According to Martha Holmes, head of wildlife at UK-based indie prodco Plimsoll Productions, blue-chip natural history programming has a looming problem: What happens after David Attenborough?
During a session at the Wildscreen Festival in Bristol, UK on Oct. 10, Holmes noted that, as audiences increasingly splinter due to channel proliferation, become younger and ultimately stray away from traditional, majestic, big-budget, animal behavior-focused, people-less wildlife productions of the Planet Earth ilk, without Attenborough to draw them in, blue-chip content could become an endangered species.
“David is a really strong magnet for blue chip,” said Holmes. “I think he [sort of defines it]. Our real problem is that David won’t be around forever. Without him, I think blue chip is going to struggle, where I think more entertaining shows will have an easier ride of it.”
“I think new chip is everything blue chip isn’t in the sense that you have to bring entertainment into it, you probably have to bring presenters to it, it’s got to appeal to a broader, new audience and it’s got to have something that just feels as though it’s bucking the trend.” — Alice Keens-Soper, head of specialist factual, Oxford Scientific Films
The panel in which Holmes made her prophetic musings was called “‘Nu’ Chips On the Block.” It sought to differentiate between the traditional type of ‘blue-chip’ natural history fare with which Attenborough has long been synonymous and “nu” (new) chip content, genre busters that transcend the traditional natural history format. The panel also included: Janet Han Vissering, SVP of development & production, Nat Geo Wild; Alice Keens-Soper, head of specialist factual, Oxford Scientific Films; Holmes; Lucinda Axelsson commissioning executive, natural history & specialist factual, BBC; and moderator Richard Klein, creative director, IWC Media and former ITV director of factual.
Regardless of whether life after Attenborough will leave room for traditional blue-chip content, the panel agreed that, one way or another, audiences are changing and natural history content needs to change too.
Enter “nu chip” content. Though they were, at times, at odds regarding what exactly what constitutes “nu chip”, they netted out on a broad “entertainment-first” categorical definition.
The panel covered off a variety of genre-subverting means of making natural content attract new audiences, including:
- Continual innovation around technology (the BBC commissioned a film that featured cameras masquerading as crocodile hatchlings);
- Featuring more entertaining, audience-relatable presenters who are more enthusiast than expert (Plimsoll recently worked with British Big Brother star Davina McCall on a wildlife series);
- Experimental and hybrid storytelling (genre-borrowing, for example — NatGeo Wild is set to bow the world premiere of Savage Kingdom at Wildscreen on Oct. 12, a six part wildlife series that takes cues from HBO’s Game of Thrones, and is even narrated by GoT actor Charles Dance);
- And tapping filmmakers from different genres (Han Vissering commissioned a film for NatGeo Wild called Wild Yellowstone that was made by an extreme sports filmmaker that had never worked with wildlife before).
“I think new chip is everything blue chip isn’t in the sense that you have to bring entertainment into it, you probably have to bring presenters to it, it’s got to appeal to a broader, new audience and it’s got to have something that just feels as though it’s bucking the trend,” said Keens-Soper. “We all revere the natural history and blue chip and we’ve all had it for a very long time. I think, David or no, it needs to be subverted and it needs to be reinvented.”
Han Vissering added that in an increasingly diverse and content rich world of linear TV and digital platforms, wherein natural history broadcasters have to compete with the likes of History, HBO or Hulu, it’s increasingly incumbent on them to to deliver exceptional, more entertaining content to audiences.
“We have an audience that believes blue-chip shows belong on our channel, yet that audience is getting older and what we look at as ‘what is nu chip’ is how do we take that blue chip feel and invigorate it with a new look, whether or not it’s from the style of how it’s shot or from the storytelling and taking a completely different twist. You need to compete with those channels, so I think entertaining is very key for us and trying to inject that into natural history films is what I consider new chip,” she said.
Audiences aside, smaller budgets were also cited as a catalyst for turning to more less conventional kinds of wildlife content, with the panel addressing that nu-chip content is also just a function of cost.
“My definition of new chip is much more about what do you do if you don’t get those big natural history budgets,” said Keens-Soper. “If you can’t spend months in the field but you still want to profile animals and behavior, what do you do? I think what you do if you don’t have that kind of money is you reel in some properly entertaining presenters, you might lessen the seriousness of it or you might actually broaden the audience a bit by making it more classically entertaining.”
Holmes spoke about the Deadly Insitincts series Plimsoll produced that overcame budget restrictions that prohibited time it would require to shoot animal behavior in the field by using archival footage to build new stories that were themed around subjects like reproduction or mating or competition.
“This was basically a way to repackage or really shake up the genre in a way that I think was fun to do. It was very experimental,” she said.
Another Plimsoll project, Camp Zambia, saw the production company invest in producing 50 hours of content over two years and retrospectively find the stories after.
“I think small budgets are the mother of invention,” added Holmes.
In the end, the panel agreed that the one rule that shouldn’t be messed around with, however exciting or different shows are, is staying true to nature.
“We stay true to what the animal actually does. Then, after that, I think it’s gloves off and anything goes,” said Keens-Soper.