Summit ’14: Discovery looks for new way forward in wildlife

Discovery Channel is attempting to reinvent its approach to wildlife after ending its long-running partnership with the BBC last year, with network's EVP of landmarks and specials Andrew Jackson telling producers at the Realscreen Summit: "Come and try anything with me at the moment."
January 28, 2014

Discovery Channel is attempting to reinvent its approach to wildlife after severing a production partnership with the BBC last year, the network’s exec VP of landmarks and specials Andrew Jackson told a panel at the Realscreen Summit on Monday (January 27).

“Natural history has been immensely important to the channel and remains so,” he said. “We’re trying to move to a new place. We’re trying to find what the next thing is that comes along.”

His comments were part of a larger discussion led by Warehouse 51 Productions managing director Carl Hall about whether wildlife programming packaged as entertainment is a passing fad or lasting trend.

After playing a reel of animal programs that included Animals Behaving Worse, he invited panelists Jackson, Harry Marshall of Icon Films, David Royle of Smithsonian Networks, Mike Gunton from the BBC’s Natural History Unit (NHU), and Geoffrey Daniels of Nat Geo Wild to explain their approaches to the genre.

As Discovery has gradually programmed more character-driven series, natural history has moved in a different direction, Jackson said. He added that the network is still working with the BBC on the upcoming blue-chip series Survival, which he said is evocative of current wildlife trends toward 4K-resolution programs that use tech innovations – such as high-speed cameras and drones – to give viewers a new view into animal worlds.

Jackson believes the U.S. cable net’s perennially popular ‘Shark Week’ strand scored its biggest ratings to date – an average audience of 2.12 million tuned in – last year “because we injected it with humor.”

Discovery has been mixing narrative storytelling, comedy and dramatic tension into wildlife programming such as Voodoo Sharks and the newly greenlit The Girl Gang of Telia, about four female tigers that have gone against their nature and banded together to hunt as a pack to avoid starvation.

His message to producers: “Come and try anything with me at the moment.”

Meanwhile, Gunton said there is still an audience for big budget, blue chip wildlife, but the BBC’s challenge is now reaching viewers via multiple screens and live events. For example, the NHU’s forthcoming Africa series will have a related concert tour that pairs African music with visuals from the series.

“What is the purpose of making these films?” he asked. “To me, it’s to share my wonder at nature. For some people it is to conserve nature. For some people it’s the vicarious experience of being there.”

He added that entertainment-oriented wildlife shows place animals in a human context to draw an emotional connection between animals and humans. “Those shows are about people,” said Gunton. “You learn a little bit about animals, whereas [with] natural history in a pure sense, the camera is attempting to explore the nature of nature.”

Daniels said the pendulum has swung further into entertainment than factual wildlife lately, but he sees it is swinging back in the other director as the channel’s viewers want more facts with their entertainment.

He pointed to Man vs. Cheetah, a Base Productions-made special in which NFL players raced against a cheetah. The show, which aired last fall during the network’s ‘Big Cat Week,’ used a stunt to teach viewers about the cat’s predatory behavior as well as its vulnerability.

“The audience is smart enough to know the difference between contrived entertainment shows and something with genuine heart,” he said.

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