Acts of wildlife predation on TV need to show the kill shot.

Here an action sequence presents the small and colorful victims ....

... the hungry lizard ...

... the victim in close up so we will identify with its peril...

... and the dinner.

Selling horror

Favoring predators

Hollywood style, the BBC promoted Walking with Dinosaurs as a must-see event.

Britain Goes Wild is another example of a wildlife series promoted as a media event

Indiana Jones, aka wildlife presenter Austin Stevens, in conquering hero pose.

Conservation issues are slipping farther than ever ...

... into the background of wildlife programming imperatives.

David Attenborough ...

... in one of the most famous...

... wildlife sequences...

ever recorded ...

Lessons learned from the reality formats

In the search for another "winning formula," in the last few years wildlife program makers have turned increasingly to a style of programming which features various kinds of dramatic interaction between representatives of "homo sapiens" and members of the animal kingdom. These programs – which now virtually constitute a separate sub-genre of wildlife – have grown out of contemporary television’s requirement for action sequences and dramatic confrontations. Here – as often as not – the confrontation is deliberately provoked. Whilst traditional wildlife film making has quite often resorted to the staging of events, the demands of contemporary television have meant that some form of dramatic enactment is now almost de rigeur. As a consequence, certain types of wildlife programming have evolved which reveal parallels with some of the brasher types of reality shows, especially those in which vulnerable individuals are exposed to various forms of mockery and humiliation, providing a highly dubious form of (what passes as) TV entertainment (Kilborn, 2003: 51-88).

The pull and push of other popular TV genres is further discernible in the clear parallels which can be drawn between the proliferation of wildlife programs which focus on extreme animal behaviour (especially acts of predation) and the more action-oriented reality shows, which rely for impact on the number of hits (dramatic arrest sequences, near-fatal car accidents, etc.) which they include. Such shows offer the promise of giving their viewer-customers a "walk on the wild side" – whether to let them witness the "flight or fight" reactions of an animal following a deliberate act of provocation or to gawp voyeuristically at the sometimes violent exchanges between housemates in Big Brother. This kind of dramatization of reality-based material has undeniable attractions for a profit-oriented industry.(6)

One further example of how television increasingly dictates the terms for representing wildlife lies in television’s quest for and active construction of the high-profile media event. As far as UK television is concerned, the arrival, at regular intervals, of another Attenborough blockbuster series, could be hailed as a major media event. Nowadays, however, the merely spectacular may not in itself be sufficient to fulfil the requirements of an "extraordinary TV event." Consequently we have, in the last decade, seen a number of series produced and aired which allowed broadcasters to promote them on the strength of their startling revelations or their sensational images. The Human Animal (BBC 1, 1994) made by the BBC Natural History Unit, was one such series in that it gave insights (literally!) into acts of human reproduction. Several years later with the making of Walking with Dinosaurs (BBC 1, 1999) the BBC was once again able to promote the series as a major "must-see" event.

The institutional requirement that each year a piece wildlife entertainment be generated to accord "special event" status to is now so deeply ingrained that other means are sought to fulfil it. To these ends the BBC has developed another type of wildlife event, one which can be sold to its audience on the basis of its very liveness. The format in question is represented by such series as Britain Goes Wild (BBC 2, 2004) and Springwatch with Bill Oddie (BBC 2, 2005). Once again promoted as major television events, these series attempt to secure maximum audience involvement by offering viewers the pleasure of participating in a live transmission, but at the same time use various forms of digital interactive technology to encourage audience participation in wildlife projects in viewers’ own regions (see also Concluding Remarks)

Staging the wild —
the performance imperative

Though TV events such as Britain Goes Wild could still be regarded as being comparatively traditional in their approach, the more general trend in current TV wildlife is towards character and story-driven modes of presentation. The problem in being compelled to go down the path of "dramatic entertainment" is – as producers themselves are well aware – that in so doing there is an even stronger temptation to favour staged or contrived sequences.

The whole history of wildlife filmmaking has, of course, been beset by uncertainties about how far one could go in setting up events for the camera. If one were attempting, for instance, to demonstrate a particular trait of animal behaviour, there was always concern as to what kind of "assistance" could legitimately be provided in creating situations where this behaviour could be recorded? (James, 1985: 95) As in other forms of documentary filming, there has been frequently heated debate amongst wildlife filmmakers as to the justification for staging events (Kilborn, 2003: 144-8).

In wildlife film making the concerns have centred on two main issues: 1) the degree of intervention which could be justified in the quest to obtain revealing wildlife footage without jeopardising the welfare of the animals you were filming (Boswall, 1982) and 2) the lengths to which one could go in editing together the filmed material into an attractively packaged narrativized account to which viewers could relate (but one which necessarily omitted many of the more boring or routine aspects). The first of these concerns highlights the difficulty of striking a balance between the wish to connect with the audience and the need to provide scientifically informed insights into wildlife behaviour. The second foregrounds issues of anthropomorphism (the ascribing of human traits and tendencies to animal behaviour) and the degree of distortion which can occur when any filmed event is presented within a narrative frame (Bousé, 2000: 4-10; Englaender, 1997: 6-7)

Whilst these concerns remain, contemporary developments in wildlife program making have tended to foreground a new set of issues. Most of these relate to the concepts of "performance" and "performativity." Traditional wildlife has, of course, always been preoccupied with "performance," whether this be capturing on film the performance of animals within their natural habitats or whether it refers to the performance of the intrepid film maker/tracker as (s)he seeks to gain access to the wildlife world on our behalf. An additional traditional performative category might include the various types of interaction which are caught on camera when wildlife filmmaker meets wildlife creature.

Though most wildlife filmmakers have, over the years, been scrupulous in maintaining a respectful distance from the animals they were filming, there have always been some who have not been averse to provoking a response from their subjects. Sometimes the provocation has taken the form of activating a normally somnolent creature into producing "action for the camera"; sometimes there was a calculated attempt to produce a frisson for members of the audience as they witnessed potentially dangerous confrontations between the courageous film maker and those unpredictable creatures of the wild (Bousé, 2000: 29-31). Almost always the staged confrontations had less to do with revealing characteristic traits of wildlife behaviour and more with the production of sensational footage.

Whilst human-animal confrontations and interactions have, over time, become one of the conventional tropes of wildlife film making, in the last decade or so they have virtually become a generic requirement. Much that passes for natural history on our screens today not only involves the standard tracking down of wildlife creatures, but also requires getting up close to them, sharing their worlds or frequently triggering a "fight or flight" response from them. While the declared objective here may be to bring us closer to nature than ever before, the shows focus equally on celebrating the technological skills required to develop the recording hardware to capture these images and the performative skills displayed by the new generation of "gladiatorial" presenters, who have nowadays thoroughly colonized the world of wildlife TV.(7)

With this move away from the conventional, presenter-led wildlife film (with scientifically informed explanation being provided by a narrator guide) the emphasis now is to create dramatic, spectacular confrontations between man and beast (Cottle, 2004: 96). A whole tranche of programs have emerged in the last few years that are, frankly, dramatic adventure stories in another guise. These programs frequently take the form of heroic tales of derring-do and at the same time key into some of the well-known dragon-slaying and monster-hunting myths. (8) Austin Stevens, one of the new breed of performer/presenters in contemporary wildlife film making, proudly announces to camera in the program In Search for the Great Anaconda (Channel 5, 2004):

“My mission is to scour the waterways in search of the biggest anaconda I can find, pull it from the water and photograph it” (cited in Bell, 2004: 22).

Equally, if not more revealingly, the series producer, Graham Booth, admits that the program makers intended to use fictional dramatic techniques to enhance the series’ populist appeal:

“We’re making big, old-fashioned, cinematic adventure films…there’s more than an element of Indiana Jones in there. We’ve got the full John Williams-esque orchestral score. It’s incredibly stirring stuff and it gives a feature film feel rather than that of a TV documentary.” (ibid.)

A conservation-free zone?

Not surprisingly, in view of some of these recent developments, especially TV wildlife programming's progressive absorption into the broader category of factual entertainment, many have anxieties about the genre's future. Critics voice concerns, for instance, about how the ghoulishness inherent in some of the ambulance-chasing reality shows with their required number of dramatic "hits" is exactly paralleled in the type of wildlife program which focuses a number of "chase and kill" sequences involving predators.

They also express misgivings about the distorted impression given by privileging certain species in wildlife coverage (sharks, lions, tigers and large reptiles) and foregrounding particular types of aggressive or extreme animal behaviour in the belief that this is how audience interest will be maintained (Wollaston, 2004:) Even with the new Walking with… sub-genre, some express concerns that the dramatic imperative (the need to convey the "Being-there-with-them" experience) seriously limits the programs’ capacity to be scientifically informative in the way that their makers sometimes claim. (see Benton, 2001)

All too often the nub of the problem – if problem it is – can be traced to the requirements of today’s broadcasters, especially the manner in which they increasingly set the programming agenda.(9) On closer inspection, for instance, the emergence of the popular Walking with… series can be seen to have been more inspired by the success (in ratings terms) of the many so-called "immersive" history series (ones which contain elaborate dramatized and CGI-supported reconstructions of periods, events and civilizations) than by the desire to provide a new perspective on natural history. This leads to the most serious criticism of contemporary TV wildlife: that it has become – with very few exceptions – a conservation-free zone.

Two decades ago the well-known TV wildlife producer Jeffery Boswall, asserted that

“the majority of the world’s wildlife film-makers still [believe] that most wildlife conservation is boring, worrying and depressing to the public. They feel that their duty is to show viewers what is there, let them wonder at it and be enthralled, and then let them decide for themselves whether or not it worth keeping" (Boswall, 1982: 222).

Surveying the TV wildlife terrain today, we might conclude that conservation and environmental issues have, if anything, slipped even further down the list of program makers’ priorities. Some, like David Attenborough, do believe that wildlife docs should serve a different purpose than that of preaching a conservation message which might easily lead to green fatigue (Campbell, 2004: 17). But others, like the filmmaker Richard Brock, believe fervently that the need to convey the conservation message is so urgent that substantially more time and resources must be devoted to films where environmental issues are highlighted. Brock has, for instance, recently embarked on a number of low-budget, self-shot series which deliberately eschew blue-chip glossiness and universal appeal in favor of getting the conservation message across to a specific local audience (see Campbell, 2004: 25)

Other filmmakers go so far as to suggest that if wildlife program makers do not foreground conservation issues, they are guilty of major deceit. As Stephen Mills, one-time chairman of the International Association of Wildlife Filmmakers has eloquently observed:

 “True wilderness has mostly disappeared. Wildlife, wherever we try to film it, is rarely living an unencumbered, natural existing. Almost everywhere, it is in some way involved with man and dependent on him for its survival. .. This tragic loss of wilderness presents the wildlife filmmaker with a fundamental dilemma. So long as we sustain the myth of nature, our programs find a wide and appreciative audience. So many viewers could do a lot for conservation. But, as viewing figures adamantly prove, once we make a habit of telling the bad news, the audience slinks away. Television, after all, is primarily an entertainment medium, and wildlife films fill an escapist, non-controversial slot…The wildlife filmmaker is in a moral bind. Put simply: he makes his living out of nature; nature is disappearing. If he says too much about that, he loses his audience. If he does not, he loses his subject.” (Mills, 1997: 6)


Television then has proved to be a far from ideal environment for the type of wildlife film making which has serious aspirations to inform, educate and enlighten – especially with regard to conservation issues. Given increased commercialization within the broadcasting sector, this state of affairs will certainly continue and many of the trends we have discerned in wildlife presentation will persist. The question is therefore not whether TV wildlife will become part of the TV entertainment machine. It clearly already has. The key issue is whether ways and means exist, within the rapidly changing world of digitalized media, for (erstwhile) film and program makers to productively exploit the opportunities that these technologies provide.(10)

The fact that "mainstream" television has now become such a consumer- and entertainment-oriented domain may partly explain why an increasing number of wildlife film makers are looking for opportunities outside the narrow confines of the television medium. At the 2004 Wildscreen festival, for instance, there was a general consensus that the TV wildlife industry would have to concentrate far more attention on exploiting interactive technologies. There was a strong conviction that in this way wildlife film makers could not only enable their public(s) to gain access to a vast store of images and recorded material, which would otherwise remain inaccessible, but that utilizing interactive modes would actually facilitate a different order of user engagement. This, in turn, might encourage some serious reflections on the key issues of wildlife conservation and environmental protection.

Striking at the 2004 Wildscreen festival was the level of interest in discussing how new technologies could be harnessed to develop interactive applications. Moreover, whereas to date most interest in new technologies had been in relation to developing new recording and filming aids, now participants evinced a growing recognition that the very future of wildlife film making might well lie more in capitalizing on the new ways of distributing and disseminating that material. As one TV wildlife commentator perceptively remarked:

“Just as the early bird catches the worm, the forward-thinking natural history program-makers will catch the rights to exploit their footage – across all platforms, in all formats” (Keighron, 2000: 18) 

(Continued: Notes and References)

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