Programming for the cubs

One of the tried and tested advantages of wildlife programming has always been its ability to cross borders - both geographical and chronological. Wildlife producers have long understood that most of their product enjoys international sales, but more and more are...
January 1, 1999

One of the tried and tested advantages of wildlife programming has always been its ability to cross borders – both geographical and chronological. Wildlife producers have long understood that most of their product enjoys international sales, but more and more are beginning to find that they might also have an outlet with younger audiences.

Two of the most respected names in natural history, Survival and Partridge Films (now United Wildlife – see sidebar), have been producing children’s programming since the early ’90s. Recently, Amazing Animals, a Partridge coproduction with London’s Dorling Kindersley, was nominated for Best Children’s Series Emmy – although Big Bird and his Sesame Street crew walked away with the award.

Amazing Animals went into production in 1995, and features 30 minutes with a computer-generated 3D lizard named Henry, an off-camera narrator, as well as stock and original footage. The fourth season will soon go into production. Along with numerous international outlets, the series enjoys a daily slot on the Disney Channel.

In July, Partridge wrapped a 26 x 3-minute series called Animal Alphabet with the DK alumni who formed Adams Wooding Television. Each episode features an animal-themed original song for each letter of the alphabet. Also sold to Disney and internationals, each episode is adapted for eight different languages and cultures – including North American and U.K. English, as well as European and Latin Spanish. A 80 x 3-minute follow-up series dubbed Animal Tunes should soon go into production this year, and continue over the next two years.

Meanwhile, Survival has also been busy. In 1994, they began a coproduction with Jim Henson Productions called The Animal Show, a talk-show where Muppets discuss events in the natural world, demonstrated by stock footage. To date, 65 episodes have been produced, and talks are on for more. Survival also produced 5 x 60-minutes with Warner Bros. called The World of…with Bugs Bunny. The series featured the famous Looney Tunes characters for drawing power, and the Survival library for footage.

As it is for most wildlife producers who turn to kid’s programming, one of the prime motivators for the move is a large and dormant library. In the examples listed above, stock footage acts as the basis for the series, with new characters added in.

‘Certainly we’ve found that [these series are] reliant on stock,’ explains Andrew Buchanan, head of development at United Wildlife. ‘The basic reason being is that kids budgets in most places are not as high as the budgets for one-hour natural history programs, and obviously you’re spending your budget on the things – the animation, the 3D, the 2D, the Muppets – that will make the program attractive to children and children’s buyers. Therefore, it’s useful to have the vaults. By using stock footage, we’re able to put significant value into these programs that otherwise we wouldn’t be able to.’ While an average wildlife program costs about US$600,000 per hour, children’s programming can be produced for about half that by taking advantage of libraries.

Stock, however, is just the beginning. Producing wildlife for adults is comparatively simple because your audience knows they’re sitting down to watch a program which will be (gasp!) somewhat educational. Kids’ eyes gloss over at the suggestion. For that market, it’s entertainment over content, and that means creating a hook.

Brenda Wooding, one of the principles of Adams Wooding, explains the difficulty: ‘You have to think a different way. For family programming, it has to be very concrete, sequential and logical – more factual based. For kids programming you have to try to get the facts across, but make it fun and entertaining.’

Survival has had the good fortune of working with Henson and Warner Bros., whose characters have immediate international drawing potential, but that path isn’t a guarantee for success. Companies like Henson and WB retain copyright to their characters in a coproduction, so partners can expect smaller returns and almost no merchandising rights. While no wildlife producer in their right mind would deny Disney if they showed up with a check, some, like Adams Wooding, are exploring other possibilities.

‘We’re working on a couple of projects which are character-driven,’ says Wooding, ‘and try to build a story around the animals, but we’re also working on another project which is [essentially] kids playing with animals. I think the kids market has a lot of story-driven programming, which is key and important, but we’re also looking at it from another way, and having it come more naturally. We’re trying to find different approaches and different angles than just kind of going for the character-led series.’

Generally, most producers opt for either a human host (like the BBC’s Really Wild), or a 3D or 2D animated host. Adams Wooding is considering repurposing some of the creatures it created with Bristol’s 4:2:2 Videographics for their 6 x 60-minute series, The Future is Wild, for the kid’s wildlife market. Finding the right draw is all-important.

But hosts are only part of the chemistry. Content also requires careful consideration. Buchanan, who worked with Adams Wooding on Animal Alphabet, cautions against hitting child viewers over the head with environmental and conservational messages. The approach has to be more subtle. He offers the `E is for Elephant’ song from the series as an example. ‘You can begin to introduce the idea that tusks belong attached to elephants, and that’s where they should be. We don’t talk about poaching. We don’t talk about ivory. We don’t talk about things like that… In years to come, hopefully kids will remember that. You can have them sing along without them realizing that they’re getting a message.’ Producers can pass along messages later, if young viewers become adult nature viewers.

Buchanan suggests United Wildlife is looking to produce more wildlife with a more scientific base, but they are also in negotiations with sister company Cosgrove Hall for more wildlife entertainment. The mix, he explains, will be done by gut instinct, but will be tested by viewer response.

All the series UW has worked on so far have gone through testing. For Animal Alphabet, the producers did market research before they went into production. They commissioned market surveys on what kids react to, what they’re interested in, and what was a viable program length. Rough cuts were tried on primary schools and play groups, as well as neighborhood guinea pigs.

Finding a program which appeals to viewers, especially international viewers, is largely a matter of trial and error. It’s important for children’s natural history to appeal to an international audience to succeed. When asked about the possibility of returns on investment, Brenda Wooding offered cautious optimism. ‘There are when you get it right. They’re there when you get a program that works both in the North American market and the rest of the world. That’s the only way you can do it.’

Buchanan cautions it is also important for producers to be aware of the slots they’re getting around the world. Placement can radically change which demographic will be viewing the programs. Having your show scheduled when young kids are still in school might mean that preschoolers or older kids are watching, and therefore the content has to serve a wide range of interests and ages.

For all the possible complications, wildlife producers seem to have a natural affinity for children’s programming. Explains Buchanan: ‘There is an element of natural history filmmakers being people who take the scientific and make it accessible.’ The true test lies in cultivating a link between children and the natural world.

About The Author
Jillian Morgan is a special reports editor at realscreen with a background in journalism and digital marketing. She joined the publication in 2019 after serving as the assistant editor to trade publications HPAC and On-Site. With a bachelor of journalism from the University of King's College in Halifax, she also works as a freelance writer and fact-checker.