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In the Beginning, There Was 'Nature': The Natural History of Wildlife Programming

By Michael Rose

From 'Nature: Under Antarctic Ice.' Courtesy of LVM Group, Inc.

Fangs, claws, dripping blood and sex scenes...No, it's not a drive-in monster movie from the '50s; it's probably a PBS wildlife special, the kind of sweeping look into the animal kingdom that established America's public broadcaster as this country's premiere outlet for natural history films.

These programs have always been staples on the PBS menu, but it wasn't until 1982 that an ongoing regular wildife series became a part of the network schedule. It took the prodding of George Page, then head of the science and features unit at Thirteen/WNET in New York to make it happen. Impressed by the high ratings of the occasional National Geographic Specials, Page convinced the network to give him a weekly time slot.

Of course Page didn't have enough money or time to produce the kind of programs he loved. Undeterred, he searched for already completed films that he could license inexpensively. He soon discovered there were plenty of great films from the venerable BBC Natural History Unit that had never been seen in the US. He made deals for these films, and within a short time he had a series ready for air on Sunday nights.

Helping to get the acquired films ready to be seen on American television was a 24-year-old production assistant, Fred Kaufman. He remembers picking up the Sunday New York Times the day the first show was set to premiere and reading the headline of its review, "Public TV at its Best." The aptly named series Nature was born.

Nature's success over the past 21 seasons has clearly proven Page's programming theory and given Kaufman a television career that's taken him from production assistant to executive producer in charge of the series. Kaufman believes that it was the right programming at the right time. Launched when there were only three networks—and cable was still in its infancy—the series gave antsy viewers an option. "Back then if you didn't want to watch sitcoms at 8:00 p.m. on Sundays the only other thing to do was to watch Nature," Kaufman recalls. "The ratings were incredibly high—a 7 with a 10 share."

Page and Kaufman built a loyal audience with a hunger for decidedly esoteric programming. They produced programs about fungi and a tree in Africa, for example. "It was narrowcasting, not broadcasting, and people found it to be very attractive," Kaufman explains. As the audience grew, the series expanded and Thirteen/WNET started to produce its own programming for Nature. And the media responded well to the series. "Back then every week we got reviewed in the Times," he remembers. "Now it's so hard to get reviewed in any newspaper because the stuff's been done over and over and there's so much competition."

Nature had the field to itself before Discovery Channel, Animal Planet and National Geographic Television appeared and saturated the airwaves with programs about exotic locations and animals. Before the competitive deluge Nature concentrated mostly on producing big, expensive series of a type known as "Blue Chip" natural history programming. "It's the traditional wildlife film that has absolutely no people in it," Kaufman says. 

These films required a great deal of time, patience and money to produce. Crews would travel to remote locales like a rain forest, the Arctic Ocean or a desert and spend whatever time it took to capture a timeless view of animal behavior. Films like these are the exception today, not the norm. "Those films are the hardest to do," Kaufman maintains. "They are the most expensive and they require the most time in the field." Very few outlets have the money to do one-off "blue chip" films, let alone series of this scope and magnitude. 

BBC still has a commitment to "blue chip" wildlife series. Its recent eight-part series, Blue Planet: Seas of Life (Alastair Fothergill and Maureen Lemire, prods.), narrated by the dean of natural history programming, Sir David Attenborough, was a monumental reminder of just how good this type of filmmaking can be. Nearly six years in the making, with a budget of approximately $12 million, the series transports viewers to over 200 locations to reveal the ocean's mysteries. Combining riveting photography, beautifully written, sparse narration, with the natural sounds of animals and the sea—all supported with an original score performed by an orchestra-Blue Planet was a ratings hit in the UK and quickly became the top-selling nature DVD in the world. 

The series also gave Discovery Channel, the BBC's strategic partner, a ratings and bragging boost. Discovery's involvement helps to explain why the channel has become so identified in the public's mind with natural history programming. 

At PBS, Kaufman is trying to find ways to keep Nature fresh. "In a word it's people," he says. Instead of producing films that consciously exclude people, Kaufman is aware of a new genre of natural history films that put people front and center. The idea is to show how people and animals relate to each other. These programs have become wildly popular on Animal Planet, an offshoot of the Discovery Channel, and are transforming natural history shows around the world.

Kaufman doesn't employ an upbeat presenter like Steve Irwin of Animal Planet's Crocodile Hunter, but he has been thinking about how he could make Nature "more contemporary." A two-part series on Antarctica, Under Antarctic Ice (Norbert Wu Productions), which premiered last month, shows the evolution of Nature. The series follows the noted underwater photographer and filmmaker Norbert Wu and his team as they dive beneath the "coldest, windiest, harshest, driest and most remote continent in the world."

To Kaufman this is "the biggest gee-whiz place on the planet." He knew Nature had to do this when Wu proposed the story. "It's the closest to living and working on another planet," says Kaufman.

With the support of the National Science Foundation, Wu spent a part of 1997 photographing this little known underwater world. The resulting photos spawned a Scripps Institution of Oceanography website, a photo essay in National Geographic, numerous magazine articles, a book and a traveling photo exhibit.

Before venturing to this forbidding zone, Wu had been living the romantic life of an underwater photographer. "I'd been diving all around the world, going to all these tropical places that people dream about and I'd really dreamed about for years and frankly, I was getting a little bored," Wu admits. Most people take a vacation when they're bored with their jobs but when your job is kind of a non-stop vacation, what do you do? Apparently, you go to Antarctica.

The boredom was forgotten as he grappled with the logistics of filming in a place where outside temperatures of 40 and 50 below zero are not uncommon, where only penguins, Weddell seals and about 150 scientists can live year-round. On his previous trips Wu discovered that "while the topside life is minimal, the marine life is dynamic, colorful and extensive."

Not only was the physical environment challenging, but Wu was presented with the task of learning how to use a new technology, High Definition video.  Kaufman believes that Hi-Def is "the future of nature programming," and he insisted that Wu be the first to use it to capture this vibrant underwater world. Wu agreed and after shooting 150 hours of tape, he's sold: "I think the picture looks a lot better than 16mm film." 

To Wu, who'd never shot video before, the best part of Hi-Def is the ability to shoot longer before reloading—"especially for underwater because you have a 40-minute cassette that lets you shoot just about as long as you want." In contrast, a standard 400-foot, 16mm film magazine lasts only about 11 minutes, which forces a diver to surface and reload. You can get a lot more filming done without all of those interruptions.

People will argue about the relative merits of the image quality of High Definition video versus film, but Kaufman believes that as Hi-Def becomes more popular, it will prompt a natural history filmmaking renaissance. "All these subjects that have been done for the last 25 and 30 years will be redone and shot in High Definition," he predicts. 

Whether this technology prediction turns out to be true or not Kaufman was certain that it's unlikely that the audience will grow tired of seeing these films or that the filmmakers will run out of ideas: "There are always things to discover.  There are always stories. It's like life, it's endless."

Michael Rose is a writer, producer and member of the IDA Board of Directors.