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Running Wild : Executives Find Value in Natural History Programs


When Ted Turner met the naturalist Sir David Attenborough to talk about his new BBC series "The Private Life of Plants," he was baffled.

"Six hours on plants. What exactly do they do for six hours?" Turner wondered.

By the end of their meeting, Attenborough had convinced Turner to put up a third of the $4.5-million budget for the six-hour show, which used time-lapse photography to film plants.

Turner has a reputation for committing to worthy programs, but in this instance he was also making a savvy economic decision. "Trials of Life"--the Attenborough BBC special Turner co-produced--made more than $100 million in video sales through Time Life Video and continues to play on TBS with stellar ratings--even though it is 7 years old.

Turner is just one of a range of entertainment executives who are realizing the value of natural history programming because of--among other things--the ease with which it crosses cultural and linguistic barriers.

"Natural history and wildlife adventure can travel from country to country and have the same value in each territory--not a lot of programming can do that," said Pat Mitchell, president of Original Production at Turner. "There is also the shelf life and library value. If you make a really strong program about polar bears or dolphins, that program will be just as compelling in 10 years' time, and you don't find that sort of longevity with any other sort of nonfiction."

Research in international documentary ratings is in its infancy, but Discovery Channel's first survey of worldwide needs in October, conducted by Roper Starch Worldwide, indicated that worldwide audiences want to see more movies (60% of respondents), local news (56%) and comedy (53%). The fourth most-wanted program--ahead of sports, variety or police shows--was informational programming such as natural history (48%).

Part of the programming's appeal for broadcasters is the dependable ratings that nature shows provide compared with other genres of documentary. Even network TV interest has been rekindled. NBC brought National Geographic specials back to prime-time TV this year, and ABC produces natural history in a joint venture with producer Dennis Kane.

Meanwhile, PBS, home of the "Nature" series, reports that ratings are up 30% this year. But natural history has found its real home in the niches of cable TV. TBS, which runs the National Geographic "Explorer" specials, has seen the audience for that slot grow 47% in 1995.

Naturally, the competition for natural history programming has heightened. On one side are the long-standing producers such as National Geographic Television and the BBC and Survival Anglia in Britain, which have led the field for 30 years or more. On the rise are the new kids on the block--broadcasters with enough success in the genre to move into producing--including the Discovery Channel, Turner, the Disney Channel and French broadcaster Canal Plus.

While natural history producers and photographers are not quite commanding star salaries by Hollywood standards, the increasing competition for their talents and particularly for established filmmakers is intense.

"There are basically 15 to 20 filmmakers at the top end of the natural history market. They can make what they want, when they want to make it," said Paul Sowerbutts, deputy chief executive of ITEL, the London-based distributor responsible for Survival Anglia and a range of other natural history programming. "Unless you can get those filmmakers or some of the next generation coming up, it's really very difficult to break into the market."

For National Geographic, the entrepreneurial opportunities in the field looked so bright it spun off the TV division from the nonprofit National Geographic Society in September.

"It means we have the great opportunity to pay taxes," joked Tim Kelly, president of National Geographic Television, but it also allows the company "to engage in all sorts of joint-venture arrangements."

One such venture is Explore International, a distribution company formed with Canal Plus in London in October. Explore will allow National Geographic to market its programs directly to the burgeoning international market rather than through a middleman agent, as it did in the past.

At the same time, the Discovery Channel is taking its winning all-documentary formula--which was built on natural history--to build entire branded channels internationally.

As many broadcasting markets are deregulated worldwide, there are more consumers and partners to co-produce these complex programs, which can be expensive but can be run again and again.

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