Wild Side

Chelsea Regan hears from leading executives about trends in natural-history content.

The United Nations’ latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report offered a grim outlook for the years to come should the global community fail to address the unchecked warming of the planet. Among the many considerations in the report are the potential effects on wildlife. Almost half of all species have already lost a portion of their populations because of climate change.

Despite the report’s dark forecasts, there is still time for course corrections—with natural-history programming playing no small part in turning up the dial on awareness for the need to turn down the temperature and protect the planet and its diverse inhabitants.

“It’s essential that wildlife filmmaking is used as a hook to make people understand how climate change is impacting the world,” says Jorge Franzini, VP of original content, development and programming at Curiosity. “When you see wildlife, I think people are much more emotionally aware and empathetic to the fact that this is happening—fast.”

Anne Olzmann, managing director at Albatross World Sales, also believes that wildlife and nature programming have a significant role in raising awareness about climate change—but notes that it’s essential to fit the approach to the audience in question. “Typically, public broadcasters attract an older audience,” says Olzmann. “And I would say many of these viewers often need to be ‘picked up’ by showing them the beauty of our planet first and then reaching them via a protect-what-you-love approach. They first want to fall in love with nature and its species and need some kind of feel-good moment before they will become active.”

As for the younger audiences, they’re keener for media that pulls few punches when it comes to worst-case scenarios for the planet, as they’re also prepared to take action to avoid them. “They want the full truth, direct and without any whitewashing,” says Olzmann. “They are also interested in learning about the beauty of our planet, but at the same time eager to learn how to protect and, what’s more important, ready to act on it. Wildlife programs should feel much more inclusive for the younger audience.”

WaterBear Network, a factual VOD service backed by ZDF Studios and Off the Fence, “is more than just a video platform for sustainability; it is the only platform that unites almost all NGOs on the subject of animals and environmental protection worldwide,” says Ralf Rückauer, VP Unscripted at ZDF Studios. “It has already formed a large community after only slightly more than a year after launch, and it’s constantly growing and evolving.”

Rückauer also mentions the ZDF Studios-distributed documentary Going Circular, an Off the Fence production. “This is not a wildlife program in the traditional sense,” says Rückauer. “But ultimately, it is about us humans and our place in this world and our relationship to resources of the Earth, nature and our role and responsibility in this.”

Tom McDonald, managing director of factual productions at BBC Studios, notes, “There is no question that our natural-history content plays a part in raising awareness. The Blue Planet effect changed behaviors and policy internationally, and we were invited to open COP26 in Glasgow with The Green Planet, attended by representatives from the Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change to the UN.”

McDonald adds that audiences are clamoring for this kind of content. “In a [July 2021] BBC Pulse survey, 75 percent of the U.K. think the media should do more around protecting the environment and transitioning to a more sustainable world. This is a massive creative opportunity for all of us—not just within natural history, but the entire industry.”

This increased interest in the planet directly affects natural-history titles’ performance in the marketplace. “I am observing an ever-growing appetite for natural-history and wildlife content, which we are ready to fulfill by increasing our yearly output by 50 percent,” says Gernot Lercher, the head of natural history for ORF’s UNIVERSUM strand. “This is closely related to the general interest of our society in any kind of ecological issues and conservation topics. I am now 56 years old, and I have never experienced a time when all generations have been focused on saving this planet we call home.”

The proliferation of new platforms has strengthened and diversified an already strong market for natural history, observes BBC Studios’ McDonald. “The Natural History Unit’s (NHU) ambitious production collaborations with the likes of Jon Favreau, James Cameron and Warner Bros.’ Wizarding World just demonstrate the global appeal and influence of natural history—but also how rich in innovation the genre is at the moment. We’re working on over 25 NHU productions, spanning linear, SVOD, digital, audio and live events.”

“Blue-chip documentaries are still king,” reports Sabine Holzer, head of specialist factual at Terra Mater Studios. Holzer confirms that demand remains strong for natural history and wildlife across free- and pay-TV channels alike. “A huge amount of broadcasters air natural-history programs in very prominent slots or even dedicate their whole output to these genres, so there’s a huge demand for high-quality content from the international market. In addition, in the last years, there’s been an even broader variety of takers due to all the streaming services.”

Albatross’s Olzmann has witnessed the enduring appeal of classic blue-chip “coffee-table” programs. “However, now that people are becoming more aware of the importance of an intact ecosystem, we now see a stronger demand for natural-history programs that are connected to conservation, sustainability and environmental protection efforts.”

Whatever the central topic of a natural-history title, “it’s essential to reach an audience on an emotional level,” according to Olzmann. “This can be via a strong story that can captivate the viewers, or it can be via a humorous approach, but in any case, it needs to be strong visually, as the competition gets bigger with more affordable equipment to shoot films. The story now matters more than ever before.”

Advances in technology have indeed changed the filmmaking game, democratizing it and elevating the possibilities for everyone. “These tools are now becoming readily available to all filmmakers,” says Curiosity’s Franzini. “Not just to the big production companies, not just to these big networks, but also to the storytellers who are on the ground in their locations and can now tell their own stories.”

Franzini points to the technology utilized in the Curiosity original David Attenborough’s Light on Earth, which enabled the filming of bioluminescence in a way that hadn’t been done before. He also mentions the ubiquity of drones: “It’s not just spending incredible amounts of money to be able to do helicopter aerials,” says Franzini. “Now, you can fly a drone anywhere.”

As ORF’s Lercher puts it, “Ten years ago, aerials without a helicopter? No chance! Today, you have different kinds of drones that can fly in high-alpine regions and just one meter above the ground. How lucky are we to get all these new perspectives that help us find new narratives, telling stories in the most compelling way?” With a note of caution, Lercher adds, “But as much technology we have for our purposes, we shall never forget the impact of a good, unique story.”

While story is paramount to hooking viewers, the evolution of wildlife content has been driven by the development of specialist filming equipment, according to ZDF Studios’ Rückauer. “Wildlife filmmaking borrows and adapts the latest technologies—hi-speed ballistics cameras, camera traps, drones—but it also stimulates the innovations of videography—GoPros, underwater housings, filming in low light—as well. What has developed is a powerful arms race of invention, evolution and innovation to capture astounding images of elusive creatures in inhospitable habitats. Bring it on!”

Constantly pushing its storytelling and technology potential, BBC Studios used a slew of technical gadgetry and hacking in The Green Planet, according to McDonald. “Using FPV drones is just scraping the surface of the extraordinary lengths our producers will go in pursuit of the perfect shot,” he says. “Having found a plant photography tech enthusiast in the U.S., they promptly hired him for three years and set up a studio in the middle of Devon and built a bespoke time-lapse camera, which is named the Triffid, that can record and shoot from multiple angles. It’s painstaking work that would involve 7,000 individual camera positions to make a 3-and-a-half-minute sequence. And what is more, the team managed to shrink the tech down to create a mobile time-lapse camera that they took on location with them.”

Of course, platforms are developing as quickly as tech is, and developments in the FAST space are creating new opportunities. “We will probably see considerable growth in the following months and years,” says Albatross’s Olzmann. “FAST has opened up many possibilities to increase the shelf life of our titles and to give younger audiences a chance to experience them for the first time.”

For Rückauer, there’s no doubt that FAST channels are already having a moment, as ZDF Studios currently has several partnerships in the space, with more to come this spring. “According to our first experiences, wildlife programs are particularly suitable for [FAST platforms],” he says.

When Curiosity Stream first started back in 2015, Franzini recalls going to markets and explaining what SVOD rights were. “People would say, Well, I used to just throw in my SVOD rights with my TV linear rights. And then you saw this amazing progression. I think you’re going to see the same with FAST. People are starting to understand how to monetize those rights; how they can help grow a brand.”

The entry of SVOD and AVOD players in natural history is evolving funding and distribution models, but the fundamentals of blue-chip wildlife remain the same.

ZDF Studios’ Rückauer observes: “The only answer to the question of how best to relate to the viewers is this: a lot of heart and great feelings and astonishing and empathetic observation. This is much more popular than lecture-like explanations and fact-based processing of charts and bar graphs.”

According to BBC Studios’ McDonald, the scientists and field experts in the NHU network have helped its wildlife programming travel the globe, with working relationships that stretch back decades. “The same goes for our co-production partners and broadcasters across the world—having a global reach and relevance is baked into the DNA of the Natural History Unit,” he says.

“We’re convinced that even the seemingly dullest subjects can walk on global legs if they’re wrapped into the right narrative and if they have something new to them and can delight an audience,” adds Albatross’s Olzmann. “Something never-seen or something never-before-filmed with state-of-the-art cinematography, allowing a new view on a certain species and an inviting—maybe even humorous—narration seems to be the key to success with broadcasters and the audience.”