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Call of the wild strong for nature-show viewers

The camera pans to a patch of earth in a bracken wood. Not a badger in sight!Shrugging off the wildlife no-show, the hosts of BBC 2's live "Springwatch" then suggest cutting to another location to see what's happening in the swallows' nest. Yikes! The birds are eating their young. But the presenters are philosophical about this infanticide, and a camera is moved to check on the stag beetles. Oh, o
/ Source: The Associated Press

The camera pans to a patch of earth in a bracken wood. Not a badger in sight!

Shrugging off the wildlife no-show, the hosts of BBC 2's live "Springwatch" then suggest cutting to another location to see what's happening in the swallows' nest. Yikes! The birds are eating their young. But the presenters are philosophical about this infanticide, and a camera is moved to check on the stag beetles. Oh, oh, they're caught in a sexual act!

Unscripted moments such as this abound on "Springwatch," one of the most popular series on British television and produced by the BBC's Natural History Unit, located in Bristol.

While this live nature series and its companion, "Autumnwatch," wouldn't fit so well on faster-paced U.S. TV, plenty of other BBC-produced wildlife shows do, including on Discovery Channel's Animal Planet.

"Obviously what we are known for is the most ambitious wildlife television series there are. What there are now are greater opportunities across a greater range of media to reach audiences," said Natural History Unit chief Neil Nightingale, as he discusses the evolution in content, technology and distribution since the unit was founded in 1959.

Despite budget cutbacks, the NHU continues to produce about 100 hours of television and 50 hours of radio each year, including "The Blue Planet," "Life in Cold Blood" and "Planet Earth."

Many of the series are created in partnership with Discovery Channel, which has a first-look deal with the BBC and usually airs the shows on Animal Planet. But BBC wildlife programming is also shown on other U.S. channels, including National Geographic.

Upcoming BBC nature series — many of which will find their way to U.S. TV — include "Pacific Abyss," which explores the ocean's twilight zone, where new technology discovers new sea creatures. Next year, there will be six hours of "Nature's Great Events," a study of migration caused by seasonal change, and 10 hours of "Life," which Nightingale describes as "a definitive series on all animals on the planet."

While the BBC's nature programming remains the benchmark, some spirited rivalry has sprung up from the U.K.'s commercial Channel Five, which is also based in Bristol.

Bethan Corney, Five's commissioning editor of factual programming, admires the BBC's programming but sees limitations.

"It's all brilliant and all really worthy, and it will only attract an audience that is very, very interested in animals for animal behavior's sake," Corney said. Channel Five needs to attract an age 16-34 male demographic, which favors "fangs, jaws and claws." That means "good stories for a start, and telling them as stories rather than sticking the camera in the field for three years."

Corney hires independent production companies such as Firecracker Films, not necessarily specialists in natural history but ones who know how to make "brilliant documentaries and keep the action and adventure and adrenaline going."

Five's hits include "The Man Who Lives With Bears," which Corney said "sucks you into the human interest narrative and along the way you pick up all the interesting facts about bears."

A biologist who was inspired by the work of Jacques Cousteau, Cunliffe said most wildlife filmmakers are people who are "passionate about the story, because if you were just in it for commercial reasons there's no way you would be making these films, because they are so difficult, so unpredictable."

New technology such as the heligimble, a camera stabilizer for filming from the air without disturbing animals, and much cheaper innovations such as minicams, which can be tucked into burrows, are now available. But patience and acute powers of observation are still the nature filmmakers' prime tools if they want to capture animals acting naturally.

Digital technology is credited as one reason the theatrical film market has expressed renewed interest in the natural history genre. Alastair Fothergill, who produced "The Blue Planet" for the BBC, recently signed a deal with Disney's new nature unit. Big Wave is making "Turtle Song," an 80-minute feature following the life cycle of the loggerhead turtle.

Yet television is what keeps the wildlife genre flourishing.

When producer Caroline Hawkins joined Oxford Scientific Films in London, she was asked to come up with "a returnable series that would work something like an animal soap opera." The result was "Meerkat Manor," a huge hit worldwide, particularly on Animal Planet.

"It obviously came at a time when people felt there needed to be a new approach to natural history filmmaking. It hit the mood of the moment," Hawkins said.

But now, as she hears many companies pitching similar ideas "with aardvarks, or dogs or cats, or monkeys or giraffes or elephants," she's planning something completely different.

"I like a challenge and a lot of people say birds and fish don't work," she said. "But it just happens two of my best new ideas are about birds and fish."