What they want


You’re suddenly struck with a great idea for a wildlife / natural history programme.
Fantastic! But what happens next? Who do you pitch this marvelous concept to and
why? A panel of international commissioning editors and producers answered these vital
questions at the recent Wild Talk Africa Wildlife Filmmaking Conference in Stellenbosch.

A channel that may be unfamiliar to some Screen Africa readers is Smithsonian Channel,
a partnership between the US’ Smithsonian Institute, CBS and Showtime. While the
channel is only four years old, the Smithsonian Institute has a long track record with
natural history. All programming produced for the channel goes through the
Smithsonian Institute for facts to be checked.

“We differ from other channels in that animals in our programmes do not necessarily
have to be seen eating other animals or humans,’ noted David Royle of Smithsonian

The channel looks for programmes about daring pursuits, rare adventures, “stories from
the vault’, science and technology topics, re-inventions, the unexpected and the life
changing. Examples are Running with Wolves, Street Monkeys (filmed in South Africa),
Diving with Crocodiles and Mission Critical: Amphibian Rescue.

Royle stressed that because Smithsonian Channel is small it likes to co-produce with
partners that bring finance to the table. The higher the budget, the more difficult it is
for the channel to commission.

“All our programming has to be HD as we put big emphasis on visual imagery. In terms
of audio programmes must be delivered with 5.1 sound,’ continued Royle. “Smithsonian
Channel produces 100 hours of programming a year but it’s not all in the natural history
genre. However we expect the natural history slots to grow in the future.’


In 2010 BBC Natural History Unit (NHU) put out 55 hours of natural history
programming; 36 hours were produced in-house and 19 were outsourced.

“Our logline is: “Wherever nature leads, we will follow’,’ said BBC NHU head Andrew
Jackson. “I always advise producers not to think about budgets upfront because the
stronger your idea the bigger the budget we will give. If you look at the mega series
Planet Earth – the kernel of that idea is very simple – let’s find some great wildlife and
film it.’

Jackson revealed that the slot between 8pm and 9pm on BBC1 (the BBC’s primary
entertainment channel) is available for wildlife / natural history. However this slot is up
against very big shows on other channels. BBC1’s Sunday teatime slot is specifically for
natural history but it is very competitive. New NHU shows are tested in this slot.

“BBC2 is the home of the Natural World strand,’ continued Jackson. “Twelve hours are
produced annually for this strand, with six to eight of these produced by independent
companies. Last year we had a story about rejuvenated Iraqi marshes which had a great
central character, an Iraqi man with a dream.

“There is a bit of natural history on BBC3 but it’s a youth skewed channel with shows
like Mad, Bad or Barking.’

National Geographic

About 60% of the National Geographic Channel audience is male, aged between 24 and
50 and in the higher economic bracket, while Nat Geo Wild is aimed at a family audience.

“In the past we’ve only done one-hour programmes but are now considering half-hour
series,’ said National Geographic’s Michael Mavretic. “We’re looking for big one-off
specials or ideas that could become series. One-offs are difficult to do and to schedule
so we don’t produce that many.

“I would advise filmmakers to think big when conceiving their projects. National
Geographic’s viewpoint is to focus on our viewers. They’re very intelligent and they’ve
seen a lot before so the pressure is on us to show them something new. We’re looking
for a one of a kind – be it one of a kind animal behaviour, access to a topic, presenter,
style or format.’

Mavretic emphasised that National Geographic programming needs to convey to the
viewer what the subject matter “feels like’. The experiential Nat Geo Wild is a year old
and full of blue chip shows and reality formats, such as Expedition Wild with Casey
Anderson, The Great Rift, Swamp Men and Big Cat Week.

NHU Africa

Although Cape Town based NHU Africa is not a channel it commissions, co-produces and
distributes natural history programming.

Said NHU Africa’s Vyv Simson: “’When someone pitches a programme to me I have to
consider very carefully who will buy it and who will watch it. I need to make sure every
idea I receive is based on a well thought out idea and story. Quite often issues are
pitched to me and, although they are important, there’s no thought of a show around

“NHU Africa is looking for a good storyline; it can underline an issue but the issue can’t
be the central driving force of the show. Before you come and see me with a pitch you
need to answer the following questions: what is the story, what is it based on, who is it
for and how will it look on TV?

“I’m looking for a story that can’t be easily replicated. It’s easier for most natural history
audiences to relate to animal programming if there is a human-animal relationship in it. I
commissioned the Foster Brothers’ Into the Dragon’s Lair as it’s a unique and intriguing
film about diving with crocodiles and there is a big element of danger in it. This is an
expensive, one-hour one-off show which means that it is very hard for broadcasters to
schedule. I only commission a limited number of 60-minute films for this reason.

“What I’m looking for are lower budget series of up to 10 episodes that are based in
Africa. However I don’t want animal release or vet stories as they’ve been done to
death. I advise producers to think about stories and events rather than issues and


Japanese national public broadcaster NHK has two natural history slots: a 30-minute
documentary slot called Nature Wonderland and a one-hour slot for blue chip series.
The target audience is family and the focus is on decisive moments in the wild.

Animal Planet US

This channel targets 25- to 50-year-olds and is slightly female-skewed. Its logline is:
“Surprisingly human’. Animal Planet US looks for emotional stories about humans in a
natural world. Some of its most successful series are Pets and Dogs 101.


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