Nature versus Nurture

In the past five years, natural history went from boom to bust. As the genre reaches an equilibrium, KIMBERLEY BROWN and SUSAN ZELLER ask the BBC, ZDF, PBS and the ABC about the road to here
July 1, 2002

BBC: Bigger, Better, Different

The BBC has produced some of the world’s most recognized and revelatory natural history programs. For more then 45 years, its wildlife slots have been a defining feature of both BBC1 and BBC2. So, when the demand for wildlife films dropped off a few years ago, the BBC made the strategic decision to stand by the genre. It also decided it was time for natural history films to change with the times.

‘It was the right thing to do, because we’ve since had some very big successes,’ says Keith Scholey, head of the BBC Natural History Unit. ‘As long as you deliver a high level of innovation and quality, viewers will come back to you.’

Scholey says the NHU’s output has increased in terms of slots, hours and budgets. The style of the films produced, however, has diversified. ‘Five years ago, our series were predominately blue chip – expensive, classic, natural history formats. Now, there’s variety in the look and feel of the series we make.’

Technology is driving many of the innovations in the BBC’s programming. Lion Battlefield, for example, looks at the ecology of lions using satellite imagery. The number of hybrid programs is also on the rise. Science is sharing the spotlight with wildlife, and computer generated imagery continues to open up historical stories. Presenter-led shows are still prevalent, but Scholey indicates it’s a waning trend. ‘Like anything, if there’s too much of it, it becomes dull,’ he explains.

Scholey thinks there’s a vast global appetite for natural history docs, but notes programs need to be ambitious to generate large audiences. With this in mind, the NHU aims to produce one standout film each year for both BBC1 and BBC2. This rate has held since 2000; previously the channels premiered a landmark film ever other year. From 2003 to 2005, BBC1 will air Jungle, Journey of Life, and Planet Earth. BBC2 will broadcast Wild Australasia (w/t), The Natural History of Britain, and a series with Sir David Attenborough that is still in negotiations. Budgets range from us$1.2 million to $1.5 million per episode.

The number of hours and the proportion of films the NHU produces with the indie sector hasn’t fluctuated much over the past five years, says Scholey. But, the pubcaster’s need to augment its classic blue chip offerings with even more ambitious fare means indies are less likely

to produce big ticket programming. ‘You have to pull together a very big team of the right caliber of people. If you are a small indie, that is difficult,’ explains Scholey. ‘It’s the smaller projects that suit small independents.’

But, size is relative. According to Scholey, the BBC’s core wildlife strands – ‘Wildlife on One’ and ‘The Natural World’ – average $930,000 to $1.2 million per episode. ‘Wildlife on One’ premieres around 10 programs a year, and ‘The Natural World’ airs about 20 new films. Up to 50% of the latter strand comes from indies.

Still, winning commissions from the BBC is more difficult than before. This, says Scholey, is due to the rapidly changing nature of the genre. ‘Three years back, as long as you found a location where something was happening, you could make a film,’ he says. ‘Now, it’s more about: How are you going to innovate within that idea? We put more effort into development then we used to. That’s hard for any small company to do on its own. You have to keep up with changes in the channel’s needs.’

The BBC continues to schedule natural history programs in primetime slots. Says Scholey, ‘To get a large budget, you need to be in primetime. Natural history is expensive.’ Scholey also reveals that wildlife still earns good ratings, but he insists this isn’t the genre’s winning attribute. ‘It’s important that BBC channels are distinct from others,’ he explains. ‘Natural history adds a distinctive look and variety that our main rival, ITV, doesn’t display.’ KB

PBS: Concentrating on ‘Nature’

Five years ago, the U.S. Public Broadcasting Service was a good bet for wildlife filmmakers in search of a home for their blue chip docs. PBS liberally sprinkled natural history programs throughout the national programming schedule, which included long-running strand ‘Nature’ (produced by New York member station Thirteen/WNET) in a weekly one-hour timeslot. Budgets for production regularly topped the US$500,000 mark. But two years ago, PBS’ approach to natural history programming swung so far in the opposite direction that not even ‘Nature’ was safe.

Says Jacoba Atlas, co-chief program executive for PBS, ‘The feeling was that the audience for natural history was dissipating…. We were thinking, ‘Should we continue with ‘Nature’ or should we make it a series of specials?”

Fortunately, the 21-year-old strand rebounded over the last 18 months, and the idea of moving ‘Nature’ from its primetime slot (Sunday at 8P.M.) or reducing its yearly output is off the table. ‘['Nature' has] come back strong in terms of viewer response, and PBS is as committed

to it now as it was five years ago,’ Atlas confirms. In recent months, only Antiques Roadshow and ‘Nova’ have outperformed ‘Nature’ among PBS’ primetime series.

On the down side, Thirteen/WNET’s natural history strand is now the only place on PBS’ national schedule for indie-produced wildlife docs. (Nat Geo Specials are the exception, owing to a long-term deal between Nat Geo and PBS.) Bill Murphy, series producer for ‘Nature’, explains: ‘PBS is no longer interested in overseeing the development of its own natural history programming, nor financing it. Anything with a natural history storyline that comes down the pipeline to PBS, they forward to us.’

Atlas says the decision is strategic. ‘[Natural history] does well on PBS because it isn’t overexposed. People know they’re going to see it on Sunday and they’re going to get crème-de-la-crème programs. I’m not saying we couldn’t do more, we could. But, we don’t want to dissipate our strength. I would rather have people look forward to Sunday night than say, ‘Oh, another nature show.”

While blue chip films are no longer the only docs on ‘Nature’, production budgets remain high. According to Murphy, the range today is $300,000 to $500,000 per hour, which is only slightly lower than in 1997, when he joined ‘Nature’; at that time, $400,000 was the low end of the scale. The strand rarely airs more expensive programs, but does under exceptional circumstances.

For example, Dive to the Abyss – a copro with the BBC – is ‘over and above what ‘Nature’ was contracted to deliver to PBS,’ says Murphy, ‘so PBS is paying for it directly.’

The bulk of programming on ‘Nature’ is still animal-focused – 98%, Murphy notes – but the strand has opened itself to a broader interpretation of natural history. Earlier this year, it broadcast a program called Condition Black (New Street Productions and Tremendous! Entertainment), about the biggest waves to ever hit Hawaii. The upcoming season includes Diamonds (w/t), a show about the gems.

The strand has also added more programs about animal/human relationships, such as last season’s Dogs, The Early Years (Middlemarch Films). Says Murphy, ‘When [PBS president] Pat Mitchell joined the system, she sent down the mandate that she wanted to expand the audience and to think about evolving ‘Nature,’ which we’ve done successfully…. It was a wise decision, because it has helped [the strand's] ratings quite a bit.’ SZ

ZDF: Rebuilding the Brand

Producers often point to the German market when searching for the quintessential example of a territory that suddenly stopped buying natural history films a few years ago, contributing to a slump for the genre. Reinhard Radke, a commissioning editor and producer of wildlife films for Mainz-based pubcaster ZDF, sympathizes. ‘About two years ago, there was a dramatic drop in the number of ZDF’s [natural history] slots. Basically, wildlife went off the screen for a while,’ he says.

Radke disputes the popular explanation that a sharp fall in ratings caused wildlife to suddenly disappear from German TV screens, as they did elsewhere. ‘It was a downward trend that was created by distributors as much as it was by the stations,’ he explains. ‘There were a lot of newcomers in the business who were not experienced filmmakers, so it’s not a surprise that a number of viewers were disappointed. However, there were also a number of distributors who found they weren’t making the money with standard wildlife films that they did before. You had this wave where everyone said, ‘We have to get out of wildlife films.’ The ratings didn’t drop dramatically, they dropped by one percent, in our case.’

The good news is ZDF reintroduced a regular natural history slot at the beginning of this year. It airs Saturdays at 6P.M. and, like most German slots, is 45 minutes. About 40 new hours are planned per year.

The programs ZDF is seeking for this slot are a departure from the BBC and Nat Geo-produced blue chip programs that populated the schedule in the past. Says Radke, ‘We have adventure, explorers and scientists on expeditions. A number of the series deal with mystical and natural history legends. We also have traditional blue chip stuff. It’s a variety that hopefully tells the audience they’re not going to find just another lion film.’

Enticing German viewers to commit to a weekly wildlife slot is more complex than programming projects that push the boundaries of style or content. ‘Films that were internationally successful were not as successful in Germany as expected,’ explains Radke. The reason, he says, is that these films were not made for a German audience. ‘We have to show our audience that some films are original ZDF films,’ he continues. ‘It makes a difference to the audience to know a film is coming from a German producer and is aimed at them.’ Radke adds that creating original fare also helps build the ZDF brand.

Injecting natural history films with a German point of view makes international coproductions difficult. ‘It’s harder to get the money to get programs off the ground because they look more local now,’ says Radke. ‘But, many international films aren’t attractive to our territory because of the language barrier. We’ve had a good copro deal with Discovery for the past few years, but it’s now more difficult for us to make programs that suit both our and Discovery’s audience. They’re completely different.’

Integrating a German presenter doesn’t solve the issue. ‘It’s very expensive to add a presenter because it means more shooting, different versioning, and generally a lot of effort, which would all come on top of the usual license fee,’ says Radke.

Funding projects with few or no coproduction partners means less money per program. Radke estimates budgets for ZDF’s natural history films are 30% to 40% smaller than in the past. But, ZDF has had some success. The broadcaster is coproducing Dual of the Conquerors with Austria’s ORF. The program follows the struggle between settler and wildlife in Argentina. ‘We’re investing about US$252,000,’ says Radke. ‘That’s quite a lot for us.’

The pubcaster also hopes to start working with more distributors, such as Granada International, now that it has a slot to fill. KB

ABC: Facing Down Adversity

In Australia, pubcaster ABC has been steadily pecking away at the number of primetime hours it sets aside for natural history programming. In 1996, the pubcaster offered a one-hour slot on Sundays at 6P.M. and a half-hour slot on Wednesdays at 8P.M., as well as a 6:30P.M. half-hour slot on Thursdays six months of the year.

In addition, various natural history specials found homes on other primetime slots. Today, ABC has only one year-round half-hour slot wholly dedicated to natural history programs, which airs Saturday at 6:30P.M. Some specials, usually blue chip series, are scheduled into the one-hour general documentary slot on Wednesdays at 7:30P.M.

Dione Gilmour, head of the ABC’s Melbourne-based natural history unit, attributes the decline to two factors. First, she notes, ‘schedulers are always looking for something new to make their channel more attractive, current and relevant. For instance, our 8P.M. natural history slot was looking a little tired, so it was replaced by a cooking show.’ ABC head of programming Marena Manzoufas adds that current affairs programming accounts for 25% to 30% of ABC’s primetime schedule, which limits the spots available to other genres.

The second factor, says Gilmour, is new management’s desire to make its mark by changing the status quo (the head of ABC has changed three times in the past five years). And, she continues, ‘often when people come into these positions, they lack knowledge of what natural

history is – they tend to think it’s only about furry animals, so they don’t see the potential of it.’

Compounding the NHU’s woes is a drop in program financing, both from the ABC and the international market. But, this has a silver lining. Gilmour explains: ‘You can afford to take risks with cheaper programs, in terms of storytelling and ways of producing. When you can afford risks, it’s very empowering. We’re finding it frustrating at times, but we’re also finding it exciting.’

One example is a new series that draws on images from the NHU’s archive, but replaces the ‘voice-of-God’ narration with storytelling. ‘We are going out and casting for people who have lived and worked in a certain area for many years of their lives. So, we’re trying to do more intimate storytelling about the place they live in, through images,’ Gilmour says. ‘It’s nothing new, it’s what radio does all the time. I’m really excited about it. I think it’s coming up well.’

The ABC commissioning editor is also finding ways to pursue ‘glossy’ projects. One is The Early Explorers, a two-part series that meshes natural history and history. ‘It’s natural history in its wider sense,’ Gilmour notes. In Australian dollars, the project is hefty, carrying a budget in the $700,000 to $1 million range. When converted to U.S. dollars ($385,000 to $550,000), it compares to an average North American or British project, rather than a high-end undertaking.

Despite the disadvantage of a relatively weak currency, the ABC’s NHU is coproducing with international partners. In the works at the moment are: a six-part series about Australia, with the BBC and Animal Planet; a copro with National Geographic on the Tasmanian devil; and a copro with Discovery about the platypus. The NHU’s David Parer and Elizabeth Parer-Cooke are the primary filmmakers involved in the latter two projects. SZ

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.