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Back from the brink of extinction

A couple of years ago, no one in the industry could have predicted films from the natural history genre would make a dent at the box office. But last year's surprise hit was March of the Penguins. This year, An Inconvenient Truth is making headlines, not only for Al Gore's environmental message, but also for the film's impressive ticket sales. Some execs point to the genre's technological advances for the increased audience interest in wildlife and earth sciences, while others claim the stories are more relevant, given recent world events such as deadly tsunamis and hurricanes. Either way, viewers are starting to look to the small screen for nh entertainment, and broadcasters are working to ensure they serve this demo, a different one from the genre's heyday about five years ago.
August 1, 2006

A couple of years ago, no one in the industry could have predicted films from the natural history genre would make a dent at the box office. But last year’s surprise hit was March of the Penguins. This year, An Inconvenient Truth is making headlines, not only for Al Gore’s environmental message, but also for the film’s impressive ticket sales. Some execs point to the genre’s technological advances for the increased audience interest in wildlife and earth sciences, while others claim the stories are more relevant, given recent world events such as deadly tsunamis and hurricanes. Either way, viewers are starting to look to the small screen for nh entertainment, and broadcasters are working to ensure they serve this demo, a different one from the genre’s heyday about five years ago.

Brian Leith, former head of Granada Wild and currently a producer at the BBC’s NHU, says the diversity of shows is greater now than it has been in the past 15 years. ‘There’s a huge audience and, without a doubt, commissioning has increased in the past year,’ he says. That diversity can be divided up into four subgenres, according to Brad Dancer, National Geographic Channel’s VP of research. ‘There’s ‘predatory,’ which skews younger – 30-year-old males; ‘blue chip,’ that’s older and more male/female; there’s ‘kid-friendly;’ and then there’s the ‘wonders of the natural world’ audience, who are the same age but very different from wildlife fans.’

For most nets, it’s the blue-chip viewer that is the most dedicated. Typically over 50 years old, the last of the baby boomers will be entering this demo over the next eight years, making it the fastest growing age group in most territories.

While programming execs can’t provide a clear-cut explanation as to why this demo is drawn to nature more than the younger set, a few suggest the dedication may lie in reliable scheduling. In Germany, NDR has achieved the channel’s top share – 18% – with its weekly 8:15 p.m., post-news slot. Thirteen/WNET’s ‘Nature’ strand has been broadcast every Sunday at 8 p.m. for the past 25 years in the States, while Austria’s ‘Universum’ on orf hasn’t changed its Tuesday 8:15 p.m. slot in 20 years.

orf’s Walter Köhler, head of ‘Universum,’ says viewership for weekly blocks is stable with this older demo, and he wants to keep it that way. ‘We limit our programming experiments to three or four weeks in a given year. You can try to be different and get a younger audience, but you could lose a lot of the old one,’ he says. NDR also looked to appeal to a 14- to 49-year-old audience with faster and stylish editing, but decided it was at the risk of losing its core demo. ‘We have a faithful audience and mainly produce for them, [and] not with MTV-style natural history films,’ says producer Tom Synnatzschke.

Even though the baby boomer demo is growing, it isn’t enough to explain the genre’s recent viewership rebound. Younger demos are also being lured into NH’s net via event-style, highly visual specials – especially those parents can watch with their kids. Nat Geo, for example, schedules epic specials to reach a wider audience throughout the year to complement its Friday night NH lineup. ‘It’s about creating events, getting the family together. Those kind of event-based ideas tend to get the really big numbers,’ says Dancer. Relentless Enemies, for example, was broadcast on a Sunday night during the network’s ‘National Geographic Presents’ block, and was viewed by 2.127 million households in the 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. slot.

Broadcasting NH at the end of the weekend slot pays off for both demos, as it not only captures the attention of the blue-chip set, but broadcasters also say it’s key family co-viewing time.

In the UK, the BBC experienced better than expected numbers with its event doc, Planet Earth. Neil Nightingale, head of NHU at the Beeb, says the first six episodes of the 11-part series, scheduled on Sunday nights on BBC1 this past spring (the remaining episodes will air in the fall), were the most successful factual series on British television since Walking With Dinosaurs, attracting nine million viewers, or 30% of the uk audience. Huge numbers, considering a typical NH event program will draw about two million.

Nightingale says the show’s marketing campaign was crucial for its large, and younger skewing, draw. To get those numbers, viewers have to be drawn in from a full range of age demos via a promotional campaign. For example, Planet Earth clips book-ended programs targeting youthful audiences, such as entertainment and soaps, with ‘mind boggling images to a really good melody,’ says Nightingale, adding it’s the variety of creating these events which makes the audience think they’re something special.

At Thirteen in the US, its ‘Nature’ strand created a three-part Deep Jungle series it believed could draw a larger crowd than its typical 35-plus demo. ‘Jungle is a sexy word, and it conjures up images of exotic places and animals. We thought this could transcend the typical ‘Nature’ viewer and bring in people who would normally have no interest ,’ says Fred Kaufman, executive producer of the strand. A media plan was created that made use of everything from TV spots to bus shelters in New York to get buzz going.

Although marketing is key to remind peripheral viewers about natural history, Nightingale admits strong visuals and the promise of a good storyline can’t alone convince a skeptical viewer to make a series appointment television: it has to be something the viewer has never seen before.

Many agree the fall of NH’s appeal a few years ago seems to be based on genre fatigue and a ‘been there, seen that’ attitude. ‘I think viewers just got used to the content and didn’t know when to expect something exceptional,’ says Nightingale. ‘I think there was an overload of stuff, and it wasn’t very ambitious.’

Certainly technology is working in natural history’s favor. Discovery’s executive VP and GM Jane Root says, in addition to HD, less invasive new camera technologies are creating a new perspective on classic NH stories. ‘What really sold me about Planet Earth was when they showed two wolves tracking their prey and what they’ve been tracking. Normally you feel sorry for the hunted, but when you follow the wolves going further and further into the snow and ice for days and there’s no way back and they’ve got to make the kill, then your perspective changes and you start to feel sympathy for the hunter,’ she says.

Convincing the public that there’s a new angle is the challenge Julie Willis, head of marketing at Discovery Channel US, faces when she’s coming up with a plan for the cablenet’s event programming. She is currently putting together a plan for a Planet Earth launch in March 2007. ‘It’s absolutely true: there is some incredible footage you’ve never seen, but viewers don’t believe it until they’ve seen it. We’ve learned two things: our campaign has to show, not tell, and the footage has to be the hero and wow them,’ she says. The media plan will likely involve TV and cinema to let the series visually tell its own story.

Willis also believes current events play a big role in the increased interest in nh programming, particularly for earth sciences. Discovery recently gained serious ground with its Global Warming: What You Need To Know special this past July. With a 9 p.m. timeslot, the series delivered 2.8 million viewers and posted ratings gains of 83% among households, and 44% among the 25- to 54-year-old set when compared to the previous six weeks’ timeslot average. And talk about scheduling – the doc aired just as hurricane season started in the US. Although Willis would love to say it was a strong marketing effort that landed Discovery those ratings, she admits the weather and the environment are top of mind for viewers.

‘How an audience responded to natural history in 1995 is very different to how they respond now. It has to do with how programming is made, but it also has a lot to do with what’s going on in people’s minds today,’ she says.

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