Wildlife programming has been a key component of broadcasters’ slates for many years. Sweeping, high-quality pieces that survey an area’s species are loved by audiences everywhere. It’s a crowded market, however, and it’s only becoming more so. Standing out can be tough. Distributors tell TV Real one way they have achieved breaking through the overly saturated genre: offering focused, single-species programs.
Valentín Romero, managing director of 3Boxmedia International Sales, says, “I believe that nature documentaries should always show us new perspectives and new stories in order not to be repetitive.”
“Premium wildlife content was formerly defined by high-end camerawork, but 4K and even 8K filming is not enough anymore to make a film stand out,” notes Mirjam Strasser, head of sales and acquisitions at Autentic Distribution. “Now, it is either never-before-seen animal behavior, access to an animal habitat that hasn’t been shown before or fresh storytelling that stands out. By focusing on a single species that is mysterious, elusive and has not yet been covered by many wildlife programs, films can still compete for viewership.”
“You need to find your special approach and what makes your film different,” concurs Anne Olzmann, managing director of Albatross World Sales. “This can be a new way of storytelling, for example, in an in-depth portrait of a particular species that the audience might even be very familiar with or through unique access to a specific topic or area. Find the unknown in the known, and for this, you need to dive deeper into the subject matter (or species, in this case).”
Olzmann offers Superbirds—The Secret Life of Tits, produced by Altayfilm, as a prime example. “It is a species that almost everybody knows, and you think there’s nothing special or surprising about them, but we now know that they have individual character traits and show different behavior.”
“There is still so much to learn about the different animals in their beautiful and varied forms,” Strasser adds. “Focusing on a single species allows viewers to fully immerse themselves in the world of an individual animal, a world they may not have known much about before. These documentaries get up close and are therefore captivating and emotional.”
The Autentic catalog features an array of films that fit the bill: The Himalayan Ibex—Monarchs of the Mountains, Spirit of the Mountains—The Snow Leopard and Lynx—Close Up, to name just a few. It also includes the Terra Mater Studios slate, which features its own single-species programs such as Alien Contact about manta rays and American Ocelot about one of the U.S.’s most endangered wild cats.
While a compelling feature of wildlife documentaries is the cutting-edge technology used to produce them, all three executives agree that storytelling is the most important element.
“Storytelling is crucial,” Olzmann stresses. “As a filmmaker/producer, you have to find the personal, emotional story that the audience can relate to but still learn something new. In addition to that, you have to make this interest last for 50 minutes. The story needs strong characters, fresh insights and, in combination with cutting-edge technology, this can be a real winner.”
In both Superbirds and Wolf—Wanderer Without Borders, one lead animal is followed the entire time. Superbirds sees an individual male fly from his origins in Germany to Southern France, where he starts his own family. “He is established as our bird-hero, and the audience can relate to him and get emotionally involved,” Olzmann explains.
Wolf—Wanderer Without Borders, meanwhile, follows a wolf named Scout, who roamed from Eastern Germany all the way to the Netherlands. “Giving the lead character a name is another way to get an audience emotionally attached, and anthropomorphizing seems to be a bit of a trend at the moment throughout the wildlife industry,” Olzmann notes.
These types of documentaries also allow filmmakers to “raise awareness of the threats these specific animals are facing and the conservation success stories that exist around them,” Strasser says.
“Bees. The Invisible Mechanism goes inside the beehives to explain with unique images what the pollination process is like, which is essential for the production of 75 percent of the fruit and vegetables we eat,” 3Boxmedia’s Romero says. “The number of bees and other pollinators is decreasing dramatically worldwide, which can lead to a critical situation. It is therefore very important to focus on and understand how the pollinating mechanism works.”
And all manner of broadcasters and platforms are interested in this hyper-focused genre. “There is widespread interest among television channels, as nature documentaries work very well no matter what region of the world we are talking about,” Romero says. He also adds, however, “this genre is surprisingly one of the most popular on AVOD and FAST channels.”
“AVOD and FAST buyers are currently standing out, as interest from these clients is increasing rapidly and more and more clients join the queue,” Strasser concurs.
“VOD platforms tend to be more open to experiment,” Olzmann explains. “When it comes to single-species films, I do believe there is a difference between VOD platforms and public broadcasters. Broadcasters have a few fixed slots—and the market for these is very competitive—so they have to be more selective, as the offer to their audience is simply limited.”
At the moment, she notes, “broadcasters usually decide to go with the ‘safer’ wildlife docs,” meaning those centered on the Big Five and other predators, which could be a single-species documentary, and programs that cover wide areas.
For distributors, producers and broadcasters alike, though, “it is a very rewarding genre,” Olzmann says. “It is universally attractive to a global audience, does not really seem to age and has a long shelf life.”