New tech for producers, fresh platforms weighing in and a generation of environmentally conscious viewers have made natural history programming hot. With Oscar-winning filmmakers finding new ways to tell stories, and wildlife TV-friendly 4K TV sets shipping in greater numbers, insiders say we are headed into a golden age of natural history.
“The natural history genre is just booming, when you think about the number of projects announced that are out in the field, and coming to fruition,” says Geoff Daniels, executive vice president, global unscripted entertainment, at National Geographic Channels, and a former general manager of the Nat Geo Wild cable net. “Where the technology is leading us is allowing us to set the bar even higher in terms of cinematic craft and storytelling.”
Discovery and the BBC agree that we’re entering a golden age of natural history: Discovery will launch a global streaming service given over to factual programming by 2020 and natural history programming from the U.K. pubcaster will be a cornerstone of the service’s lineup. As well as licensing a raft of pre-existing classics from the BBC, Discovery will team up with BBC Studios to work up new shows for its streaming platform. With a low-cost monthly subscription likely coming in below $5 the new SVOD service is well positioned to take natural history streaming to a new level.
Nat Geo’s “Hostile Planet” embodies several of the trends at the high end of wildlife programming. Bear Grylls narrates the Plimsoll Prods.-produced show about species adapting to tough and volatile environments. Cinematographer Guillermo Navarro won an Oscar for “Pan’s Labyrinth” and brought his cinematic eye to the series.
“We are very focused on how we up our game in terms of the creative vision so that it’s not just another shock and awe spectacle of nature, but how you borrow from the language of theatrical cinema,” Daniels says.
Nat Geo, now part of Disney, is also working with film unit Disneynature on family-friendly wildlife ideas.
Former Nat Geo exec Carlyn Staudt oversees programming at Love Nature, the linear and on-demand wildlife channel. It is a joint venture between Blue Ant and Smithsonian Networks and its lineup includes “Orangutan Jungle School” and “Big Cat Country.”
She sees audiences, and especially younger demos, increasingly tuned into natural history. “It’s an exciting time in that people are engaged,” she says. “You don’t need to be in the traditional linear cable or terrestrial public broadcaster environment. You can play with all of the over-the-top opportunities and those in the social and digital space. That’s fundamental to our business and to the genre moving forward, to engage with these platforms.”
Drones have changed the face of filming. Where helicopters were an expensive and disruptive way to capture footage, drones are now cost-effective and allow producers to film animal behavior not seen before. As faster, more agile units are developed, and as they are able to support larger cameras, the possibilities grow.
“Drones are no longer just a cheap alternative to a helicopter, they have become in and of themselves a filmic platform,” Daniels says.
Advances in cameras mean they are getting smaller, lighter and more adaptable, which has also enabled producers to film animal worlds in new ways, and in the day or night. Stabilized gimbals allow a camera to travel alongside the animal in the air, on the ground or on water.
The results are programming that “feels more cinematic, more Hollywood-esque,” says Martha Holmes, a former BBC Natural History exec who now oversees wildlife programming for Plimsoll. “It makes the audience feel they are on the shoulder of the animal.”
Program makers are also taking advantage of new formats such as 4K and 8K. “River Monsters” producer Icon Films is teaming with Brad Bestelink’s Botswana-based Natural History Film Unit to make “Okavango,” about the Okavango Delta. It is for Japanese pubcaster NHK, which is among those leading the charge in terms of the ultra-high-definition format.
“The future we have been talking about for documenting the natural world is here; we are in the extraordinary position where all of the things we have wanted to film but not been able to we now can,” says Icon Films’ CEO Laura Marshall. “Whether it is low-light [cameras], or ultra-high definition, or VR, or AR, there are amazing opportunities — and no-one likes a bit of kit like a natural history cinematographer.”
A lot of the excitement revolves around the high-end, high-cost programs, but the younger demographic are voracious viewers on phones and small screens, opening the door to lower-cost short-form — “blue-cheap,” as well as blue chip, as one U.K. producer puts it.
But it is not just the equipment and storytelling techniques that are changing. Filmmakers are also tackling never-seen-before shifts in the planet inflicted by climate change.
“Right now our mission is to recognize the world is in danger,” says Hans Zimmer, who won an Oscar for his “Lion King” score. He is behind the music for “One Planet, Seven Worlds,” the BBC’s latest blue chip epic, which looks at a different continent in each installment. “Telling people it is dangerous and frightening them is maybe not as effective as moving them.”
At a BBC event, Zimmer was joined by series narrator David Attenborough, who said filmmakers have no alternative but to tackle humans’ impact on the planet. “We are very, very concerned, all of us working in this business, about what is happening and what is just over the horizon,” he said. “If we just sat there and said nothing … how would I look my great granddaughter in the eye?”
The iconic naturalist is also narrating a one-off film for the BBC, “Climate Change: The Facts,” which promises to forensically unpack the science behind phenomenon.
In terms of platforms, there are dedicated factual programming and natural history SVODs such as Curiosity Stream, which was launched by Discovery founder John Hendricks. Having sunk billions into original drama, Netflix is now joining the wildlife fray. It has greenlit “Our Planet,” narrated by Attenborough and produced by Silverback, the shingle run by natural history production veteran Alastair Fothergill. The streamer has also locked “Blue Planet II” creator James Honeyborne and his banner, Freeborne Media, into an overall deal.
“There are so many opportunities out there for natural history with all of the online platforms,” Holmes says, adding that the pull of a family audience is a strong one for the new players. “With the disruption of family life where everyone is sitting on their phones, if there is something that will bring the parents to sit with the kids it is often natural history.”
She adds that the involvement of the streamers is making “everybody think harder” about natural history content. “The new platforms are smart and they don’t want the same old stuff; they need an angle.”
One issue — and an oft-heard gripe in TV drama circles — is that getting the right production talent is challenging when their skills are in such demand. As the streamers get more deeply involved, the incumbents raise their game, and environment issues are increasingly to the fore, the best producers are likely to find those skills yet more prized. Wildlife TV is evolving fast.