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BBC’s NHU at 60: still capturing the heart of the natural world

When UK pubcaster BBC launched its Natural History Unit in the autumn of 1957, its goal was to bring the natural world into the homes and hearts of the public. Now, ...
November 8, 2017

When UK pubcaster BBC launched its Natural History Unit in the autumn of 1957, its goal was to bring the natural world into the homes and hearts of the public.

Now, as the unit celebrates its 60th anniversary, Julian Hector (pictured, below), says its mission remains the same.

Julian HectorJulian Hector

“We want to develop projects which continue to celebrate the wonder of the natural world as a resource that is owned by all of humanity but also to start telling many more of the stories about its fragility,” Hector, who has been head of Natural History Unit for BBC Studios since September 2016, tells realscreen. 

Established by BBC radio personality Desmond Hawkins, the Bristol-based Natural History Unit has brought wildlife stories to audiences for decades across television, radio and digital platforms.

This year alone, with a dedicated staff of 200, the unit made about 50 hours of programming and currently has 25 programs in production across BBC1 (Animals Behaving Badly), BBC2 (‘The Watches’ strand that includes Springwatch, Autumnwatch, etc.), BBC4 (Slow Natural History TV) and child-focused channels CBeebies (Deadly Dinosaurs) and CBBC (The Zoo).

The department’s range of output captures a diverse viewership. Although the core audience for NHU hovers around the 50+ crowd, a younger audience was caught up in the blue-chip 2016 docuseries Planet Earth II, Hector notes.

According to stats from the BBC, the series had a peak audience of 13.1 million who watched the first episode of the landmark series, with 51% (30.3m) of UK households tuning in. Planet Earth II also attracted more younger viewers than the reality singing competition series X Factor.

Meanwhile, The ‘Watches’ seasonal focused strand and mid-range programs such as BBC2′s series Mountains, which focuses on how mountains shape the people and animals who live among them, are popular with families.

Springwatch Springwatch

Jumping from linear to digital, Hector says the department’s digital platform also often reaches a younger demographic, including millennials, who don’t turn to television as their primary source of content.

“We see the main role of digital as a way of serving younger audiences who want to take their visual content in a different way,” he says.

With the immediacy and flexibility that digital offers, the executive says a slimmed-down clip from a BBC1 program might satisfy digital viewers who visit their online platform for the buzz and community around the shared content.

For Hector and his team, great natural history television is dependent upon more than beautiful cinematography. Often they are trying to figure out how tech advancements can give them access to stories they previously could not tell. This was the case when the team used low-light tech to film bioluminescence in the deep sea for the 2017 blue-chip series Blue Planet II. 

BP2 Blue Planet II

Technical innovation is “absolutely everything” for the unit, Hector says. This forward push has led the unit to work with Vancouver-based Earth imaging tech company UrtheCast who provided the department with photography from outer space for its upcoming series Earth from Space which looks at the natural world from space.

While the Natural History Unit is looking beyond the atmosphere for new stories, Hector reflected on the department’s past landmark programs.

Hector highlights the NHU’s Chris Parsons-produced 13-part series Life on Earth which hit airwaves in 1979. Written and narrated by Sir David Attenborough, the series follows the legendary presenter as he travels the globe following the path of evolution on Earth.

LifeonEarthLife on Earth

Zooming forward, the BBC unit went on to develop live natural history programming in 2006 with the ‘The Watches’ series, which looks at the wildlife in Britain as the seasons change across the UK. The unit also took on complex live events including 2015′s Big Blue Live and 2017′s Wild Alaska Live.

Around the same time as ‘The Watches’ strand was coming to fruition, the NHU launched Planet Earth, which spawned 2016′s Planet Earth II. Both were viewed by millions around the world, and set a high bar for natural history television.

“Modern storytelling is about understanding the motivation of animals and combining personalized immersive storytelling with tech advancements so we can liberate stories from animals people are less familiar with,” he says.

Africa   Africa (2013)

Upcoming projects for the NHU include Dynasty, which examines the power dynamics within single groups of animals: chimpanzee, Emperor penguin, wild dog, lion and tiger.

Elsewhere, 7-Worlds takes a continental view of the natural world by chronicling natural environments in Africa, Australasia, the Americas, Antarctica, Asia and Europe; and in Animals with Cameras, the subjects are the camera operators, taking people into places they cannot enter and providing rare insights into their behavior.

In the content ecosystem, more players with deep pockets are looking to make a name in the natural history space, but Hector is not sweating the competition.

“I’m delighted that more and more people are talking about the natural world because the natural world is something everyone needs in their lives,” he says.

 Images courtesy of the BBC

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