Wild Kingdom…?

Adapt and survive - or risk extinction in a rapidly changing world. That is the harsh message for many producers in the U.K. who are coming to terms with the new realities of natural history production.
August 1, 2001

Adapt and survive – or risk extinction in a rapidly changing world. That is the harsh message for many producers in the U.K. who are coming to terms with the new realities of natural history production.

This is a world characterized by consolidation, changing editorial priorities and much belt tightening as job losses continue to mount. In recent months, the death knell has sounded for two of the U.K’s best-known wildlife specialists, Survival and Partridge Films, and one of the sector’s most high-profile distributors, ITEL. Not even the mighty British Broadcasting Corporation and its internationally acclaimed Natural History Unit have been immune to the seismic shifts in what was once a relatively static marketplace. Following the international slowdown in demand for programming and the emergence of a two-tier marketplace, opportunities for mid-priced films have become increasingly scarce.

There may be worse to come. The fickle winds of fashion and an uncertain global economic climate make it impossible to predict a secure future for British broadcasters, distributors and producers.

‘Are things looking up? Frankly, I think it’s too early to tell,’ reckons Jane Krish, chief executive of Wildscreen, the bi-annual Bristol wildlife festival. ‘We’ll know more at Jackson Hole. There may be greater optimism now than there was a year ago, but it’s something of a struggle trying to persuade commissioners that audiences want to watch wildlife.

‘Science and history programming are still in ascendancy. A lot of people in Bristol are looking for work, some of them very experienced practitioners with very impressive CVs. I think they are going to have to rethink the way they do things if they want to find new employment.’

Last October’s Wildscreen will likely go down as a watershed in the history of U.K. wildlife programming. It was there that Peter Goodchild, chairman of the awards jury accused producers of being ‘predictable’ and ‘repetitive’. There were, he said, too many films that followed nature’s ‘yearly life cycle’. What is needed, he said, ‘is a continual testing of alternative forms and approaches.’

The message was not lost on either Keith Scholey, head of the BBC NHU – the BBC came away with just three prizes of 24 entries – or on Phil Fairclough, an ex-colleague of Scholey’s, now running the newly formed Granada Wild (formerly United Wildlife) following Granada’s acquisition of United’s TV assets last year.

Fairclough is attempting to reinvent his company’s approach to the genre and introduce a more hard-nosed commercial strategy, in the wake of Granada’s decision to axe Survival and Partridge as separate entities. ‘Survival and Partridge were too synonymous with the bad old days of high overheads, when everything was shot on film and driven by the level of the available resources, rather than the creative needs of the market,’ he maintains.

‘In the future, we might occasionally use the Survival brand if we feel there’s some mileage in it for us, but by calling ourselves Granada Wild we’re telling potential clients that we’re a hybrid producer, encompassing travel and adventure as well as natural history, backed by an internationally known brand.’

Scholey and Fairclough are the two most influential men in British natural history television. Between them they control more than 150 hours of programming a year. Their approaches, however, could not be more different. Or could they?

While Scholey benefits from the BBC’s license fee income, plus an ongoing copro deal with Discovery still with five years to run, funding for Fairclough’s slate needs to be negotiated every inch of the way in a tough commercial marketplace. But make no mistake; Scholey cannot afford to rest on his laurels in a bbc that is more and more influenced by commercial priorities.

Faced with internal competition from international money-spinners like Walking With Dinosaurs (made by BBC Science) and a new regime investing heavily in drama and entertainment at the expense of factual, the NHU has needed to bring some fresh thinking to the table – or risk being marginalized.

In the fiercely competitive 21st century, it is no longer appropriate for Scholey to put most of his resources into traditional, blue chip natural history films, especially those of the middling kind, for which there is little demand – either in the U.K. or from foreign broadcasters.

He says: ‘In common with all program-makers, the challenge for us is to find fresh subjects or, more importantly, to tackle the subject matter with a fresh approach that will engage audiences. I am optimistic about the future and I would argue that the nhu is in the middle of a fantastic renaissance.’

As proof of the fresh thinking now ostensibly evident at the NHU (which hopefully will ensure the BBC performs better at Wildscreen 2002), Scholey mentions two recent series, Andes to Amazon and Congo.

He also singles out Lions – Spy in the Den, a program providing fresh insights into the behavior of African lions that was filmed with a specially designed ‘bouldercam’ – a camera camouflaged as a rock. Traditionalists dismiss the film as a gimmick, but audiences liked it when flagship station BBC1 premiered the film last December.

‘There is a clear commitment to natural history, both on BBC1 and BBC2 [the less mainstream channel],’ Scholey says. ‘I don’t think the level of that commitment will change, although you might see a small shift on BBC1 because of the pressures for peak time shows to deliver.’

While two traditional long-form, natural history blockbusters are being lined up for BBC1 (the eight-part Blue Planet for this fall and the 10-part Life Of Mammals the following year), Scholey concedes that films on this scale are unlikely to be made in the future, when audience fragmentation is set to accelerate.

‘More than five or six episodes will be difficult, because channel controllers are concerned about audience decay,’ he says. They do, however, continue to require event programming that can give schedules the ten poles they need to stand out from the crowd.

Despite the new fashion for shorter runs, Scholey insists the nhu will continue to set the gold standard in the U.K. (and further afield) for wildlife programs across all categories, be it classic blue chip films or presenter-led fare, like Steve Leonard’s Ultimate Killers, or the latest series, hosted by rising star Charlotte Uhlenbroek, Jungle.

‘The money is still there for big budget natural history [Life of Mammals costs around US$10 million]. In this respect, the BBC is becoming increasingly unique,’ Scholey maintains. ‘I’ll be interested to see what level of expertise Granada Wild can offer at the high-cost end. From what I’ve seen so far, it doesn’t look as if they’re interested in high cost natural history.

‘We’ve both recently done series on predators. Ours cost about six times what they spent. You can do great shows on low budgets, but they involve a very different approach,’ says Scholey.

Fairclough, a zoology graduate and one-time BBC news presenter, is less concerned with making high-end series that break the bank. Instead, Fairclough wants to ensure that Granada Wild produces effective films with a strong story at their core, and that turn a profit.

Having secured slots on Itv, the U.K.’s biggest commercial network, for presenter-led series fronted by Steve Irwin and Nigel Maven, Granada Wild is determined to penetrate the global market by becoming a key producer of cost-effective, story-led series focused on people as much as animals.

‘On the whole, wildlife producers are obsessed with animals and how they behave rather than telling stories,’ Fairclough says. ‘My background is in journalism, so I have a strong background in telling stories.

‘It is no longer enough to provide audiences with wonderful images of animals, because they’ve all been seen before. It was inevitable that natural history as it was known is grinding slowly to a halt.’

He is convinced that in common with the rest of the industry, the NHU needs to be more candid about what the future holds. (Further job losses are in the pipeline at Granada Wild.) Fairclough says: ‘Natural history has had its heyday, but good programs about animals and wild places will never disappear. There will always be a demand for material of this kind, but the demand is fragmenting and will continue to fragment.

‘There’s a strong appetite for traditional wildlife programming in Asia and Latin America, but less so in the U.S. and U.K. The NHU will carry on, but in a slimmed-down version. They will have to find different ways of making factual programs to alter the perception people have of them, because there is no longer a demand for 10-part blue chip documentaries.’

But will Fairclough’s vision (one of his first deals, 13 hours for National Geographic, budgeted at $1.82 million, Killers of… involves extensive use of library footage) prove anywhere as durable as the NHU’s? And if experienced wildlife camera personnel are no longer being paid to shoot animal behavioral films, and archive footage is increasingly used, the day will soon arrive when libraries are depleted. ‘This is a very serious issue for the industry,’ reckons Jane Krish.

Few deny that natural history needed to reinvent itself; slots will never be as easy to come by as they were before the market became saturated. But as U.K. independents like Tigress and Icon Films have discovered, a decent business remains to be had from what might more usefully be defined ‘specialist factual’ (rather than natural history), provided projects are developed with the needs of the schedule in mind and producers are prepared to be flexible.

Bristol-based Icon (70% of whose business comes from American broadcasters like Discovery, Nat Geo and PBS) has gone from strength to strength by diversifying beyond one specialist form of factual programming.

The outfit’s current slate has wildlife (Tiger Temple – India’s Bandhavgarh Wilderness), religion (Quest for the True Cross), and travel/ adventure (Yeti – Hunt For the Wildman).

‘[Producing] is not as easy as it was five years ago. Broadcasters are paying less, but the work is there, provided you’ve got the right ideas, the wit and intelligence, and the right on-screen expert who is going to jump on a camel and look good,’ says managing director Laura Marshall.

‘You’ve also got to be prepared to seek out alternative sources of funding. Some of the backing for our religious programs has come from charitable trusts. I am heartily sick of people saying Bristol is in crisis when it is thriving.

‘Folding Survival and Partridge into Granada Wild made business sense. These days no one is going to bankroll two production companies making similar programs when they’re based on opposite sides of the country. I feel very sorry for the individuals involved who lost their jobs, but natural history isn’t going to disappear. It has always reinvented itself every five years.’

Tigress is another U.K. independent quick to adapt itself to the new demands of the multi-channel world. Having recently acquired a Bristol office, Tigress is now planning to set up shop still further afield – when it opens a Washington HQ later this summer. Ex-Nat Geo doc-maker Christine Weber will head the Washington office.

Managing director Jeremy Bradshaw explains that with limited opportunities in the U.K., it is more important than ever to build closer ties with the likes of Discovery and PBS. ‘It’s tricky getting series on the BBC, while ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 are not really interested in doing anything significant with animals,’ he says. ‘National Geographic, which launched their new channel in January, are getting up steam, so I think it’s important for us to have a full-time presence in America.

‘We’re also continuing to expand the range of what we do and are even diversifying into programs about the paranormal. More and more you’re seeing the emergence of a two tier system for wildlife programming, with demand for high-volume series costing about $150,000 to $200,000 an hour or the really expensive stuff.

‘Now, the middle ground $500,000 an hour show is gone and blue chip films are impossible unless they have added value, like a celebrity presenter, or are cross genre films.’

It’s a message other British natural history producers need to take on board – or else risk the same destiny that befell Survival and Partridge.

The law of the jungle is ruling wildlife filmmakers as never before.

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