Wildlife's exotic appeal

Future Is Wild

The Future Is Wild series innovatively uses computer generated images to predict animal life millions of years hence.

Performer-presenter Steve Irwin tames the wild.

Animal Planet's lengthy series Meerkat Manor uses a soap opera format ...

... to follow an extended family of meerkats on the edge of the Kalahari Desert.

TV channels National Geographic, Discovery, and Animal Planet specialize in wildlife programming.

The biennial Wildscreen festival held in Bristol

Walking with Dinosaurs: Is it wildlife ...

... history, adventure, or horror movie? It's a prime example of cross-genre programming.

Life on Earth: a classic "blue-chip" offering.

Birds of Paradise: also blue-chip programming


Celebrity UK comedian John Cleese shares the frame with a lemur.

Pets and vets series rely on the continuing attraction of cuddly and furry friends.

Anthropomorphism in Disney often relies on depicting ...

... the nuclear family, especially the maternal bond, which ...

... also holds true for wildlife programming.

Family relations.


A walk on the wild side:
the changing face of TV wildlife documentary

by Richard Kilborn

In today’s heavily commercialized broadcasting environment, wildlife programming – like all other TV genres – has become increasingly subject to the demands of ratings-conscious schedulers. The following article explores some of the ways in which the requirements of contemporary broadcasters have impacted on producers of wildlife documentary and reflects on future possibilities for the genre.

All observers are agreed that the wildlife TV landscape has changed dramatically over the last decade or so. Opinions differ, however, as to whether these changes are going to ensure the survival of the genre or whether they are effectively signalling its eventual demise. Are then the pressures imposed by broadcasters now so great that natural history/wildlife programming is fast becoming just another form of TV factual entertainment?(1) Or does the increased demand for an extended range of programming in the new broadcasting age mean that program makers will feel encouraged to develop new styles and approaches in order to engage the attention of audiences who still (allegedly) maintain an abiding fascination with the wildlife world (Philo & Henderson, 1998: 5-6)

 In their attempts to meet the challenges of the new broadcasting environment, wildlife program makers are already developing a range of survival strategies. Some of these involve blurring boundaries between wildlife and other TV genres. Other strategies entail the development of innovative programming forms, which attempt to engage audience interest through employing new interactive technologies—see remarks below on the recent BBC 2 series Britain Goes Wild (2004) and Springwatch With Bill Oddie (2005). And no small number of wildlife producers are calling on the services of larger-than-life presenter-performers such as Steve Irwin, Jeff Corwin or Mark O’Shea to perform latter-day gladiatorial feats. These TV wildlife programming developments parallel those in the wider field of TV documentary/factual programming, which also had to accommodate itself to broadcasters’ requirements for more "accessible" forms of programming (Kilborn & Izod, 1997: 215-239).

The fall-out from these enforced developments is clear. Now wildlife programs no longer enjoy any protected status within overall factual TV provisions. In order to survive, wildlife program making must dress itself up more and more in the clothes of the other entertainment formats, with which it is now competing for slots in the schedule.(2) The question remains, however: At what cost these changes are being driven through? Has enforced diversification resulted in diluting quality? Have wildlife programs now had to move so far into being entertaining that they have forfeited much of their erstwhile claim to provide illuminating insights into animal behaviour? Will the terrestrial channels – once wildlife programming's seemingly natural home – eventually turn their backs on this genre, which they might come to regard as more appropriately located on specialist niche channels?  Or will changed priorities herald the dawn of a new era, in which interactive delivery systems pave the way for new forms of engagement with wildlife? One thing is clear, namely that, following the boom years in the early 1990s, wildlife programming has entered a period of greater uncertainty and volatility

Adapt to survive

To remain in the business, wildlife program makers are having to become ever more sensitively attuned to the requirements (dictates?) of broadcasters. But what particular accommodations are they being required to make? The biennial Wildscreen festival held in Bristol provides a forum for wildlife program makers from all over the world to consider some of the industry's more pressing issues. Following a period of bullish optimism during the early 1990s, the new millennium has brought a widespread sense of apprehension amongst wildlife film and program makers. As one commentator observed:

"These are lean times for natural history programming. The genre has been pushed to the verge of extinction in many primetime slots and is being squeezed everywhere by broadcasters’ dwindling budgets. (Keighron, 2000: 18)

Other critics take a less apocalyptic view, suggesting that the current problem has more to do with the market having been flooded by a super-abundance of wildlife programming, sometimes of dubious quality. As Derek Bousé commented:

"In 2000 the crunch began to set in; there was still a lot of wildlife programming on the air. What was making it difficult to sell wildlife films was that the market had become saturated – i.e. there had been too much wildlife content on air" (Letter to author: May 2005).

Whilst many of the problems of the wildlife industry are blamed on the harsher economic climate for broadcasters, some critics feel that the industry itself must shoulder some of the responsibility for the downturn in its fortunes, in that it remained too long wedded to traditional modes of presentation and too slow to adapt to the new modes and styles of TV presentation (Bristow, 2000: 19). Critics also say that because many doing natural-history filmmaking have traditionally come from the scientific rather than the television program-making community, they have shown a stylistic conservatism and failure to innovate (Willis, 1998: 4). (3) In contrast, others have argued that most wildlife filmmakers have mainstream film and television backgrounds, which may partly explain why the genre is so heavily dependent on mainstream film/television conventions (see Bousé, 2000: 185-8). Clearly, filmmakers who learned their trade in more traditional modes of wildlife program making now face a considerable challenge in adjusting to the new market-driven imperatives.

The cold winds of the TV marketplace

Wherever the responsibility for the current malaise lies, today’s program makers recognize that they now must operate in a far harsher climate. Economic difficulties are being experienced by no small number of wildlife producers. In recent years several companies specializing in wildlife have gone to the wall. Others have been forced into mergers not always beneficial to the companies absorbed. As one commentator has observed:

"Jobs are ever more hard to come by, And in recent years, broadcasters have become loath to commission new wildlife projects from independent producers due to what they say is widespread eco-fatigue among TV-viewers” (Madslien 2004).

Seeking more reasons for the present downturn, wildlife filmmakers also point to more general developments occurring within the sphere of factual/documentary programming itself. The rapid proliferation of the entertainment-oriented "reality" formats has created different viewer expectations, which has had inevitable repercussions for TV wildlife, a genre formerly regarded as a relatively discrete generic category. Wildlife filmmaking has, in other words, become progressively drawn into the world of TV factual entertainment (see also Bousé, 2000: 129, 191-2). Measured in these terms, TV wildlife has come to share the same fate as other steadily displaced, "serious" documentaries, as more popular forms of programming have colonized the prime-time slots. (4)

Keith Scholey, a former NHU head, suggests that the arrival of the new wildlife channels — with their eyes firmly set on the more popular market and their propensity for driving down costs — has led to the volatility in wildlife film making (cited in Bruneau and Walker, 1998: 22). Scholey says this development could devalue whole wildlife currency, as audiences become exposed to so much low-cost material put together on shoe-string budgets and as often as not celebrating the antics of human performers rather than engaging in a serious exploration of wildlife behaviour.

There are some wildlife film makers who bravely assert that the harsh realities of the contemporary television environment have acted as a wake-up call to an industry accustomed to operating in a seller’s market. In the words of Keith Scholey:

“We have all been stimulated to think really hard about how we can take natural history forward, how we can make it more competitive, how we can innovate, how we can change. It has been a liberating process of doing all sorts of different things we might not have considered” (cited in Holmwood, 2001: 26).

However, having innovation forced upon producers, now having to operate across a much wider range of TV genres than hitherto, may not bring about a major renaissance. Another industry insider, Paul Sowerbutts, one time deputy chief executive at Itel, is far less sanguine. As he observes:

“One of the big problems with natural history is that the cheap stuff looks cheap. You don’t get the key sequences and audiences do begin to notice. Such shows are usually padded out with loads of landscape and not a lot going on. The animals wander around rather than go through key behavioural traits." (cited in Bruneau and Walker, 1998: 25)

Diversify! Diversify!

If wildlife program making is having to operate under an "adapt to survive" imperative, what strategies has the industry devised to stave off the same fate which has befallen so many wildlife species? Perhaps the most favored strategy is diversification, devising new formats and approaches to attract and maintain the attention of what must seem an increasingly fickle audience. The pressure on program makers and production companies to diversify has become a compelling imperative. Innovation takes the form of not only extending the range of wildlife-centred programming, but also of breathing new life into the traditional natural history categories by experimenting with new story-telling techniques and by introducing new presentational modes. Much of the emphasis has been on developing cross-genre programming formats. In these, the wildlife element is part of a multi-component package designed to capture the attention of viewers grazing channels for undemanding, lightweight entertainment.

The need to diversify and innovate is discernible across the whole TV wildlife production sector. Over the last decade many production companies have attempted to rebrand and reposition themselves in an increasingly competitive market place. In 2001 two of the UK’s best-known wildlife companies, Survival and Partridge films, were acquired by Granada and then forcibly merged into a new entity, Granada Wild. The aim – as so often with mergers of this kind — was to produce a leaner and more commercially oriented unit, better equipped to prosper in the new, harsher environment. The trade-off was that, following the merger, the erstwhile companies would have to forego some of their specializations and would have to develop and deliver programs with "broader appeal" than that of a traditional wildlife product. As Phil Fairclough, the former head of Granada Wild, observed soon after the merger:

“In the future, we might occasionally use the Survival brand if we feel there is some mileage in it for us, but by calling ourselves Granada Wild we’re telling potential clients that we’re a hybrid producer, encompassing travel and adventure as well as natural history, backed by an internationally known brand" [my emphasis] (Clarke, 2001: 24).

Being able to show that one has the ability to combine various generic components into an easily digestible, attractively packaged mixture has nowadays acquired almost a mantra-like quality amongst wildlife program makers (Cottle, 2004: 99). And there are currently no signs that this cross-genre activity is slackening, rather the reverse.

The pressure on blue chip

Another indication of the changing landscape of wildlife film/program making is provided by the relative decline of "blue chip" programming (Clarke, 2000: 16). (Blue chip refers to the big-budget programs with high production values, perhaps best represented by David Attenborough series such as Life on Earth or Blue Planet.) It is important to emphasize, however, the relative nature of the decline, since the big battalions like Discovery and National Geographic and others are still interested in acquiring blue-chip productions. The problem, for many producers, is that it has become increasingly difficult to put together the funding packages necessary to finance big productions (Fry, 2000: 21), especially now that broadcasters have discovered they can generate healthy audience ratings from commissioning and airing much lower-cost brands of wildlife based on reality or docu-soap formats. The high cost of "blue chip" production, which almost always involve striking co-production or co-financing deals, has made production of these high-cost series particularly vulnerable in the current broadcasting climate.

Furthermore, blue-chip series are almost all aimed at an international television audience. Thus, in attempting to universalize the wildlife viewing experience, the programs in question do not always provide the geo-political contextualizing which one might anticipate or desire (see also Bousé, 2000: 82-3)

The ever more stringent demands from broadcasters to suppliers concerning the exact type of required product has led to a marked polarization in the wildlife-for-TV market. This directly results from broadcasting having become an increasingly schedule-led operation. As one TV wildlife producer, Carl Hall, recently observed:

“The thematic channels need long-running series to fill their schedules. There’s still demand for event and one-off films that can be slotted into flagship strands on free-to-air networks, but all the mediocre stuff in the middle is gone” (cited in Fry, 2004: 71).

Opinions may differ as to whether, in the transformed TV wildlife landscape, all the “mediocre stuff” has actually disappeared, but schedulers' changed priorities are clear for all to behold.

The transformed landscape of TV wildlife

Within the new multi-channel and heavily commercialized TV environment, all material commissioned, acquired and aired has to perform a particular function within the broader programming schedule. It can therefore be quite instructive to examine how a particular category of program, in this case TV wildlife (or more accurately: wildlife, natural history and animal-centred programming), is used to generate audiences at particular points in the daily or weekly schedule. One strategy developed by terrestrial broadcasters in response to the challenge posed by the new thematic channels specializing in wildlife has been to initiate "themed seasons," in which wildlife films form part of a season of programming devoted to a broader geographic or geo-political theme (e.g. African Summer, BBC 2, 1995)

As already noted, however, the biggest change in TV wildlife, when compared to the situation a couple of decades ago, is the considerably expanded programming range. Wildlife now appears in a multiplicity of guises. Indeed, if you survey TV listings in order to gauge current TV wildlife programming, you find a constant attempt to push the generic boundaries. Thus, alongside the tried and trusted blue-chip series — many of which relied on the telegenic but nevertheless well-informed expert (Holmwood, 2001: 26) — we now have an increasing number of wildlife programs which make use of the celebrity presenter, frequently a well-known personality from the world of TV entertainment. (Cottle, 2004: 91-2), In these cases, the hard-nosed calculation predicts a winning formula will result from sending the celebrity off to an exotic foreign location (shades of the travelogue here), where he or she will confront various forms of wildlife (shades of the adventure yarn). (5)

Another category comprises the diverse "vets and pets" series that have come to dominate our screens in the last decade or so (Hill, 2005: 135-169). Although some might not include this sub-genre within the mainstream category of wildlife programming, it could well be regarded as belonging to the expanded portfolio of wildlife/natural history. Though the animals featured in these programs are, for the most part, domesticated or otherwise made to serve human needs, the "vets and pets" series are nevertheless generically closely related to other forms of animal-centred programming, as well as being formally dependent on the structuring features of the docu-soap and other reality TV formats.

(Continued: Lessons learned from the reality formats)

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