Nature turns 20

Television's longest-running natural history strand began simply enough - with the vision of one man who thought television was missing something.
August 1, 2001

Television’s longest-running natural history strand began simply enough – with the vision of one man who thought television was missing something.

In the early 1980s, George Page (the then-director of science and natural history at Thirteen/WNET in New York) was given the task of developing programming to compliment PBS’ already full schedule. What was missing, he decided, was an ongoing natural history presence.

So, he created one.

‘There was the occasional ‘National Geographic Special’, but no weekly nature show, so George started to pursue the idea of doing one,’ says Fred Kaufman, Nature‘s exec producer. ‘What we offered at the time was quite different. We did a whole hour on fungi and a whole hour on a fig tree. This was somewhat esoteric stuff and yet it was really embraced by the critics and the viewers.’ After being given the green light from PBS, the strand launched in 1982 with a budget of just over US$1 million. The Nature phenomenon had begun.

The buzz surrounding the strand began with its first film, the three-part BBC mini-series The Flight of the Condor – now a wildlife classic. For Kaufman, it was an obvious choice and one that came with unexpected perks, like instant press coverage. ‘I remember that Sunday in the New York Times ‘Arts & Leisure’ section there was a huge review by John O’Connor, and he just raved about it. The headline was something like: ‘Nature at its Best,” Kaufman recalls. ‘There weren’t home computers or cable or home video back then, so there was this big audience out there that didn’t have a lot of places to go. We were getting phenomenal ratings.’

The initial success of the strand was due in large part to the relationship Nature cultivated with the BBC’s NHU, which established its reputation for excellence with programs like Natural World and Wildlife on One. Of the 13 one-hour films in Nature‘s first season, most were acquisitions – a fact that Kaufman says was crucial in helping the fledgling strand get off the ground. The strand’s limited budget meant it didn’t have the time or money to produce films in-house.

Changing With The Times

Twenty seasons later, Nature has evolved dramatically. The majority of films are now either copros or in-house productions. According to Bill Grant, WNET’s director of science, natural history and features, the change was not only welcome, but necessary. ‘The evolution has been from an infant that was dependent on sustenance from the parent to one that’s not dependent at all,’ Grant explains. ‘We have no formal relationship now with the BBC’s Natural History Unit. At one point, five or six programs a year were coproductions with the BBC. Now, in the average year there is maybe one. We’ve grown up.’

Maturity has also led to the evolution of the films themselves. In the early days, the strand focused almost exclusively on blue-chip natural history films. Today, they feature more human/animal interaction. ‘After a number of years you recognize that you’ve done just about everything,’ says Kaufman. ‘Lion behavior doesn’t change really, so it’s hard to do anything new and fresh.’ The strand began to embrace a new direction following the ratings buzz created by shows involving animals and humans.

It’s a direction that’s led to many of Nature’s most successful shows, including Animal Attractions: Amazing Tales from the San Diego Zoo (60 minutes, produced by Thirteen/wnet) and John Denver: Let This Be a Voice (60 minutes, produced by Thirteen/WNET and West Star Productions), among others. ‘[Animal Attractions] was a film we never would have considered producing 20 years ago,’ says Kaufman. ‘The film was a look behind the scenes at the San Diego Zoo. It was hugely popular and it pushed us further along in the direction of the human/animal relationship.’

The film with John Denver, which featured the singer guiding the viewer through some of the locations that inspired his music, was also a success, although Denver’s untimely death in 1997 left the producers grappling with an ending. ‘We wanted to look at ways to do nature films that would also be travel, adventure or even performance related,’ Kaufman explains. ‘Towards the end of the film John had his fatal crash so we put it down for a while, struggling with how we should finish it. It ended up turning into a tribute to John and his music.’

Finding a niche

Nature is consistently one of the highest rated programs on public television and continues to hold its own in a field that now includes the likes of National Geographic and Animal Planet. Even a few years ago, when wildlife took a downturn in response to an over-saturated market, the strand continued to attract an audience.

‘The demand was so high and the supply went up, [but] the supply wasn’t very good,’ Kaufman explains. ‘There was a lot of bad natural history out there and a lot of things were done quickly and inexpensively… There’s been a very quick retreat, which I think has forced people to think about what they want to do for the future.’

For Kaufman, this new awareness helped Nature move into the projects it’s doing today. ‘The change did affect Nature… Now we’re doing films that appeal to a more general audience rather than simply the nature enthusiast.’ He adds, ‘Nature did well right from the beginning and that, I think, was part of the inspiration for Discovery and some of the other niche channels. They saw they could tap into what was working so well for public television.’

Staying on top of the trends isn’t the only route to success. You also have to cultivate a work environment that keeps filmmakers and coproduction partners coming back for more. ‘We’ve always had a very different style of working with people and that’s to do as much work as we can upfront so that we’re all in agreement on the film. Then, [we] let the filmmaker go off and make it,’ says strand editor Janet Hess, who’s been with Nature for 14 years. ‘That’s been a lot of our appeal for filmmakers. We step in if they need help or call with a problem, but other than that, they have free rein to do their work.’

Nature can take credit for launching a few filmmakers on the path to success. Acclaimed underwater filmmaker Howard Hall made his first film for the strand. Wolfgang Bayer and Hugh Miles are also included in the ranks of Nature‘s best. ‘Working with Nature is like a breath of fresh air compared to almost anybody else you work with these days,’ says filmmaker Tom Simon, who has just finished the 60-minute Horse and Rider, his third Nature film. ‘There’s virtually no bureaucracy. They really articulate what they’re looking for and they urge you to experiment and push the envelope. Most importantly, they do great stuff and they do it right.’

Christine Weber, former executive producer at National Geographic and now head of Tiger Aspect Tigress in Washington, D.C., agrees, citing the projects Lost World of the Bible (60 minutes, produced by Thirteen/WNET and National Geographic in association with Trebitsch Productions) and Africa (8 x 60-minutes, produced by Thirteen/WNET and National Geographic in association with Tigress Productions and Magic Box Mediaworks) as examples of their work together. ‘Ours is one of the best collaborations I’ve ever been a part of. The combination has been amazing,’ she says. ‘Their whole team – with Fred at the head – is so easy to work with. They’re talented, but flexible and collaborative.’

‘I’ve worked with Fred and the Nature team for almost 10 years,’ adds Jeremy Bradshaw, managing director of Tigress Productions. ‘They are creative and have high standards, but are always encouraging. They seldom say, ‘You have to do it this way.”

‘The good thing is, most people want to make films for us,’ replies Kaufman. He credits PBS’ sizeable audience and their policy of no commercial interruptions as two key reasons for the attraction. ‘For years, [filmmakers] could have easily gone to Discovery or National Geographic,’ Kaufman adds. ‘We couldn’t compete
with them on a financial level, but we could compete in making the experience an enjoyable one.’

The rights Nature acquires with each film varies. The strand’s minimum investment secures PBS rights (i.e. six releases over four years and home video).

A larger investment usually secures North American rights plus non-theatric and home video. Any shows produced by the strand give PBS exclusive worldwide rights. Distribution is handled either by Thirteen/WNET’s distribution arm or
outside distributors, including Washington-based Devillier Donegan Enterprises, France’s Canal+ and the U.K.’s Granada International.

The Next Chapter

With topics ranging from sled dogs in Alaska, to cephalopods, to the reproductive strategies of flowers, Nature plans to continue its tradition of providing an eclectic mix of programming. After all, even on public television, viewing numbers speak volumes. ‘There’s been a constant re-invention, re-tooling, re-thinking, re-invigorating of the strand year in and year out, which I think is what it takes to keep the audience,’ says Grant. ‘I don’t think the audience on public television or anywhere else comes back week after week to see the same old thing.’

Grant credits Kaufman for much of Nature‘s success: ‘Fred led the way in making natural history films with strong human stories in them.’ It’s quite a feat for a man who started at Nature as a production assistant in the strand’s first season, before eventually taking over as executive producer in 1991. The rise is also remarkable because as a young man Kaufman had no interest or background in natural history: ‘I’m from the Bronx, so for the longest time the longest stretch of green grass I had seen was the outfield at Yankee Stadium. This was pretty foreign to me. At the very beginning my knowledge of wildlife was embarrassingly bad.’

As for the future of the strand, which began its new season in September, it will continue to evolve just as it has done since its inception. Not only is Nature embracing emerging technologies (a 60-minute film by Norbert Woo called Under Antarctic Ice was completed in HD in June 2001), it is exploring new formats, such as first person narration and cinema vérité. ‘The key is being contemporary – not only in the subject matter, but also in the presentation,’ Kaufman says. ‘Right now we’re looking at ways of bringing the experience of whatever subject matter we have on film a little closer to the viewer.’

Nature will also continue its signature exploration into the myriad of subjects natural history affords. ‘In an hour we try to do something substantial that is either a full experience of an animal’s world, including the failures and struggles of it, or we try to tackle a really interesting issue,’ sums up Janet Hess. ‘Fundamentally, the subject matter is about life or death. It’s such an enormous topic that it’s inexhaustible.’

Nature for Sale

Merchandising for the Masses

The strength of the Nature brand has paved the way for a product line that includes everything from sterling silver key chains to children’s pop-up books. ‘We could see the brand had a lot of recognition in the marketplace,’ explains Susan Marchand, executive director of program marketing and distribution at Thirteen/wnet. ‘Nature is an incredibly high quality strand. We wanted to translate the quality of the program to a few products that would be very high end.’

For one of the strand’s most recent product lines, a jewelry collection inspired by natural shapes and textures, Nature turned to Group Three, a New York-based company that specializes in brand management and design. ‘We developed jewelry that has the textures of bark, watches with sterling silver clasps in the shape of dolphins and handbags that have animal patterns on them,’ says Marchand. Nature‘s jewelry line is currently sold only through TV sales, but Marchand says they hope the line will be made available through other venues as the brand develops.

Other avenues for the strands’ merchandising have included a partnership and Nature hour on the mainstay of shopping in the U.S. – the home shopping channel, QVC. Nature also teamed up with New Jersey-based Breyer Horses – the largest model horse company in the U.S. – to develop a model horse of the main character in Cloud: Wild Stallion of the Rockies (see sidebar to follow). ‘Sometimes within the Nature strand there are individual episodes that have a theme or the animals are of particular interest,’ explains Marchand. ‘We know everybody loves horses, but in particular young girls do and [they] collect anything that has to do with them.’ The model horse, along with a book and video of the film, will be released in time for Nature‘s airing of Cloud this season.

A percentage from the sale of Nature-related merchandise goes directly back to the program and public TV. ‘We wanted people to get a sense that they were contributing to public TV and the Nature strand and not just buying something that said Nature on it,’ Marchand says. With strong video and book sales, select titles on DVD, and new product lines, the future of the strand looks bright. ‘Nature is evergreen,’ says Marchand. ‘We use the highest quality materials to make the products and keep it a small niche, but very elegant.’

Selected Titles From Nature‘s 20th Anniversary Season

Cloud: Wild Stallion of the Rockies

1 x 60 minutes, produced by Ginger Kathrens (Taurus Productions)

Cloud: Wild Stallion of the Rockies tells the story of a wild, white stallion in the mountains of Montana, whose life (since the day of his birth) has been captured by a filmmaker who has spent years documenting the lives of nearly 150 wild mustangs.

Animals Behaving Badly

1 x 60 minutes, a copro between Thirteen/WNET, Rubin Tarrant Productions and Devillier Donegan Enterprises

The film follows the sometimes exasperating efforts of people and wild animals to adapt to each other when their worlds collide. From geese on a golf course to elephant seals in a parking lot, animals’ natural inclinations take amusing turns in an increasingly human landscape.

Dogs: The Early Years

1 x 60 minutes, produced by Muffy Meyer and Ellen Hovde (Middlemarch Films)

Dogs: The Early Years looks at breeding, training, behavior, and how to choose a puppy. The film also follows the story of a young pup’s training to become a guide dog.


8 x 60 minutes, produced by Thirteen/WNET and National Geographic Television, in association with Tigress Productions and Magic Box Mediaworks

The films create an intimate portrait of Africans and illustrate the dynamic relationship between Africa’s human history, environment and culture. From a footballer in Zanzibar to the first female blast miner in South Africa, each episode of Africa combines the natural history of a different African region with contemporary stories of the people living there.

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.