The landscape of the current natural history genre, as well as the outlook of their own companies, was covered by a Sunny Side of the Doc keynote panel on Wednesday (June 22).
Wildscreen Festival board chair Laura Marshall moderated the panel, which included Channel 4 commissioning editor Jonah Weston; Alison Barrat, SVP of production and development for Love Nature and Blue Ant Media; and Maramedia managing director Nigel Pope.
The panel discussed how natural history continues to be a successful genre, even as it requires a difficult tightrope walk between education, impact and entertainment, as Weston noted.
He went on to explain that Channel 4 has to approach wildlife programming from a more strategic angle, given that the BBC airs so much of it. Currently, they’re finding a niche in stories about climate change and the intersection between people and wildlife.
Illustrating the challenges faced by those working in the genre, Weston explained how Channel 4 aired What Killed the Whale?, about why whales are dying in record numbers. The doc did well, but the next week a doc about ancient Egypt with the same presenter — a strong but also a safer factual specialist title — roughly doubled the nature doc’s audience.
“There, very starkly, you demonstrate that even a show where we try to give it an entertaining wrapper, it brings a smaller audience than a show on something like Egypt,” Weston said.
“It’s an area we’re all exploring. We do have commercial pressures at the same time, so we’re treading carefully and trying to test audience appetite.”
Love Nature, meanwhile, is a global channel with a broader remit and a larger spectrum of natural history viewers to reach, Barrat said, adding that it has seen phenomenal growth thanks to such factors as its recently launched FAST channels in the U.S. Given that, the platform looks for both harder-hitting titles and ones that luxuriate in beautiful visuals.
The most important thing Love Nature looks for, Barrat said, is strong storytelling, as this comes naturally to the genre.
“The natural world provides us with literally life-and-death stories every day,” she observed. “Capturing that and conveying it to the audience in a wonderful narrative story is what I’m always looking for.”
Pope agreed on this point, saying that he’d like to see drama used in natural history titles in clever, seamless ways.
He went on to observe that the genre, and the non-fiction content industry as a whole, has seen seismic changes lately. Most notably, he pointed to some degree of polarization in the industry due to the presence of big streamers like Netflix and Disney+, as well as some chunky business acquisitions, such as ITV recently acquiring Plimsoll.
As a medium-sized producer at Maramedia, Pope said he has terrifying competition to face, but he also praised the legion of smaller producers in the industry, with the panel noting that this is a group that’s agile and growing. Pope added that it would be beneficial for smaller producers to work together more often, and noted that Maramedia itself is increasingly forming alliances with crew and personnel on the ground in the areas they’re filming.
“We may not have some of the firepower of the mighty streamers, but what we have got is depth, longevity and quality,” he stated.
Looking ahead, Weston said that Channel 4 is currently seeking projects that are more UK-based, and is particularly interested in stories where people are finding ways to make some contribution to the environment in their own backyards.
“We’ve all got to do something, so if we can provide a bit of inspiration, that would be great,” Weston said.
Photo credit: Jean-François Augé. Photo supplied by Sunny Side of the Doc.