Programming for the cubs

Natural history producers are looking to children's programming as a possible outlet. . . and it isn't just another case of genre-bending gone wild....
February 1, 1999

Natural history producers are looking to children’s programming as a possible outlet. . . and it isn’t just another case of genre-bending gone wild.

One of the advantages of wildlife programming is its ability to leave its natural habitat and cross both geographical and demographic borders. Producers have long enjoyed strong international sales, and many are discovering a new niche with younger audiences.

The cost advantage of being able to draw on dormant footage libraries is the primary reason why natural history producers turn to kids programming. While an average wildlife program costs about US$600,000 per hour, kids programs can be produced for half that by taking advantage of libraries. However, stock is just the beginning. For kids, entertainment is required, and that means creating a hook.

Two of the most respected names in natural history, Survival and Partridge Films (now United Wildlife), have been producing eyeball-catching children’s programming since the early `90s. Amazing Animals, an Emmy-nominated Partridge co-production with London’s Dorling Kindersley that’s now entering its fourth season, features a computer-generated 3-D lizard named Henry, an off-camera narrator, as well as stock and original footage. Along with numerous international outlets, the series enjoys a daily slot on the Disney Channel.

In July, Partridge wrapped a 26 x three-minute series called Animal Alphabet with the DK alumni that formed Adams Wooding Television. Each episode features an animal-/alphabet-themed original song, and can be adapted for eight different language and cultures, and has been sold to Channel 4 (U.K.), La Cinquieme (France), RTE (Ireland), TV12 (Singapore), VPRO (Netherlands), Canal 11 (Mexico), Centauro (Columbia), FETV (Panama) and VGI (Africa). Pay TV deals have also been signed with Disney Channel in Germany, France, Italy and Spain, with Nickelodeon in the U.K. and with Discovery Channel for Latin America. An 80 x three-minute follow-up series dubbed Animal Tunes goes into production this year.

Attaching characters with international recognition can also attract kid eyeballs, a fact that Survival learned in working with Jim Henson Production and Warner Bros. However, most companies retain copyrights in a co-production, so their partners can expect smaller returns and few merchandising rights. In 1994, Survival began a co-production with Henson called The Animal Show, a talk show in which Muppets discuss events in the natural world, demonstrated by stock footage. To date, 65 episodes have been produced, and talks are on for more. Survival also produced five one-hour segments with WB called The World of … With Bugs Bunny, a series that mixes Looney Tunes characters with Survival library footage.

Cambium Releasing, active in both documentary and kids fiction production circles, combines its content expertise strengths in Infosaurus. Leaning heavily on the draw of CGI animation, the 26 x one-minute 3-D toon series explores the ancient dinosaur world with the help of a lizard tour guide named Maxi.

As to tailoring doc content for kid viewers, Andrew Buchanan, head of development at United Wildlife, who worked on Animal Alphabet, cautions against hitting kids over the head with environmental messages; the approach has to be subtle. He offers the `E is for Elephant’ song from the series as an example. ‘You can begin to introduce the idea that tusks belong attached to elephants. We don’t talk about poaching. We don’t talk about ivory. . . You can have them sing along without them realizing that they’re getting a message.’

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