At German cablecaster ProSieben, The X-Files is the top-rated show and Jurassic Park holds the ratings record as number one movie. So when Thomas Von Hennet, manager of documentaries, learned that the BBC was looking for coproducers for its ground-breaking dino doc series Walking With Dinosaurs, he knew he’d found a special blend of factual programming with a dramatic sci-fi twist that would be a hit with his network’s 14-49 core audience.
‘I personally consider it a perfect fit, and thank God some other people here see it the same way,’ Von Hennet says. ‘It is a production of international top quality. It has strong visual content and strong stories, both of which are very important to us. It appeals to a broad audience, including young adults of both sexes.’
Produced by BBC staffer Tim Haines, the series cost £6 million (us$9,980,000) and took over three years from concept to completion. Haines employed a team of computer animators and animatronics specialists to render life-like images of the prehistoric beasts, and sought out realistic locations for backgrounds in places as diverse as New Zealand, Chile and California.
Von Hennet says the final product was well worth the effort, as it stays away from textbook explanations, and instead has the feel of a natural history film. ‘It is the first time ever – except for Steven Spielberg with Jurassic Park, and that was fiction – that anyone tried to actually make dinosaurs come alive on screen, not as clumsy animations or drawings, but to make them look real in their natural habitat. Walking with Dinosaurs is really a wildlife
program but going back over 200 million years. It’s unique because you look at it and actually think you’re seeing the real thing.’
Other coproducers on the series are the U.S. Discovery Channel, TV Asahi in Japan and France 3. The English version, narrated by Kenneth Branagh, premiered on BBC1 as a 6 x 30-minute series on October 4th, and garnered knockout ratings (a 51% audience share – 13.2 million viewers for the first episode). The series premiered on ProSieben, after it was re-packaged as 3 x 60-minutes, on November 11th during primetime with a total audience share of 17.7%, and a 29.3% (3.77 million viewers) share of their 14-49 target demographic.
The German cablecaster airs only 10-12 documentaries per year, so Von Hennet – who has been buying docs for ProSieben since 1994 – can afford to be very discriminating in his search for factual fare. He explains that when they find the right program, they pull out all the stops to make sure it succeeds. Walking with Dinosaurs is definitely their biggest documentary thus far, he says, and it is being promoted with efforts equal to those given to a major drama series or feature film.
‘Whenever an opportunity comes up, we invest a lot of time and energy in it,’ Von Hennet says. ‘This got top priority, that means on-air trailers and cross-promotion in other formats; off-air, a press conference to start everything, lots of PR, placing articles in newspapers and so on.’
He explains that it is the intricate mixing of fact and drama that makes Walking with Dinosaurs jive with ProSieben’s documentary vision. ‘The producers tried not to make a purely scientific program, which would have been less interesting to us. There are dramatic stories that get the viewer involved, and on the other hand it is based strictly on what science knows today. It is not fiction in any way. It is, from the beginning to the end, based on scientific knowledge.’s
ProSieben’s programming strategy typically aims to piggyback docs after feature films. ‘We have been very successful with doing that,’ Von Hennet says. ‘It carries the audience, who is already more sensitive to the subject, through to the documentary because they have just seen a feature film about it.’ He points out that Walking with Dinosaurs is one of the first exceptions to this rule. ‘It is special and stands alone. It is the event in itself.’