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“Nature” EP Fred Kaufman on 40 years of being a “voice for the natural world”

For 40 years, PBS natural history strand Nature has been one of the top outlets for wildlife and nature documentaries, winning multiple Emmy awards and a Peabody along the way. ...
November 19, 2021

For 40 years, PBS natural history strand Nature has been one of the top outlets for wildlife and nature documentaries, winning multiple Emmy awards and a Peabody along the way. Executive producer Fred Kaufman has been there the whole time, getting his start at Nature‘s home, New York PBS station WNET as a PA ahead of Nature‘s first season.

“I was a PA and they were looking for somebody to help launch the series, and I had been doing some work at WNET,” Kaufman tells Realscreen. “I was hired for three months, knew nothing about nature and natural history, but whatever I was asked to do could be explained to me in two minutes or less. So basically, whatever I needed to do, just about anybody could have done, it wasn’t particularly hard. And after three months, we went on the air.”

Nature was an immediate success, and Kaufman’s contract was renewed — for another three months.

He managed to stick around, and in the ensuing four decades, the Bronx native has seen the world of wildlife documentaries, and documentaries in general, evolve and change like some of the subjects of the show Kaufman has helped run for so long.

The 40th season of Nature launched this past October, offering a range of new documentaries on subjects varying from an examination of every known species of penguin (Penguins: Meet the Family) to the wildebeest migration in East Africa (Running with the Beest) and plenty in between. The season launched with one of Kaufman’s favorite recent projects, which was developed amid the restrictions of the pandemic.

“The first film of our season was called My Garden of a Thousand Bees, and it came out of COVID,” he explains. “Wildlife macro photographer, Martin Dorn, who lives in Bristol, England, has extraordinary lenses and rigs where he shoots insects. And because he couldn’t go out and he couldn’t travel, he decided, ‘I want to shoot the bees in my garden. I’ve always been interested in them and now I have the time to actually spend to film them.’”

And while Kaufman said it wasn’t the sort of idea he’d normally jump at for an episode of Nature, the results were much more than he expected.

“It was absolutely revelatory. The behavior and the drama that goes on, oh my God,” Kaufman enthuses. “I couldn’t believe what he was getting and what we were seeing. And that film stayed with me; even to this day I think about it.”

Kaufman cites My Garden of a Thousand Bees as the sort of project that underlines his vision of what Nature could and should be.

“That’s what we want to do with Nature. What’s the next step in terms of telling stories, and bringing unique situations to our audience? How do we further enlighten them about what’s going on in nature?”

Realscreen caught up with Kaufman to discuss his time at Nature, how the series has grown and what’s next.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

How do you create documentaries that connect audiences with wildlife?

I think it really varies from broadcast to broadcast. What we learned early on, and what I continue to learn about today, is what makes Nature unique and different. When we first went on the air, there was no cable television, there was no social media, nothing. It was just the networks and some independent stations and PBS. And so whatever we put out wasn’t being shown anywhere else anyway, so it wasn’t hard to create an identity.

But what we found, and what I found, was that the public television audience has an expectation from PBS that’s different from anywhere else. They feel a bit of ownership because they’re members, they donate money. And they expect PBS to really be more thoughtful and respectful. Certainly accurate, which we took very seriously. And we recognized that it wasn’t so much about getting big ratings, although we certainly wanted people to watch. But it was really about building brand loyalty. It was really trying to bring the audience back week after week after week. And we knew we couldn’t do that with the subject matter, that would be tough. But we knew we could do it if the presentation was serious, and thoughtful, and respectful and natural. So the audience felt that they could trust what they were seeing. And that’s what we did.

And it wasn’t until a few years ago now — jump ahead many, many decades — we had a big meeting with consultants to talk about where we go from here, what do we want to do in the digital space. And in the conversations that went back and forth, a question came up, which was, “What is your mission statement?” And it was directed at me. And I panicked, I felt like I didn’t do my homework assignment. I don’t have a mission statement, we’ve never had a mission statement. They said, “Well, what guides you? It’s a nature show, how do you determine what shows to do?” And I go, “Oh, well, that’s easy.” And what I described became our tagline, and basically our guiding principle: “A voice for the natural world.”

We want to represent wild places, wild animals, landscapes, habitats, ecosystems, we want to be that voice that represents that point of view, which you couldn’t really hear directly from those animals, or you couldn’t get directly from those places. And that became the guiding principle, and that’s where we are today. A voice for the natural world; a respectful, thoughtful representation of what happens in the wild.

Wildlife documentaries, in terms of production, can involve a very long process, sometimes taking years. What sorts of challenges does that present when you’re putting together an entire season of Nature?

We’re always working two to three years out because you’re right, it does take a couple of years. Not because we’re in the field every day for two years. But you always need to give yourself a full complement of seasons to get all the behaviors you’re looking for. And very often, you need overlap with those seasons because it’s not uncommon for us not to be able to film certain things based on various conditions and weather. So you want to give yourself a full year, and then you want to give yourself maybe another half a year because of what you might have missed the first time around. So we’re always working two to three years out front, and that’s pretty typical of what we do.

Now, because of COVID, that really disrupted everything. Some titles had to be completely cancelled, most others were postponed. And that’s something that we’re dealing with today and trying to scramble to see how we can turn things around faster. What topics can we actually select that we could move more quickly on? How do we cut down on travel? So we’re looking at doing films in one location, one habitat, one country, to cut down on the unpredictability of what might happen traveling from country to country and being delayed or other sorts of unpredictable events that would prevent us from getting into the field. So COVID has thrown us a curveball, but we’re dealing with it rather well.

Technology is obviously something that’s advanced by great leaps and bounds since you started at Nature. How has that affected your approach over time?

The obvious [answer], of course, is cameras and lenses have gotten better. Boy, I remember the days when we wanted to get aerials and you had to book helicopter time, [which] I think was like $400 an hour. And you would have to set up these film cameras in these helicopters and rig them in a way where you wouldn’t get the vibration when you were shooting. But it was a big deal, you would have that date circled in your calendar when you’re going up and getting helicopter shots. And now, of course, you just go out there with drones, you have them with you in your car, and you put up a drone. So that’s really changed things.

We did a show a couple of years ago called Undercover in the Jungle, we basically put out these fixed cameras, 30 to 40 of them, put them on trees and rocks, all sorts of things, and just kind of did a surveillance of a jungle to see what we could get within 24 hours or longer, just streaming video and made a film out of that. So the technology has allowed us to really think differently about how to approach our stories. And that’s really advanced our thinking editorially.

Outside of technology, how have you observed the world of wildlife documentaries changing since you started?

The genre in general has gotten better in the sense of pure filmmaking, in terms of characters and stories, in terms of thinking about how to present this material in a more dramatic, more interesting, more story-driven way than before.

I remember when I first started, I thought so many of these shows were just slow and boring. They weren’t really story driven, they were very observational. They were very science driven, they were very behavior driven. It was just, sit back and observe things: this is how animals act and behave. And that for an hour… an hour of your time is a lot. And so I generally found things would move kind of slowly, and they would be rather one dimensional. Over time, with cable television becoming involved, and their demands for audience, bigger ratings, more drama, for the shows to be more attractive… I think that generated a push to think a little bit more differently, and to think a little bit more about what the audience expectation might be.

And then you have Netflix and the streamers getting involved. It feels like, okay, we all have to up our games. This is no longer a time when the Galapagos Islands or Madagascar were these places that people had never heard of and you would go and just be thankful you got footage from there.

Now the question is, how do we engage the audience more thoughtfully? And how do we make these films feel more like mini-dramas, you know, soap operas that people are used to seeing. So I think the content is being presented much more thoughtfully than ever before. And the editing is tighter, the use of music and narration, things like that are being thought about more and differently, and in the best way to serve the audience.

How have you and your team kept Nature relevant as, to your point, the world of documentaries has changed and evolved around you since you started?

I’m just trying to ask, what’s a compelling story that takes us one step further in terms of understanding the natural world? After 40 years, we’ve done everything, there’s no question about that. So the challenge now is, okay, we know where we are in our knowledge of behavior and the science of the environment; what stories now take us a step further? How can we look at something and learn more about animal consciousness, animal awareness and animal intelligence? What new developments are there that we’re now learning about, where we’re seeing certain ecosystems and habitats being threatened? And what challenges and changes can we see to turn that around, or how are these places adapting? And we meet people who have such an extraordinary relationship with the natural world that just by watching them on camera the audience will be moved and impacted, and [we] see the stories of what we’re presenting on Nature influencing our audience’s lives.

So what does the future hold for Nature moving forward?

We’ve made a big investment in our digital platform, and that’s been very exciting and interesting. As we talked about earlier, our shows take two to three years to produce. The budgets are in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Clearly, one has to be very, very careful and selective with these titles. They take a long time to do, they’re very expensive, so you want to be sure you’re right with picking subject matter that’s going to live up to expectations.

But that also means that excludes smaller stories, stories that might appeal to a smaller segment of our audience. It excludes meeting people who are doing different things, more interesting things, but perhaps not worthy of a full one hour [program]. So we’ve made a big investment with the help of CBP, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, to build out our digital presence and therefore give voice to a lot of different people, researchers, scientists and others who are doing really interesting things and bringing attention to their work by doing podcasts [and] all sorts of little digital stories, digital shorts.

We did a whole series during COVID where we asked some of our filmmakers to just go into their backyard and film the wildlife there for three to five minutes. And these three- to five-minute little stories, they don’t cost a lot of money and they’re obviously turned around very quickly, but they’re also very enlightening. We’re consuming media these days in little bites — just think about an hour of investment every night to sit down [and watch something], it’s really quite a lengthy amount of time to invest in a show. But if we can do things quickly and inexpensively, I think we’re serving our audience well.

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