For bet­ter or worse, the in­creas­ingly pop­u­lar wildlife genre is the new CSI , writes Graeme Blundell

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Tv -

TELE­VI­SION is where we look for in­tel­li­gent en­ter­tain­ment and wish- ful­fil­ment. And our premier sto­ry­telling medium has also be­come our pri­mary source of en­coun­ters with the nat­u­ral world. It’s easy to get the im­pres­sion that na­ture ex­ists only so that it can en­ter­tain us on TV. It’s the only place where many of us will see wild an­i­mals or wilder­ness. But th­ese days most wildlife shows on TV are just that: shows, raz­zledaz­zle, the­atre.

All those pro­grams about in­quis­i­tive meerkats, fog- bask­ing bee­tles and dog- pad­dling ele­phants are not sci­en­tif­i­cally ac­cu­rate por­tray­als of wildlife but are as ar­ti­fi­cial as any episode of CSI: Mi­ami and of­ten just as con­trived. The for­mula, ac­cord­ing to the in­dus­try, is more ex­treme action, more youth, more hu­mour and more ( an­i­mal) sex.

The idea of wildlife TV has evolved from its ori­gins in 1878, when Ead­weard Muy­bridge’s se­rial pho­to­graphs of trot­ting and gal­lop­ing horses stunned artists, sci­en­tists and crit­ics in the US and Europe. Muy­bridge’s cam­era re­vealed equine bodies frozen mid- leap in po­si­tions never be­fore de­tected by the hu­man eye or cap­tured on film.

Now any­thing caught on film in any wilder­ness any­where turns up even­tu­ally on An­i­mal Planet’s ded­i­cated ca­ble net­work, with its slo­gan ‘‘ All an­i­mals, all the time.’’ It’s the place, they like to say, where an­i­mals rule and view­ers are held cap­tive.

This week the fourth most watched ca­ble and satel­lite chan­nel in the Asia- Pa­cific re­gion is chang­ing its look, the new An­i­mal Planet high­light­ing sto­ries de­signed to ap­peal to an adult au­di­ence seek­ing com­pelling en­ter­tain­ment. It is a mea­sure of just how far TV wildlife pro­gram­ming has been pro­gres­sively ab­sorbed into the broader cat­e­gory of fac­tual en­ter­tain- ment. The new slate of shows, we’re told, will tap even deeper into the pri­mal in­stincts that drive us all: ma­ter­nal, sur­vival, so­cial, vi­o­lent and sex­ual. ‘‘ Fas­ci­nat­ing sto­ries,’’ the pub­lic­ity tells us, rather para­dox­i­cally, ‘‘ that res­onate with what it means to be hu­man.’’

On An­i­mal Planet the pro­duc­ers love to im­pose hu­man def­i­ni­tions of love, friend­ship and fam­ily hap­pi­ness on wild crea­tures that would gob­ble them up if they caught them alone on the tun­dra. Maybe it’s a re­flec­tion of older tra­di­tions of oral and writ­ten an­i­mal fa­bles as re­flec­tions of hu­man so­ci­ety.

Cer­tainly, the best wildlife shows do force us to eval­u­ate the place of hu­mans in the nat­u­ral world and the amount of eco­log­i­cal dam­age, habi­tat de­struc­tion and pol­lu­tion we cause. But al­tru­ism is not gen­er­ally high on their agenda.

Na­ture TV is big show busi­ness th­ese days. It’s a form of en­ter­tain­ment, rig­or­ously fol­low­ing the es­tab­lished con­ven­tions, codes and ideas of nar­ra­tive ex­po­si­tion as much as drama or com­edy does. We’ve come a long way since Jan­uary 1955, when Heinz Siel­mann’s 20- minute film on wood­peck­ers was shown on Bri­tish TV, rev­o­lu­tion­is­ing the pro­file of the lim­ited wildlife pro­grams on the BBC.

This short film on the se­cret life of a fam­ily of wood­peck­ers by the pre­vi­ously ob­scure Ger­man cin­e­matog­ra­pher was filmed with as­ton­ish­ing in­ti­macy through the back of a nest­ing hole. It re­vealed as­pects of the birds’ par­ent­ing be­hav­iour never be­fore ob­served by sci­en­tists, let alone by the view­ing pub­lic.

But a half- cen­tury later, the bound­aries be­tween the wildlife pro­gram and other TV gen­res have be­come blurred, and the mak­ers of nat­u­ral his­tory shows have been forced to de­velop new styles of char­ac­ter and story- driven modes of pre­sen­ta­tion.

This is the only way to en­gage the at­ten­tion of an au­di­ence that main­tains an abid­ing fascina-

tion with the wilder­ness but is un­likely to give in to that tempt­ing de­sire to for­sake the pres­sures of civil­i­sa­tion for the noble sim­plic­ity of the nat­u­ral world.

Once wildlife TV was a quite dis­crete generic cat­e­gory, its film­mak­ers se­ri­ous bearded peo­ple largely from the sci­en­tific com­mu­nity. Nat­u­ral his­tory film­mak­ers stressed a sci­en­tific, dis­pas­sion­ate ap­proach to na­ture, turn­ing a sel­dom­inter­fer­ing an­a­lyt­i­cal eye on their sub­jects at the ex­pense of sto­ry­telling.

Now it has been over­turned by the de­vel­op­ments within the sphere of fac­tual doc­u­men­tary and the rapid pro­lif­er­a­tion of en­ter­tain­men­to­ri­ented re­al­ity for­mats, spread­ing like elec­tronic couch grass. Wildlife TV for­mats en­com­pass travel and ad­ven­ture, soap opera and cop shows as well as nat­u­ral his­tory. As of­ten as not, they cel­e­brate the cir­cus- like an­tics of hu­man per­form­ers such as Steve Ir­win, as much they ex­plore wildlife be­hav­iour.

Her­petol­o­gist Austin Stevens, for in­stance, likes to eye­ball king co­bras or man­han­dle gi­ant pit vipers, of­fer­ing a breath­less com­men­tary as he pokes and prods, de­lib­er­ately try­ing to pro­voke an en­counter. The ex­citable Snake­mas­ter is not one to em­pha­sise cau­tion and re­spect for an­i­mals.

In the trans­formed TV wildlife land­scape, na­ture has a mul­ti­plic­ity of guises. Along­side the oc­ca­sional blue chip se­ries, high- value, metic­u­lously ob­served films about in­di­vid­ual species, epit­o­mised by BBC1’ s wildlife spe­cials, there are celebrity trav­el­ogues, con­ser­va­tion lec­tures, ad­ven­ture and ship­ping yarns, and ‘‘ vets and pets’’ se­ries such as Ad­ven­tures in Doggy Day­care . I’m not a great fan of pet genre shows. But re­cently I have be­come hooked on An­i­mal Planet’s An­i­mal Cops Detroit , as much a de­scent into ru­ral Amer­i­can mad­ness and para­noia as it is nat­u­ral his­tory TV.

The show ex­poses the cru­elty with which some an­i­mal own­ers treat their pets, a twisted mir­ror of an aber­rant so­ci­ety with its half- naked losers and psy­chopaths. Some sto­ries end hap­pily, for in­stance with heart­warm­ing ef­forts to re­unite lost pets and their own­ers, but most end as badly as a James Ell­roy thriller.

An­i­mal Cops is a kind of vis­ceral street trav­el­ogue that trans­ports view­ers to Detroit, a city where an­i­mal crimes re­volve around dog­fight­ing, pets ex­posed to the el­e­ments, an­i­mal ne­glect and the oc­ca­sional abused rep­tile. Michi­gan Hu­mane So­ci­ety- Detroit in­ves­ti­ga­tors re­spond to al­most 5000 an­i­mal cru­elty in­ci­dents a year and An­i­mal Cops has un­prece­dented ac­cess to each story, as well as fol­low- ups on the fate of the per­pe­tra­tors.

Like so many of the shows on An­i­mal Planet, this se­ries is an of­ten un­set­tling com­bi­na­tion of emer­gency- room thriller, po­lice pro­ce­dural and el­egy for the sad state of mankind.

Height­ened nar­ra­tive has helped rein­vent the genre and it will be fas­ci­nat­ing to see what An­i­mal Planet’s film­mak­ers do with a brief to turn the net­work into a place to see an­i­mals as char­ac­ters, not merely crea­tures, and present the wilder­ness not as a pris­tine par­al­lel uni­verse but a place also oc­cu­pied by hu­mans.

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