Natural history television is surging ahead, bringing new experiences to audiences hungry for more. There’s growing demand for content at every level of the food chain, from blue chip and hybrid formats to clip shows and volume production, with new approaches underpinned by technical advances.
“Demand for the genre both in the UK and worldwide has never been stronger, it’s a thriving industry,” says Wendy Darke, head of the BBC’s Natural History Unit, which delivers around 150 hours of original content each year.
One new player in the market is Netflix, which is working with the UK’s Silverback Films on landmark series Our Planet – a follow up to Planet Earth. The production will be led by Alastair Fothergill and Keith Scholey who were behind Planet Earth, Frozen Planet and Blue Planet at the BBC. Those three titles have performed well for Netflix, with Planet Earth being the best-selling factual DVD ever. With DVD sales being replaced by downloads, it’s an obvious strategy for Netflix to follow-up on this success. For Silverback it’s a welcome change of process. “It frees you up from the need for broadcast success,” says Fothergill. “Netflix cares about longevity.”
While Netflix’s move into natural history isn’t about to become a landslide, it’s part of a shift that’s seen broadcasters acknowledging that in a crowded market there’s a need for epic, stand-out shows. “It’s a great time for companies who produce high-end natural history because Discovery and Nat Geo have both said that they are looking for brand defining programming, they want big showcase series to go along their smaller vets and pets series,” says Lucy Middelboe, commercial director at Icon Films.
Nat Geo aired mega doc T. Rex Autopsy this summer. Working with Impossible Factual, it involved the build of an anatomically complete 40-foot T.Rex replica that was dissected at Pinewood Studios using chainsaws. The high budget show was commissioned by Nat Geo heads Tim Pastore and Hamish Mykura.
At Discovery Networks International, evp and chief creative officer Phil Craig wants to bring back some of the classic genres that built the Discovery brand; he wants natural history “front and centre.” Earlier this year Discovery announced Life of Dogs, a five part series that Craig describes as “new chip,” which is being made by Grant Mansfield’s indie Plimsoll Productions.
Craig anticipates looking for between 10 and 12 hours a year of landmark natural history. The brief is “energised storytelling – twists and turns – we like to keep our viewers informed with a variety of styles.” Discovery series The Lions of Sabi Sands: Brothers in Blood about a notorious pride of lions has been a natural history hit. “We applied a slightly Hollywood approach” says Craig, mentioning Game of Thrones. “A fun family watch that feels like a modern TV show and yet is also classic natural history.”
Bringing drama and dramatic technique to natural history has proved to be a powerful approach. Seven- part series The Hunt for BBC1 is, according to exec producer Alastair Fothergill, “shot more like a drama than a natural history show.” The Hunt was devised to take a new approach to predation, while also taking the viewer into amazing habitats. “In the past there have been bitey teethy type shows where the predators are the villains,” says Fothergill. “Actually what’s interesting is they usually fail, they are the hardest working animals in nature.”
The series, narrated by David Attenborough, is subtitled The Outcome is Never Certain and each sequence lasts from six to eight minutes, so that the viewer gets involved in the point of view of the predator or prey. “I want people to run with the hunting dogs, crawl with the leopard, to get involved with that dilemma,” says Fothergill.
Taking natural history into other genres has been one way of delivering to a wider audience. “We’ve definitely evolved creatively across much more hybrid areas, inspired by features and formats,” says Darke at the NHU. Its wide-ranging slate will soon feature the fishing world’s answer to the Great British Bake Off. The Big Fish will see eight anglers challenged to fish in different locations, with blue-chip content in the form of the anatomy of the fish and their habitat.
ITV has recently announced three-part series Nature Nuts, a search for Britain’s most fanatical wildlife lovers, presented by Julian Clary. The series, made by Oxford Scientific Films, will use starlight, high speed, mini aerial and underwater cameras to treat the nature nuts and the TV audience to a view of their favourite animals. “Sometimes bringing new audiences to natural history has to be done through the back door, through entertainment rather than pure natural history,” says Middleboe at Icon, which is behind Discovery’s long running River Monsters.
At the BBC, Tom McDonald, head of Natural History commissioning, orders around 120 hours of the genre each year. He is looking for innovation, whether that be through mixing genres, finding new approaches or engaging new technology. “I think t’s really important for programme makers to be constantly thinking how they will bring something new to the audience,” he says.
While blue chip series on both BBC One and Two are “in fine fettle,” according to McDonald, the BBC has also had success with its pop natural history shows, like Animal Odd Couples, Animals in Love and Super Cute Animals – “balancing jaw-dropping YouTube visuals with high end specialist factual content.” The next move is to think about developing a branded magazine show for BBC One, “hopefully something that can become something a la Countryfile or Antiques Roadshow.”
Wildlife on Channel 5 stretches from four parter, Loch Lomond: A Year in the Wild with Tigress Productions, through celebrity-fronted pet rescue series and successful one-offs, such as Doghouse Media’s Psycho Pussies: When Cats Attack and clip show Cats Make You Laugh Out Loud.
Clip shows have enduring appeal and YouTube provides a constant stream of user generated content. Barcroft Media is a leader in this space with its Barcroft TV channel featuring massively popular wildlife clips. Barcroft is now developing shows inspired by its YouTube channel; its clip showing ‘the only man in the world who can swim with a polar bear’ led to a series commission for Preposterous Pets from Discovery’s Animal Planet channel.
The continued popularity of shows that draw parallels between animal and human behaviour has proved a rich seam for broadcasters, with the BBC’s pop natural history shows playing to mainstream audiences and ITV recently commissioning three-part series Animal Mums from OSF.
Rob Pilley is a producer at John Downer Productions, which is working on a major new BBC series for 2017, Animals Like Us – Super Spy. “You realise that the chemical pathways that are in everything from humans to amoebas, protozoa have only evolved once. So essentially they have the same abilities and senses, albeit to a lesser degree.“
Finding new approaches to natural history will often now involve getting to the heart of the action. “One of our key words is proximity,” says McDonald. The presenter and camera may well be very close to the wildlife, but producers increasingly need to be in there too. ”I’ve always embraced jumping in the mud, being in the thick of things with the animals, it’s something I’ve always loved,” says Pilley. It’s also important for him to have a hands-on attitude to the tech. “I’m quite often sitting there with a desk lamp and my magnifying glass getting inside the cameras, working out how I can adjust the focus.”
Technology has allowed productions to get closer and closer to wildlife, but it’s not just the 4,6 or 8K and super-adaptable cameras that are inspiring producers. The BBC’s up coming The Great Race will tell three big migration stories, with advances in tagging adding a new dimension. Tagging will track where the birds and their predators are and feed back details about their behaviour. “The technology is allowing us to be in the heart of the action and identify with individual animals and the ate of their journey, ” says McDonald.
Technology is sometimes a way in to natural history for indies that don’t normally occupy this territory. Dragonfly TV has dipped a toe in the natural history water; last year it used the rig to take a new look at mammals that live underground, with The Burrowers for the BBC; more recently ITV has commissioned the indie to make a single film, The Hedgehog Hotel.
There are opportunities across the genre. Alongside landmark and hybrid formats, there’s also a growing demand for high quality, volume natural history on a budget. At Icon, Lucy Middleboe believes that the market is divided. “At Mipcom everyone wants to buy your natural history, but no one is prepared to pay proper money for it, so it feels like the natural history world is being polarised.” There’s the big budget production world with only a few players and then a growing demand for large amounts of natural history to supply new channels and online services worldwide. Blue Ant is ahead in this market; the Canadian distributor and producer set out to create 200 hours of 4K a year. It sounds like a new world of natural history, but the jury is still out on how this can make commercial sense for independent producers.
Tech and bravery help shows get to the heart of the action
Natural history audiences now expect to be at the heart of the action; so productions are finding new ways of getting into the thick of it.
Discovery and Animal Planet’s Predator’s Up Close relies on former Navy SEAL Joel Lambert spending up to 24 hours living among exotic and dangerous predators in a specially-built transparent pod. Wildlife cameraman Gordon Buchanan is another who gets in as close as possible for shows such as Snow Wolf Family & Me, sometimes using a defended camera unit and dispensing with protection.
Another approach is to send the technology in alone. John Downer Productions has had successes with its Spy shows first concealing cameras in inanimate objects such as logs and rocks, then branching into more complex animatronic animal cameras in Spy in the Huddle. It’s now working on BBC series Super Spy, deploying the same technical ingenuity to capture footage of animals that behave like us. Earlier this year its series Wild at Heart used minicams, attached to pets alongside roving stabilised cameras, to document pet behaviour.
Stabilisation has been the key to ground-breaking approaches to shooting in the wild. Silverback’s new BBC series The Hunt filmed full- head close-ups of a hunting dog running at 45 mph by mounting a camera onto a vehicle using an advanced stabilisation system. “You feel as if you’re running with the pack,” says exec producer Alastair Fothergill.
BIG BLUE LIVE
How the BBC created a natural history event series
The live relay of marine life gathering in California’s Monterey Bay for a feast of feeding at the end of August was an editorial, technical and ratings success story to inspire. “What worked for the audience is that it really did feel like an event,” says Tom McDonald, head of natural history at the BBC.
The show, anchored by Liz Bonnin, Steve Backshall and Matt Baker, went out in primetime on BBC1 on three nights, with a corresponding show Big Blue UK, presented by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, airing for five days on BBC daytime. Plus there were live links from the ocean into The One Show and Newsround. The main show reached 10m across the week, Big Blue UK exceeded its slot average by around 1.3m a day and online it has so far reached around 23m. “It felt like we were using the full force of the broadcast BBC to amplify the main show,” says McDonald.
Big Blue Live was the first big co-pro between the BBC’s NHU and PBS in the US. NHU head Wendy Darke says the production was the Unit’s most ambitious yet, drawing on its experience with landmark blue-chip, live programming and digital elements.
New use of technology included the complex live link to under-the-ocean filming and recording numerous 360 degree videos that were posted on YouTube. “It was crafted to appeal to audiences in terms of new science and new stories, but also unashamedly to indulge in the beauty of the natural world.”
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