Call of ‘Nature’

PBS' natural history strand 'Nature' has weathered the tests of time by challenging audiences and filmmakers alike to expand their notions of wildlife television. As the iconic program celebrates its 30th season on air, realscreen talks to those behind the scenes to find out what 'Nature' has in store for the year ahead.
September 27, 2011

The wildlife genre of non-fiction has seen many drastic changes over the last three decades, ranging from the advancement of film technology and new scientific discoveries, to the storytelling itself. Originally focusing on the straightforward documenting of animal behaviors, today’s wildlife programming is now driven by compelling and unique storylines – current staples of Thirteen/WNET New York’s long-running ‘Nature.’

Over 30 years, the wildlife and natural history strand has rolled with the changes in the genre and in doing so, has won more than 600 awards from the TV industry, environmental organizations and wildlife film communities during its time on PBS. Those accolades include 10 Emmy Awards, three Peabodys, and the Christopher Parsons Outstanding Achievement Award, presented to the series last year at the Wildscreen Festival in Bristol, England.

“If you look at some of the early work that was produced for ‘Nature’ and some of the things that they’re doing now, you can see a definite evolution,” says Paula Kerger, president and chief executive officer of PBS. “I think they’ve constantly challenged themselves to think about where the audience is now.”

Turning the Page

The ‘Nature’ story begins with journalist and broadcaster George Page, who created the wildlife and natural history strand in 1982. The wheels started to turn for Page when the BBC approached WNET to help fund a three-part series called The Flight of the Condor.

“George recognized that something bigger could be created,” recalls current executive producer Fred Kaufman, who has worked with ‘Nature’ since the beginning. “He took the idea of putting money into this three-part 1982 series and [realized that if he] added to that a bunch of acquisitions that were just sitting on a shelf, he could create a series where there wasn’t one and establish something on public television. It seemed like a no-brainer.”

When Page retired in 1998, having introduced and narrated each episode of ‘Nature’ up until then, he handed the reins over to Kaufman. Page passed away from cancer at the age of 71 in 2006. At the time of his passing, Kerger said, “The world has lost a great storyteller, and I have lost a dear friend.”

Today, Kerger, who was once chief operating officer at Thirteen/WNET, says, “[Page] really was the heart and soul of ‘Nature.’ His greatest legacy at ‘Nature’ is that he put Fred Kaufman in place. I think that was just so much a part of who George was, that he made sure the series continued in the hands of someone who shared his vision and commitment for this type of filmmaking.”

Over the past 30 years, titles such as Bears of the Last Frontier, Urban Elephant and Deep Jungle have captivated audiences, with an average of 3.3 million viewers watching the most recent season. According to Nielsen ratings, it’s PBS’ top documentary series.

“‘Nature’ has consistently been one of our most popular programs on PBS,” says Kerger, taking the opportunity to take a tongue-in-cheek dig at other networks’ nature programming. “What ‘Nature’ has been able to do on public television is really try to document the full breadth of the natural world for our viewers, not necessarily just sharks.”

Characters and connection

“Thirty years on television is quite special but beyond that I feel like we’re doing our best work,” maintains Kaufman.

“In the early days we were just documenting animal behavior and the films didn’t have a really compelling structure to them,” he says. “That’s changed. We’re doing more with developing characters, introducing emotion, having events that compel you to watch these shows until the very end rather than simply doing a scientific record of how a species behaved and how an ecosystem works.”

The strand produces 13 new programs a year, all coproduced with other broadcasters, with perhaps one or two acquisitions per year.

Kaufman says the ‘Nature’ team takes care to bring storytelling methods to the strand which extend beyond wildlife and even non-fiction genres. “The techniques we use and the devices we want are no different than what you’re going to find in dramatic television,” he says. “We want to develop characters that are going to be interesting. We want there to be surprises…We simply don’t want to be encyclopedic with our information.”

For example, the 2011 doc Bears of the Last Frontier, a copro with National Geographic, saw Chris Morgan, an ecologist and bear biologist, journey on his motorcycle to find bears from all three of North America’s species in their natural Alaskan habitat. Nearly two years in the making, over 3,000 miles were logged in the shooting, with some 500 hours of footage whittled into a three-hour ‘Nature’ presentation. The motorcycle element provided a contemporary hook that enabled Morgan and filmmaker Joe Pontecorvo to show a new audience that bears are smart, adaptable and forgiving, and yet are still powerful, wild animals.

“People do still want amazing natural history footage, [but] you can’t just have some dude on an adventure,” Morgan says.

“What I love about ‘Nature’ most is the fact that they are not shy of putting decent funding in to create world-class productions,” he adds. “And they’re also not afraid of doing something a little different, like our series Bears of the Last Frontier. It’s what it is all about – sticking to what [the strand is] amazingly good at, but also pushing the edges a little, with a deep concern for nature and wildlife conservation at the core,” he adds.

Brian Leith, a renowned natural history filmmaker and executive producer for the BBC’s Natural History Unit whose ‘Nature’ credits include Deep Jungle; Lobo: the Wolf that Changed America and Elsa: the Lioness that Changed the World, echoes the sentiment.

“What I have found, working with Fred and [series editor] Janet Hess, is that they’re always interested in doing something a little unexpected. A lot of wildlife series seem to plow the same furrow.”

Leith says he strives to make sure his films for ‘Nature’ have a much more emotional and intuitive connection with the audience, rather than focusing solely on creating intellectually satisfying programming.

“At a time when so much factual television – and even wildlife programming – is being trivialized and sensationalized, it is a great credit to Thirteen/WNET that it has continued to retain truthfulness, integrity and an inspirational quality in its coverage of the natural world. Never has a proper understanding of nature been more important to us all,” he adds.

The 30th season

To mark the milestone, PBS is moving ‘Nature’ to primetime Wednesday nights starting October 19.

The season kicks off with Radioactive Wolves, which profiles the wildlife that has resurfaced in Chernobyl’s contaminated area, 25 years after the notorious nuclear disaster. Narrated by Harry Smith, the film is a coproduction of epo-film, ORF/Universum and Thirteen in association with the BBC, NDR and WNET New York Public Media.

Other films slated to air in the 30th anniversary season include Jungle Eagle, in which filmmakers risk attack while capturing the activity of monkey-eating harpy eagles; and The Animal House (w/t), which goes under and above ground to show how some animals create and live in their own “homes.”

One of the highlights of the upcoming season is My Life as a Turkey, which Kaufman says is, despite its humorous title, one of the most touching films ‘Nature’ has ever aired.

The doc, produced by Passion Pictures, Thirteen and the BBC, is based on the book Illuminations in the Flatlands, which told the story of naturalist Joe Hutto’s quest to raise 20 wild turkeys in Florida, living among them as a turkey himself. The film features a recreation of the incredible process, with a monologue overtop from Hutto.

“Hearing [Hutto]‘s insight and understanding of how these animals behaved and how they looked at him is remarkable and gives us a very privileged view into these animals,” says Kaufman of the film, airing November 16. “I think that is what ‘Nature’ tries to do, convey a perspective on wildlife that is missing from television and the media.”

“To [Fred]‘s credit he commissioned it and it is an important matter because those kinds of films are simply not commercial enough anymore and it doesn’t matter how many awards [it gets] or how many people love it,” maintains its producer, David Allen. “In this day and age, a film on turkeys, and a one-off at that, just does not get those kinds of ratings they need.”

Perhaps 30 seasons of building the brand has led to a willingness to take a risk on films such as My Life as a Turkey. “At the very beginning, when you’re first learning to walk is when you’re the most vulnerable, whether it be in television or in the wild. Once you get your footing and you develop your personality, as a television brand, then you begin to get strength and hopefully gain some longevity,” offers Kaufman.

As for what the next 30 will bring, the executive producer hopes that ‘Nature’ will continue to tell natural history and wildlife stories that are a bit off the beaten path.

“We want to find stories that are unique to the planet as well as to television and continue to look for ways to tell things in a revealing and lasting way,” he says. “So much of what you watch on television today is simply disposable. There’s no lasting value. I hope we will always have a lasting value.”

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