a real film look that can transfer to pal and hd. We’re also seeing a lot of formats that weren’t previously okay for broadcast. Now, we’ll take an Avid output. That wasn’t okay before, because you had to consider the international partners. The technology and the blend of formats has improved to make [natural history] more accessible.’ Additionally, Cornish argues that video has introduced new story genres. ‘[Video] can record an immediacy that isn’t possible with film production,’ she explains. ‘It also allows access to stories that might not be possible with film production.’

Hitting its stride

The rash of mergers among production companies specializing in wildlife, a saturated market, and a drop in broadcast hours devoted to the genre has precipitated talk that natural history is in a slump. Although broadcaster, distrib and producer alike admit the genre experienced a boom about three years ago, none believe the current state of affairs amounts to a slump. ‘It will pick up and I’ve heard rumors that some of the big [German broadcasters] will come back on board,’ says Scandinature’s Landin. ‘Europe as a whole is a strong market and I think it will get stronger. As long as a production company stays on the quality track, it will sell programs.’

‘A certain genre of natural history has gone out of style, while another is ascendant,’ adds Barry Clark. ‘Natural history also has a tremendous built-in power that I don’t think will ever go away, and which I think will continue to grow, and that is that people have a need to connect to the natural world. It’s part of the artistry of the filmmaker to constantly change the trickery that is necessary to connect with an audience. The sharp people have done that and the long term prognosis is great.’

About The Author
Managing editor with realscreen publication, an international print and online magazine that covers the non-fiction film and television industries. Darah is an award-winning journalist who has spent over two decades covering a wide range of issues from real estate and urban development to immigration, politics and human rights, primarily with The Vancouver Sun. Prior to joining realscreen, she was editor of Stream Daily, realscreen's sister publication covering the dynamic global digital video industry. She also served a stint as a war reporter in Afghanistan for television and print, and was a national business blogger with Yahoo Canada.