copyright 2006, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media

Jump Cut, No. 48, winter 2006


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.

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)

Conclusion

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) 

Notes

The above article is an updated version of a paper given at the 11th Visible Evidence conference held in Bristol (UK) in December 2003. I am indebted to Jeffery Boswall, for many years a TV wildlife producer at the BBC and to Derek Bousé, author of the most insightful book to date on wildlife film for their valuable comments on the original manuscript.

1. Some would argue that wildlife programming has always been heavily determined by the entertainment imperative.

2. The prestigious BBC Natural History Unit (NHU) based in Bristol has also, in recent years, been forced to evolve a new survival strategy, with the emphasis on diversification. As the former head of NHU has commented in this connection: "In common with all program-makers, the challenge for us is to find fresh subjects or, more importantly, to tackle subject matter with a fresh approach that will engage audiences. I am optimistic about the future and I would argue that the NHU is in the middle of a fantastic renaissance (cited in Clark 2001: 24)

3. Some would argue, of course, that wildlife programming most necessarily be somewhat conservative in style if it is to lay claim to being educative.

4. It is worth noting the "serious" documentary has, in recent times, enjoyed something of a renaissance in the cinema. Films such as Fahrenheit 9-11, Supersize Me and most recently Power of Nightmares have enjoyed both box-office and critical acclaim.

5. The recent reality series I’m a Celebrity Get me out of here (Channel 4, 2004) operates with a very similar series of calculations about what will appeal to the popular TV audience

6. The parallels also extend to the types of camera and microphone technology developed to capture these animal and human exchanges. As one observer comments: “While reality shows lean heavily on covert and other shooting techniques developed by natural history program-makers, a far broader and expanding armoury of technology is emerging to capture the more diverse frolics of unsuspecting inhabitants of the wild.” (Dean, 2004: 22)

7. The attempt to create that sense of being (un)comfortably close to wildlife creatures — whether these be living or extinct! – is mirrored in the frequent use of gerunds in the titles of recent (nominally) wildlife series: Walking with Dinosaurs, Swimming with Dolphins, Talking with Fishes [UK, 2004],

8. The success of the BBC series Walking with Dinosaurs, for instance, is in part explained by how it combines the educational natural history attraction of Life on Earth with the imaginative, gripping appeal of films like Spielberg’s Jurassic Park

 9. The same criticism is levelled more generally at the dwindling number of serious cutting-edge documentaries in today’s TV schedules

10. Further proof that TV wildlife is becoming a branch of the wider entertainment industry is provided by the links which can be drawn between the more popular televized wildlife shows (such as several of those which appear on the Animal Planet channel) and the type of circus-like show on offer at the Disney-world or Universal Studios theme parks.

References

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Bell, M. (2004) "The serpent’s tale," Broadcast, 2 July: 22

Benton, M. (2001) "The science of “Walking with Dinosaurs," Teaching Earth Sciences, 24: 371-400

Boswall, J. (1982) "Wildlife television: towards 2001," Wildlife 24 (6): 222-25

Bousé, D. (2000) Wildlife Films, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press

Bristow, M. (2000) "Survival of the fittest," Broadcast, 6 October: 19

Bruneau, M-A and S.Walker (1998) "A Natural New Order," Television Business International, July/August: 22-25

Campbell, L. (2004) "A force of nature," Broadcast, 8 October: 17

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Cottle, S. (2004) "Producing nature(s): on the changing production ecology of natural history TV," Media, Culture & Society, Vol. 26 (1): 81-101

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Englaender, W. (1997) "Some reflections by a student of animal behaviour," EBU diffusion (summer issue): 5-8

Fry, A. (2000) "Big game hunter," Broadcast, 6 October: 21

Fry, A. (2004) "Dormant no longer," Realscreen, October issue: 71- 5

Hill, A. (2005) Reality TV: Audiences and Popular Factual Television, London, Routledge

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Kilborn, R. and J. Izod (1997) An Introduction to Television Documentary: Confronting Reality, Manchester, Manchester university Press

Kilborn, R. (2003) Staging the Real: Factual TV Programming in the Age of Big Brother, Manchester, Manchester university Press

Madslien, J. (2004) "Making wildlife films sexy," BBC News [bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/1/business/3742406.stm]

Mills, S. (1997) "Pocket tigers: The sad unseen reality behind the wildlife film," Times Literary Supplement, 21 Feb: 6

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Philo, G. and L. Henderson (1998) What The Audience Thinks: Focus group research into the likes and dislikes of UK wildlife viewers. A report by the Glasgow Media Group commissioned by Wildscreen.

Willis, J. (1998) "Fall of the wild," Guardian (Part 2), 12 October: 104

Wollaston, S. (2004) "The bite stuff," Guardian (Part 2), 27 October: 2


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