Wildlife's global, family appeal, when the environment is "the issue of the age," gives Netflix and its rivals a rich supply of new content.
At a time when millions of species are at risk of extinction and deep-pocketed streaming services are spending billions on content, an old television genre, the nature show, is booming.
The latest big-budget nature documentary series from BBC Studios, Seven Worlds, One Planet, made its debut on NZ screens this year. The first installment of the series, which is a follow-up to the recent ratings hits Planet Earth II and Blue Planet II, will focus on Australia.
There has never been more to watch for fans of the genre. Netflix, Disney and Apple are investing heavily in wildlife programming as part of their efforts to lure subscribers to their streaming services. And nature shows are thriving on cable and public broadcast networks, with roughly 130 original nature series airing in 2019, more than the previous three years combined, according to Nielsen.
"I don't think I've ever seen quite the attention on natural TV programming across such a broad range of audiences and platforms and organisations," said Michael Gunton, the creative director of the natural history unit at BBC Studios.
The genre goes back more than 50 years to early staples like The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, which chronicled the explorations of the French oceanographer, and Zoo Quest, a BBC production that followed the natural historian David Attenborough as he traveled the world in search of specimens for the London Zoo.
Interest has been renewed as environmental coverage has migrated from scientific journals to mainstream news outlets, a change that coincided with the rise of high-definition television and streaming services. Netflix and its rivals consider wildlife programming a smart bet because it is appropriate for all ages and works well internationally.
"It does travel well," Gunton said, "because it's educational and the animals do not speak in any particular language."
In October, BBC America, known for thrillers like Killing Eve and Orphan Black, turned over its Saturday lineup to wildlife programming. The result was a 35 per cent gain in viewership during Saturday's prime-time hours. Nature shows also bring the network a different audience, said Courtney Thomasma, the channel's executive director.
"It's more heartland than our typical network skew," she said.
Bill Gardner, the vice president for programming at PBS, the broadcaster of Nature and Nova, attributed the surge to the fact that more people are engaged with environmental issues.
"For this particular subject area, I think there's just this broad awareness in the zeitgeist that this is about more than entertainment," he said. "It's just the issue of the age."
The show that kicked off the gold rush was Planet Earth II, a 2016 BBC series narrated by Attenborough. It scored record ratings in Britain and was an unexpected hit in the United States. Television executives theorised that the show, with its lush footage, was popular because it gave viewers a respite from the stormy atmosphere surrounding Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump.
"This profound unsettledness is something that is informing and fueling the relevance of the content and why people are loving it," said Sarah Barnett, the president of the entertainment group at AMC Networks, which includes BBC America.
Since then, there has been a stampede.
Our Planet, an eight-part documentary that Netflix started streaming in April, was one of its most viewed original shows of 2019. More recently, Netflix has rolled out the documentary Dancing With the Birds. This month, Netflix will premiere Night on Earth, a six-part series on nocturnal animals.
When Apple unveiled its streaming service, Apple TV Plus, in November, it included the 96-minute documentary Elephant Queen among its first offerings. The company is returning to the genre with Tiny World, a series about teensy creatures, and its own take on nocturnal creatures, Earth at Night.
The Walt Disney Co. was a nature film pioneer — Seal Island won an Oscar in 1949 — and it has grown into an even bigger player with its US$71.3 billion acquisition of much of Rupert Murdoch's empire last year, including National Geographic. Now hundreds of hours of wildlife content is available on the Disney Plus streaming service.
Seven Worlds, One Planet," the BBC's latest, includes scenes filmed in 41 countries. In response to the devastating wildfires in Australia, BBC America will broadcast the Australia episode first, instead of the originally planned episode on North America. Though the episode was filmed well before the crisis, BBC America will inform viewers how they can help with relief efforts. Seven Worlds, One Planet is narrated by Attenborough, 93, a particular beneficiary of the boom, winning back-to-back Emmys for his work on Blue Planet II and Our Planet.
Discovery, a leader in the genre, has the streaming rights to the back library of BBC's Earth series and plans to roll out a "definitive collection" this year on a streaming service now in development, Discovery's chief executive, David Zaslav, said.
Serengeti, a nature series produced by Simon Fuller, the manager of the Spice Girls and the creator of American Idol, was a ratings hit for Discovery in August, performing especially well among young male viewers and families. A sequel is underway, and Discovery will also broadcast Endangered, a BBC Studios series produced by Ellen DeGeneres on vulnerable and endangered species. Other Discovery series in the works include Mysterious Planet, Perfect Planet and Deep Planet.
"There's a massive appetite for it," Zaslav said.
NBC announced last week that it would join with BBC Studios for a documentary series about the Americas, to be broadcast after the Paris Summer Olympics in 2024.
In addition to widespread concern about the natural world at a time when Greenland is melting and an estimated 1 billion animals have died in the Australian fires, there may be another reason for the boom: Nature programming seems to go well with pot.
"We found that one of the reasons this content is resonating at this time, one of the many forces, is legalisation of marijuana," Thomasma of BBC America said. "We think this will perform particularly well in the late-night programming block."
BBC America offered a marathon of nature shows on April 20, a stoner holiday of sorts, and it worked.
"I will say there were some Twitter comments of 'Whoever programmed Planet Earth today is a genius,'" Thomasma said.
Written by: John Koblin
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