With big, benchmark natural history specials not rating like they used to, the BBC is looking closer to home for innovative wildlife ideas.
Lucinda Axelsson, a science and natural history commissioning executive for the British pubcaster, told an audience of specialist factual producers gathered in La Rochelle, France for Sunny Side of the Doc on Wednesday (June 24) that commissioners are looking for more “‘poppy’ natural history” ideas to combat what she called “wildlife fatigue” among viewers.
The BBC is now commissioning more programs about the human-animal bond and household pets such as Animals In Love and Tigers About the House as ratings have slipped for high-end natural history.
“There’s been a subtle but noticeable decline in viewing figures for those shows,” she said during the natural history-focused panel. “We’re trying to refresh that brand.”
David Attenborough, who has narrated such landmark blue-chip miniseries such as Life on Earth and Frozen Planet, turns 90 next year and the BBC Natural History Unit is gearing up to celebrate. He is also attached to three more upcoming wildlife specials. However, executives are not planning on replacing the documentary icon should he decide to call it quits.
“You can’t replace David Attenborough. He’s a one-off,” said Axelsson. “I don’t think we’re going to replace him as such.”
BACKYARD BLUE CHIP
While the BBC still has big-picture series such as One Planet in the pipeline, the network has started giving less majestic creatures the blue-chip treatment. “Backyard blue chip” is one of the many trends producers identified throughout Sunny Side’s wildlife-focused day.
During the panel, Axelsson showed a clip from Pets: Wild at Heart (pictured), a two-part special that aired in January and used high-end cameras and X-ray technology to show how a caged hamster stores nuts in its body.
Viewers have seen umpteen lion and tiger programs, so the BBC is following other networks such as Germany’s ARD/NPR and U.S. cable net Nat Geo Wild into the backyard in search of fresh wildlife stories.
The BBC is also continuing to put high-end tech front and center in wildlife specials such as the upcoming Sky World (working title), for which producers attached a Gimbal-stabilized camera to a fly-line in order to “fly” alongside birds and animals. During a lunch session later in the day, Axelsson explained the idea came from Olympics fly-line photography and played a teaser showing flying squirrels whizzing through trees.
“It’s more about trying to unlock the mechanics of flight than ‘Freddie the squirrel takes his first flight,’” she explained.
TROTTING OUT NEW TECH
Meanwhile, Japanese pubcaster NHK was also touting new projects at Sunny Side. The network premiered drone footage shot above the lava-spewing volcano on the island of Nishinoshima, which spurted 110 feet in the air following an eruption in 2013. The nascent island, which is located 940 kilometers south of Tokyo, is so dangerous that the Japanese government has barred anyone from traveling within four kilometers.
In order to film at close range for the doc Origins of Land, NHK’s research and development has come up with an array of drones, boats, planes and submarines to capture footage.
Ahead of a second shoot scheduled for the summer, execs are at Sunny Side looking for coproduction partners.
“Scientists are excited because they could witness the real story of the formation of the continent,” explained NHK’s coproduction senior producer Sayumi Horie during the panel “How Wild Can We Go?”
Meanwhile, Discovery Networks International (DNI) executive producer and director of production and development Tom Gorham is working to expand the company’s wildlife and natural history slate. After years of focusing on reality series, the company is shifting the focus back to documentaries.
“There’s a move back to our core brand. One of the big initiatives to that is to make a big push into wildlife,” he said during the “Meet the Executives” panel.
Gorham is mostly looking for returnable series but the network’s first wildlife special is the one-off Brothers In Blood: The Lions of Sabi Sand. More predator shows are in the pipeline, including a series that uses an infrared thermal camera to film lions at night.
New technology, such as cameras that see at night and drone cameras, is one way producers are refreshing the wildlife genre but Gorham warned producers that gadgets are nothing without a good story.
“The ideal for business reasons and building viewers is returning series but if the story is amazing, the footage is amazing and the story is simple and clear, we would consider anything,” he added.
MIXING IT UP
Wildlife formats that go beyond the usual blue-chip approach were also a big topic of discussion throughout the day. Janet Han Vissering, senior VP of development and production for Nat Geo Wild, explained during the executives panel that the U.S. cable net has teamed up with extreme sports producer Brain Farm to apply their techniques to blue chip in the doc Yellowstone.
During the “Wild Lunch” session, Merit Motion Pictures presented Polar Bear Town, which combines natural history and reality TV techniques. The Smithsonian Channel series is shot in Churchill, Manitoba, a Canadian town that sits in the middle of the polar bear migration. To make it, producers put together a team of blue chip and reality shooters.
Also at the lunch, Terra Mater Studios’ Sabine Holzer said the company is taking a more humorous approach to the genre with Giraffe: Nature’s High Society and other docs about animals that usually play bit parts in most wildlife films.
“They just stand around, get eaten a bit,” she said. “We thought, let’s just give them a chance.”