It's on television where the wild things are

If it's furry, you'll find it on your television screen, as production companies cash in on the pulling power of wild creatures. But as the scramble intensifies to provide such programming, what happens to quality? asks Paul McCann

At the European cable convention last month a raffle was held to raise money for the Worldwide Fund for Nature. This was not panda-eyed sentimentality. It was a case of enlightened self-interest. The global television industry has gone so wild about wildlife that they need the furry creatures around for as long as possible.

The signs of blooming wildlife are everywhere. On 1 November the BBC and Flextech launch UK TV, a pay service on cable that will rely heavily on wildlife programmes for its UK Horizons channel.

Much of the same wildlife material will be shown on Animal Planet, the "all animals, all the time" cable and satellite channel that rolls out in Latin America this month as the first stage of a global tie-up between the BBC and Flextech's parent, TCI.

Also last month the National Geographic Channel - a joint venture between the eponymous magazine and BSkyB - launched in the UK, Scandinavia and Australia and has plans, like Animal Planet, for the rest of the world.

On top of the enthusiasm of satellite and cable vehicles, wildlife programmes remain a mainstay of terrestrial networks the world over.

David Attenborough's Living Planet remains the BBC's best-selling programme of all time - having been sold to 88 countries - and Life on Earth has been seen by an estimated 500 million people across the globe. The output of the BBC's Bristol-based Natural History Unit - which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year - is the corporation's most profitable overseas seller.

"They never produce enough for us to sell," says Mark Reynolds, head of natural history sales at the BBC's commercial arm, BBC Worldwide. "Bristol produces 70 hours of programming a year for BBC1 and BBC2 and another 30 hours for Wild Vision, the commercial arm that does overseas sales. We can sell all of that 100 hours and could easily sell another 20 or 30 hours a year."

Wildlife shows are almost the perfect programming for the multi-channel, global television age. It carries little cultural baggage. It can easily be dubbed into new languages and the footage rarely dates. Contractually it is simple for multi-market sales because the stars don't have agents or residual fees. And everyone seems to like it.

"You can repeat an episode of the Natural World and it will get the same audience it did the first time around," explains Alastair Fothergill, head of the BBC's Natural History Unit. In America, wildlife programmes are virtually the only kind of factual documentaries the networks will show in their precious prime-time slots.

It also has a political pull. Applicants for terrestrial franchises the world over can use it to meet their obligations to regulators to provide factual programmes while knowing it will attract good ratings and upmarket audiences for advertisers. It is seen in licence applications as "a good thing to have", according to Paul Sowerbutts, of Survival Anglia, the second biggest British producer of wildlife programming. "It is also needed for cable and satellite broadcasters so that their packages look as if they have a big enough choice."

On top of the demand-driven worldwide sales of wildlife there is also an imperative to amortise the cost of shows. While the average British wildlife programme can cost pounds 350,000 to pounds 400,000 an hour to produce, the big blue-chip series that are years in the making can top pounds 800,000 an hour. This means co-production has been necessary for many years even before multi-channel demand took off.

Even when programmes are co-productions, Britain is pre-eminent. The BBC, Survival Anglia and Harvest - which are both owned by United News & Media - are all up there with National Geographic and the American cable channel Discovery.

Basically Bristol is the Hollywood of wildlife film-making," says Alastair Fothergill. Independents like Green Umbrella and Partridge Films are based there and foreign producers have to go to Bristol to put their own programmes through post-production and graphics systems there.

Although animals are animals, there are some tweaks that need to be made to wildlife shows for different markets. The Europeans, and particularly the Germans, like British programming just as it comes. The Americans like plenty of excitement at the beginning of the programme to keep viewers interested. Although everyone likes the "tooth and claw" drama of the big predators, the Americans are keener than most on lions, elephants, sharks and plenty of gore. The Japanese like plenty of scientific context to their shows - they always want to know about the geographic area and the French prefer programmes that look at man's interaction with animals.

Despite all the former BBC Natural History Unit staff running the world's wildlife shows from Bristol there still isn't enough talent. There is a limited number of producers, cameramen and technicians who can make high-quality wildlife programmes, and demand for their skills outstrips supply. "You cannot really train these people quickly," says Mark Reynolds. "Wildlife production isn't in textbooks, it's in people's heads."

This supply and demand imbalance leads to ever more pressure for "cut and paste" wildlife programmes.

For the lower price of around pounds 150,000 an hour producers can take unused film and outtakes from other programmes, library footage and 20-year-old shows to knit together new programmes for different markets.

By not being time-sensitive or culturally specific, wildlife programming could become the ultimate TV commodity: no more than context-free shots of cavorting wildlife continually re-packaged and sold around the world.

"There are people who have got into wildlife programming to make money," says Mark Reynolds, whose job it is to make money out of them for the BBC. "The BBC continue to make the high-end quality programmes that genuinely push back the barriers in technology and access to the remotest spots. People can be a year on location before any film is put in the bag. You have to compare that to films that are being made from cuttings or made in all the usual, overused, locations. With no imagination and an eye on the bottom line."

Alastair Fothergill is worried that the very popularity of the genre could eventually endanger it. "I am concerned that the reputation wildlife programmes have for not disappointing may come to an end," he says. "Some channels, even terrestrial channels, want some wildlife every night because it is such a ratings banker. They are looking for quantity, but I don't know where the quality will come from. There is the danger that reviewers and journalists writing about wildlife programmes don't differentiate between the multi-million pound 'blue-chip' programmes and the 20-year- old repeats."

Ultimately of course the real supply and demand danger for these programmes is that the wildlife is running out - hence the cable industry raising money for the WWF. Eventually we will no doubt see 20 cameramen following the last Indian tiger around on a 24-hour basis. Come the digital TV revolution, it will probably get its own channel.

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