PBS will air its first live natural-history event when it tracks the late-summer confluence of whales and other sea life in California’s Monterey Bay. It’s among the first announced projects of the pubcaster’s new multi-title co-production deal with BBC and BBC Worldwide North America, announced earlier this year.
Big Blue Live will air live on PBS over three nights, August 31-September 2, from 8-9 PM ET. A second live feed will air on the West Coast at 8 PM PT. BBC will air its live broadcast one week earlier and will be streaming online and through social media for UK viewers.
The program will document the rejuvenation of the bay’s once-endangered ecosystem. Humpback whales, blue whales, sea lions, dolphins, elephant seals, sea otters, great white sharks and brown pelicans convene in this once-a-year confluence. In the UK, the TV project is being touted as showing live the results of “the greatest conservation success story in the world.”
Although PBS is known for live performances – mostly musical – this is the service’s first live natural-history event. BBC is lead producer on the project, having a solid track record doing live natural-history events, which have been enormously popular in the UK.
“The big thing will be if we get blue whales live,” PBS chief programming exec and GM Beth Hoppe told Deadline. “I think we can count on humpbacks. Gray whales are next, and blue whales are the holy grail of whales – our unicorn. I should not even be saying this out loud but there is a teeny tiny itsy bitsy chance we’ might get orca live. Tiny.”
Hoppe, an unabashed fan of BBC’s live natural-history programming, said she hopes it leads to other projects on PBS.
“They have this program called Spring Watch they started eight or nine years ago, where they checked in on birds in nests and plants growing in the spring, and it went nuts – off the charts,” she said.
For Big Blue Live, cameras will be stationed in three locations, including the local aquarium, multiple cameras above and below the waterline, on boats and an “eye in the sky.” PBS hopes certain animals will emerge as “characters” in the primetime broadcasts and that viewers also will want to check in online during the day.
Hoppe acknowledged the airdates “are not what we’d love. We’d rather it was in September,” she said. “But it was carefully picked, looking at when was mostly likely to have good weather and for the most live animal activity, and these two weeks were the window — even though it’s not the perfect time, HUT-wise.”
According to Bill Margol, Senior Director of Programming and Development at PBS, the scheduling is set by plankton – an U.S. TV industry first.
The microscopic organisms populate the deepest parts of the canyon that leads into bay, and when they rise up during certain times of the year, they bring small feeders – sardines and anchovies – to feed by the millions. Those creatures, in turn, bring the whales, seals, sharks, otters, etc. It happens in other places around the world but nowhere so close to the shore, Margol says.
On-air correspondents for PBS include Dr. M. Sanjayan, host of its recent Earth: A New Wild and currently the senior scientist at Conservation International, and Dr. Joy Reidenberg, an anatomist with expertise in animal reproduction.
Big Blue Live will be distributed by BBC Worldwide, exec produced by James Honeyborne and produced by Adam White for the BBC’s Natural History Unit. Margol and VP Programming and Development Bill Gardner will oversee the project for PBS.