Nature Films


Even as Walt Disney returned nature films to movie theaters, the wider film industry began facing competition from the new medium of television in the post–World War II era. In 1945, the Lincoln Park Zoo's director, Marlin Perkins (1905–1986), began taking animals to a Chicago TV station for occasional live broad-casts. By 1949, Perkins had convinced the local NBC affiliate, WNBQ, to help transform the staid show-and-tell format by shooting at the zoo itself, under the title Zoo Parade . By the time the show was cancelled in 1957, a few episodes had also been filmed in African conservation parks. Perkins and other nature filmmaking pioneers, such as Jacques-Yves Cousteau (1910–1997), who began contributing oceanographic segments to CBS's Omnibus series in 1954, and David Attenborough (b. 1926), in his first of many series for the BBC, Zoo Quest (1954–1964), moved out of the studio and zoo and into the field with film crews in tow. The technological, aesthetic, and narrative features of cinematic and televisual nature filmmaking for a time became more or less indistinguishable. Perkins's next series, Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom , which premiered on NBC in 1963 and continued in syndication until 1988, visited conservation parks worldwide, where his crew sometimes participated in tagging animals for research purposes, adding fast-paced chase scenes and action, harking back in style (if differing in purpose) to pre-war expedition films.

Nature filled a niche for programming that was educational as well as entertaining. CBS launched the long-running National Geographic Specials in 1965; ABC began to host The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau specials in 1968; Bill Burrud's Animal World (1968–1980) and a host of imitators joined Wild Kingdom in the market for half-hour syndicated programs after the Federal Communications Commission forced the networks to acquire some of their programming from independent sources. But in the 1970s, with the relaxation of the federal Financial Interest and Syndication Rules, commercial demand for the genre waned. The Public Broadcasting System (PBS) became the primary home in the United States for nature filmmaking: in 1974, the science-oriented series NOVA premiered with Oxford Scientific Films' "The Making of a Natural History Film," which had been made for BBC-2's series Horizon as its first episode. In 1975, the series National Geographic Specials moved to PBS. In 1982, PBS redoubled its commitment to nature subjects, adding the series Nature (produced by WNET and frequently airing programs acquired from or coproduced with the BBC Natural History Unit), David Attenborough's Life on Earth , and Marty Stouffer's Wild America to its schedule.

It took a booming cable television industry to reposition nature as a TV genre with commercial potential. In 1985, The Discovery Channel went on the air with a schedule full of nature, science, and exploration documentaries. The cable Discovery Channel was then a fledging upstart; it eventually became one of the most widely distributed of cable channels, reaching almost 90 million homes in the United States and another 385 million homes in some 160 countries. Discovery used nature as a kind of flagship, consolidated under the series title Wild Discovery . Thanks to its heavily promoted, high-rated specials, such as the annual Shark Week, other cable channels began to follow suit. These successes laid the groundwork for the launch of a spin-off channel, Animal Planet, in 1996. Animal Planet is a joint venture involving the BBC in global markets and features classic wildlife filmmaking. It has made minor celebrities of a new generation of on-camera hosts (foremost, Steve Irwin of The Crocodile Hunter , a hit for the channel launched in 1996); provides hours of programming about pets as well as "wild" animals; eagerly hybridizies nature with other genres, including so-called reality TV ( Animal Cops , beginning 2002), game, and talent shows ( Pet Star , beginning 2002); and frequently consists of productions shot on video rather than on film. The Discovery–BBC alliance has also resulted in high-profile programs such as Walking with Dinosaurs (1999) and Walking with Prehistoric Beasts (2001), speculative dramatizations about the daily lives of long-extinct life forms rendered through computer-generated imagery, and Blue Planet: A Natural History of the Ocean (2002), a gorgeously produced eight-part survey of marine life.

When Animal Planet reached global markets, National Geographic Television countered by partnering with NBC and News Corporation to launch its own cable channel, first shown in the United Kingdom, Europe, and Asia in 1997–1998, and reaching US markets in 2001. Nature now sprawled throughout television, as both broadcast and cable channels experimented with cost-cutting "reality-based" and other nonfiction genres and competed ever more fiercely for demographic niches (especially for that of young adult males) thought to cluster around this kind of programming. In 1991, the Turner Broadcasting System (TBS) hosted Attenborough's popular BBC series The Trials of Life ; the highbrow National Geographic Specials returned to NBC in 1995; the Fox broadcast network dabbled with lowbrow miniseries and specials such as When Animals Attack (1996–1997); and MTV's Jackass crew remade itself as Wildboyz (2003–2004), which set its roughhousing stunts amid wildlife (and sometimes ethnographic) filmmaking conventions.

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