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PBS’s Nature Celebrates 40 Years on Air


Celebrating a milestone anniversary, WNET Group’s Emmy- and Peabody Award-winning PBS series Nature kicked off its 40th season last month with My Garden of a Thousand Bees, centering on cameraman Martin Dohrn and 60 species of the fascinating insect. The anniversary season is also bringing viewers to the Rocky Mountains, the Pony Express Trail and an African waterhole and offering glimpses into the lives of wildlife from grizzly bears and turkeys to ospreys and penguins. Behind the camera of Nature over its four-decade run has been executive producer Fred Kaufman, who started with the strand in the 1980s as a production assistant.

“I was hired for three months to help get the series on the air,” says Kaufman. “Nobody was expecting it to do very much or be anything big or noteworthy. When it aired, it did extremely well and I think it was renewed for another three or six months—and that was back in ’82. And here I am today.”

The Nature strand was the brainchild of George Page, who was the series’ first host and had picked up some wildlife shows from the BBC. “He had the foresight to acquire a number of really good wildlife programming from the BBC, which had a long history of producing wildlife shows,” explains Kaufman. “Rather than just putting [the programs] out here and there, he put them under a banner called Nature, and that’s how it started. It was very popular from the beginning.”

Wildlife programming has long enjoyed popularity, according to Kaufman, who notes that in the early ’80s, many of the most-watched shows on public television were National Geographic specials. With Nature, “we were there on a weekly basis doing programs that people weren’t getting to see very much,” says Kaufman. “People just love natural history, they love wildlife. It’s not different from any other genre. It’s no different than watching performance programming, it’s no different than watching a history documentary. People really connect with the wild; they find comfort in it. They want to learn about these other creatures that inhabit the Earth. They want to see what similarities there are to us.”

While the interest in natural history programming has been a constant over the years, technology has changed how that programming is captured and delivered to audiences. “Everything has gotten better and lighter and there are more lenses now, different kinds of cameras,” says Kaufman, who points out that even an iPhone could be used in a pinch to get footage and that the 60mm film that everything used to be shot on would be deemed unwatchable by modern audiences, accustomed not only to HD but also 3D and virtual reality.

One particularly beneficial technological advancement for wildlife filmmaking has been drones, according to Kaufman. “In the old days, we would have to hire a helicopter, at about $400 an hour, and we’d have to have a piece of equipment to secure onto the helicopter so that the camera itself wouldn’t vibrate,” he says. “You would go up with a helicopter and a pilot and you would get your aerials and you would shoot for maybe an hour or two, and those would be the aerials you would use in the show. Now, of course, you send up a drone and you have as many different aerials from as many different areas as you want. And the cost doesn’t even matter. That small advancement has changed quite a bit how we do things.”

Kaufman, who concedes he wasn’t the most avid natural history programming fan when he began working on Nature, was ultimately won over, naming as his favorite film in the strand My Life as a Turkey. The film is based on a book that tells the true story of a researcher who was imprinted by wild turkeys after they hatched. “The insight on their behavior—on what they instinctively knew and what was learned behavior—was fascinating,” says Kaufman. “He had to be with these poults from sunrise to sunset. He got to know them, their personalities. He got to observe behaviors we would never have noticed on our own in the wild. We re-created this entire event. It was a dramatization of what the guy had gone through. We hired somebody to actually imprint with the eggs and go through all of the stories and scenarios that that researcher did.”

Another favorite of Kaufman’s is Christmas in Yellowstone. “It was a film about Yellowstone in winter but with a Christmas theme,” he explains. “We were in the park at the lodge in Yellowstone on Christmas. The park during the winter is just gorgeous, otherworldly. That was a special film. I ended up taking my family to the park on Christmas and I ended up experiencing it firsthand. It was a really special experience.”

Highlights of Nature’s 40th season include the two-part series Born in the Rockies, which premieres tonight. “The Rockies is just the most extraordinary range and wildlife habitat—from desert to mountains to forests, etc. We see these iconic animals surviving and growing up in the Rockies.”

The Elephant and the Termite, which debuted last week, centers on a waterhole in Africa. “People take for granted these waterholes,” says Kaufman. “Nobody could tell you, how does a waterhole start? ***Image***Where does it begin, what does it take? We show you how elephants and termites—two very different animals, from different ends of the spectrum—are responsible for an African waterhole.”

Set to bow in the new year, Penguins: Meet the Family features all 17 species of penguins. “Some of them you know very well and a lot of them you probably have never seen before,” says Kaufman.

“I love the idea that we bring attention to stories and animals that you might not know about or have seen,” Kaufman adds. “Our tagline has always been: ‘A voice for the natural world.’ We represent wild places, wild animals. We speak on their behalf, we present their view. That’s something we take very seriously and we’re very proud of.”








About Chelsea Regan

Chelsea Regan is the managing editor of World Screen. She can be reached at cregan@worldscreen.com.

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