Producers for PBS and the BBC’s Natural History Unit have spent much of the year in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, a protected habitat off the central coast of California, in preparation for a three-night live wildlife special.
Big Blue Live is the first project to be produced through a coproduction deal signed by the two pubcasters earlier this year. The networks jointly developed the live multimedia specials, with PBS providing research and logistical support to production teams from the BBC, who have been producing live natural history specials Springwatch, Autumnwatch and Winterwatch for the past three decades.
The BBC went live for three nights last week (the first night attracted five million viewers), with an interview in the third episode interrupted by a blue whale sighting. PBS’ coverage, meanwhile, kicks off tonight (August 31) with the first hour-long broadcast beginning at 8 p.m. EST (another live feed on the west coast begins at 8 p.m. PST) and continues through September 2.
“This generally is the type of thing we want to be doing together – big things,” explains Bill Gardner, VP of programming and development for PBS. “We have been interested in doing something live in the natural history space for a while.”
Gardner likens the approach to coverage of a major sporting event such as the Olympics. Three hosts – Conservation International scientist M. Sanjayan, BBC science personality Liz Bonnin and marine mammal expert Joy Reidenberg – will introduce viewers to the sea lions, otters, humpback whales and other animals that converge annually in the 21-mile zone at this time of year.
Working in collaboration with scientists at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute as well as local fishing and whale watching groups, producers will mix live footage from land, sea and air with pre-taped backgrounders about the history of the federally protected habitat as well as the researchers who work within it.
Big Blue Live is part of a new breed of wildlife programs that are less about the classic ob-doc style with voice-of-God narration and more about stories with strong human angles. Although PBS is not abandoning classic blue-chip, the pubcaster intends to use the BBC partnership to experiment with different formats.
“We’ll continue to do the beautifully shot, high-end nature stories, but the style and the form is evolving,” explains Gardner. “What’s especially interesting for us is this notion that we are part of the picture. That doesn’t have to be a negative thing, but the role we play in the environment and how we affect it are part of the story, too.
“We can tell a great conservation story that’s not about making you feel guilty,” he adds. “It’s about making you recognize the world is wonderful around us. If we just leave nature alone and stop screwing around with it, it bounces back on its own. We can benefit from it if we just respect it.”
Pre-production began after PBS and the BBC signed the copro deal in January. Filming started at the start of summer, with camera crews identifying and tracking whales off the coast of Baja in Mexico. BBC crews were also on hand when a whale needed to be rescued after it followed anchovies into the harbor and became stuck under a boat.
Filming is taking place on open-air studios aboard the sanctuary’s R/V Fulmar vessel as well as at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Viewers may also see otters giving birth in the aquarium, sea lions, breaching humpback whales and jumping dolphins.
Animal behavior is difficult to predict, but producers are confident there will be enough action in the Bay to keep the live portions – the core of the specials – interesting for viewers.
“Generally speaking we know who’s going to be there and what their behavior is because we’re out there now and tracking where they’re going to be,” says Gardner. “We’re planning our run-downs and our shooting with that in mind.”
The Holy Grail is a live shot of blue whales, the largest mammals in the world – a hope that was realized in last week’s BBC broadcast. Producers have been tracking the creatures for much of the summer and believed they would be in the area in time for the live broadcasts. Spotter planes have also been on the look-out so if the whales swim close to the surface, viewers are able to get a glimpse from the air.
No matter what happens, live shots are prioritized over pre-recorded segments. The live element is further accentuated by live web cams online as well as a social media push. In addition to tweets, Vine videos and GIFs generated by the networks, viewers in the area are encouraged to use social media to alert producers of potential animal sightings.
“Live brings a sense of immediacy. This is the closest many of the audience will come to joining a live scientific expedition or going whale-watching live,” says BBC executive producer James Honeyborne.
The specials also showcase technology being used by researchers, such as a non-harmful camera that can be attached using suckers to whales and sharks. However, those cameras are not rigged to go live. “We’re not quite there yet,” Honeyborne says.
“We have the bay covered in terms of cameras. We have them above the water, on the water and below the water,” he continues. “We’ve got some stabilized camera systems out on the ocean, which allow us to get a steady image and to go closer. When you take a close look at nature you see how beautiful it is.”