Pondering nature – Steve Burns: Growing wild

Steve Burns, EVP of content at National Geographic Channel, sees innovation spurring new successes in the field of natural history
October 1, 2007

Steve Burns, EVP of content at National Geographic Channel, sees innovation spurring new successes in the field of natural history

National Geographic has been producing exceptional wildlife programming for decades, but new technologies now mean that more can be done in the field than ever before. Audiences who were once satisfied with just seeing wildlife now demand the most beautiful images, new behaviors, great storytelling and innovative visual techniques.

One of the most influential technological changes is the migration from film to HD. A decade or so ago, blue-chip documentaries were shot in Super 16 and theatricals were shot in 35mm, with all manner of specialist lenses and high speeds. Now HD offers nearly the same tool kit… and because we’re not burdened by the cost of film, we can keep the camera rolling and capture events, episodes and behaviors that were previously lost to us. Smaller HD cameras are so portable they let us capture extraordinary journeys, such as ecologist Mike Fay’s Megatransect, a 2,000-mile trek through jungles, mountains, rivers and swamps from one side of equatorial Africa to the other.

Interest in natural history programming seems to be cyclical. We all recall the boom times in the early ’90s, then the precipitous fall. Currently, however, we’re witnessing increased interest in the genre as seen in the solid ratings success of the BBC/National Geographic production Galapagos, the most comprehensive examination of these iconic islands in 20 years. Also, Relentless Enemies (by esteemed filmmakers Derek and Beverly Joubert), feature films and the wildly successful (no pun intended) March of the Penguins (from French doc-maker Luc Jacquet, Warner and National Geographic) and of course, there is the phenomenal success of the BBC/Discovery/NHK series Planet Earth. This increased popularity bodes well for broadcasters and filmmakers. They’ve been so innovative in delving deeply into themes such as people and animals, and science and animals, and ingenious in using new cameras and techniques overall. They are well-positioned to maintain this momentum. In fact, within my first weeks at National Geographic, Bridget Whalen, our head of development, Keenan Smart and I greenlit six new blue-chip natural history documentaries for the channel.

Where are we looking to take natural history programming at the National Geographic Channel? I want to see things I haven’t seen before, new discoveries and behaviors; I definitely want innovative visuals, which are key to attracting an audience and holding their attention. Most of all, I want to be transported, because that’s what our viewers expect. National Geographic is synonymous with extraordinary photography and compelling storytelling; but those aren’t just deliverables… they are our legacy.

About The Author
Senior staff writer Frederick Blichert comes to realscreen with a background as a journalist and freelance film critic. He has previously written for VICE, Paste Magazine, Senses of Cinema, Xtra, Canadian Cinematographer and elsewhere. He holds a Master of Arts in film studies from Carleton University and a Master of Journalism from the University of British Columbia.