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Putting the 'Wild' Back in the Wildlife Programming

By Michael Rose

From <em>National Geographic Explorer: Honey Badgers</em>.

It was a familiar scene. The teacher would thread the projector, hit the switch and dim the lights. A flickering image of a dung beetle or herd of wildebeests would appear on a rickety old screen, as the voice-of-God narrator explained it all in a somber and dispassionate tone. Within minutes a host of little heads would hit their desks. It’s clear to me now that all those teachers wanted was a little peace and quiet; those early natural history films were guaranteed to knock out a gaggle of unruly viewers.

Natural history and wildlife programming has come a long way. Instead of putting people to sleep, it’s turning them on in droves. Arguably, it’s now the most popular factual genre on television. It’s a staple of TV outlets in London, Tokyo, Dubai, Washington, DC, and all parts in between.

To find out how this tranquilizing program genre was transformed into stimulating must-see TV, we talked to three of the program executives who are responsible for green-lighting natural history and wildlife programs for National Geographic, The Discovery Channel and Animal Planet.

Much of today’s natural history and wildlife programming is designed to get the adrenaline pumping and hook the audience by giving them a vicarious thrill. “It’s that danger, jeopardy element that people are trying to capitalize on,” explains Carole Tomko, the upbeat vice president of development for Animal Planet.

Tomko’s “animalcentric” programming for the channel helped it become the fastest growing cable television network in the 1990s. Hit shows like The Crocodile Hunter have turned hosts Steve and Terri Irwin into pop culture icons as they turned audiences on with their up-close and personal croc encounters.

Tomko believes that the interaction of hosts with animals makes programs more accessible and compelling than just relying on a narrator to coolly tell the story. “Animal Planet is really about the animal human connection,” she maintains. “And when you put the human personalities on there it really jumps to life for people.”

The programmers at National Geographic have seen the same results with host driven shows they’ve produced. “It’s a very popular area right now,” says Keenan Smart, head of the natural history unit at National Geographic Television. “So we’re doing that as fast as we can.”

Smart’s unit must be doing something right. When we caught up with him he had just found out that National Geographic had been nominated for 13 Emmys, 12 of which were for natural history programs. They’d also made the finals for six awards at the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival.

After more than 25 years of natural history production experience, Smart was bursting with enthusiasm for the prospects of change within the genre. He admitted that budget concerns and fast delivery are among the driving forces for the hosted shows. Instead of spending years patiently filming polar bears on an ice floe, you can send a host out with a film crew and end up with a program in a few weeks. One reason is a human expert can burn up a lot of the screen time that would have traditionally been used tracking a creature. “There is definitely the prospect of a quicker turn-around and a lower budget on a project where a human or a scientist has a relationship with a particular story,” notes Smart.

This doesn’t mean that National Geographic has abandoned high-end, or “blue chip” productions. In fact, they always have a whole slate of these projects underway. Currently they are three years into one of their more ambitious efforts—a film on a relatively unknown creature, the honey badger of the Kalahari Desert. This tenacious and aggressive little mammal is likened to the North American wolverine, except its diet includes vipers, spitting cobras, leopards and jackals. Tracking and filming the elusive honey badger was quite an undertaking. “This is an example of a film that really requires a lot of field time,” Smart admits. “That means you have to have a half decent budget.”

No matter the size of the budget, Smart is determined that National Geographic maintains its commitment to quality programming. He believes good storytelling is the key, but it’s more that just having a beginning, middle and end. “It is taking a subject that might really at first appear on the surface to be dry and dusty and academic and bringing it alive, breathing life into it,” he explains.

New technologies are helping filmmakers bring these stories to life. Chris Haws, senior vice president and executive producer at Discovery Networks International, talked about how the invention of lightweight, remotely operated video cameras has recently opened up the secret world of the elephant. His team of elephant experts was able to mount one of these cameras on an elephant in the Adler National Park in South Africa. For the first time, people witnessed elephant behavior that wasn’t affected by the presence of human beings.

The “Elevision” remote camera allowed Haws’ team of scientists to mingle with the herd while standing five miles away. “It had the elephant experts jumping up and down with joy because they were watching genuinely wild behavior,” Haws recalls. “And it made for really good TV.”

Technological advancements such as remote cameras and even computer animation will probably be used more often in natural history films, according to Haws. Not one to discriminate on the basis of extinction, he described the largely computer- generated Discovery Channel special Walking With Dinosaurs as a natural history film. He acknowledged that some of his purist colleagues might take exception to this because it’s impossible to be 100 percent sure of the accuracy of your depiction when animating a dinosaur. Others would say that whether you’re certain that a triceratops fin is yellow may be a perfectly valid scientific question, it’s not the only point. The critical question about the use of computer animation or any other technology is, does it help us bring worlds to people that they’d never see without distorting the fundamental facts about the subjects?

Technology will continue to develop, and filmmakers will have new tools with which to share the worlds that they explore. HDTV and huge wall-hanging flat screens will enable documentarians to create breathtaking programming. “If you ever get a chance to see it, you feel you can step through it and into a national park or into Patagonia,” Haws exclaims. “It’s so clear and beautiful.”

The Internet will play an increasingly important role. Producers are advised to find ways to utilize the Web and all other media, be they books or publications, DVD or interactivity. Being a natural history and wildlife documentary producer is no longer just about roaming around up to your armpits in leeches and pond water while shooting your film. While the technological trappings have changed, however, the mission of the profession has remained fairly constant.

National Geographic’s Keenan Smart explains, “I think that with all natural history films, whoever is making them plays a role in preserving wild places and helping to bring people closer to where all of our roots lie.”

While the environmental and conservationist message is implied in most natural history programs Haws warned against being too alarmist. “People don’t like to be berated by their television set,” he says. He felt that it’s possible to use one’s documentary skills to get some “pretty solid messages across” without using a “sledgehammer.”

All three programming executives agreed that there was a big role to be played by independents in forging the genre’s future.

Carole Tomko says Animal Planet looks to independents for fresh ideas. “We would not be where we are without independents,” she maintains. Programmers rely on fledgling producers for new ideas, and they also look to very seasoned professionals who are itching for an opportunity to try something they really haven’t been allowed to do before.

National Geographic’s Smart also believes in the value of independents. “We are always looking for that talent both internally and externally,” he says. With the growth of National Geographic Channels around the world, as well as the demands of producing the weekly Explorer series on CNBC, a series of specials for PBS and other programming commitments like large format films and DVD projects, Smart realizes that he has to cultivate and nurture filmmakers who are dedicated to the craft.

As advancing human population growth and development encroach on the planet’s wild areas, this dedication to the craft may become even more critical. It’s likely to become increasingly common for game preserves and other areas to be closed off to the public. The only outsiders allowed in may be filmmakers.

Natural history and wildlife producers will be our eyes and ears, a window on this world. With any luck they’ll find ways to keep their audience awake and tuned in.