High-end wildlife programming – shows like Planet Earth and Blue Planet – used to be the preserve of the BBC and a handful of cable networks such as Discovery and Nat Geo.
Then the streamers moved in with the likes of Netflix and Apple TV+ looking for their own David Attenborough (or Attenborough himself).
Now it’s the turn of the U.S. broadcast networks, which have been dipping their toe into the water.
It comes as networks such as ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC look to diversify their non-scripted slates with the added introduction of softer, factual entertainment formats that might not be quite as noisy as a Voice or a Masked Singer but can often have a stickier long-tail.
Last January, NBC made a headline-grabbing announcement that it had ordered ten-part series – The Americas – from the BBC’s Natural History Unit.
The series, which explores the vast landscapes, remote wilderness and mysterious creatures that inhabit North America, Central America and South America, will take four years to produce and launch in 2024. It marked a sea-change for the genre and a major opportunity.
The NHU is producing the series with Universal Television Alternative Studio, and President Toby Gorman tells Deadline that they have just finished the first year of pre-production. “Shooting is about to begin in early summer,” he said. “It’s not going to air until around the Olympics in 2024, so we sometimes look super far ahead like that.”
He added that the studio was also working on another big docuseries with one of the scripted talents that it has an overall deal with.
As Deadline revealed earlier today, ABC is also looking at the lighter side of the natural history world in When Nature Calls (w/t). The non-scripted comedy series looks at the funny things that animals get up to in the wild, including such as teeny-tiny frogs and beatboxing badgers. The show is based on a BBC Studios format Walk on the Wild Side.
Last Sunday, Fox also moved into these waters. The network launched Malika The Lion Queen, a two-hour documentary special narrated by 9-1-1 star Angela Bassett. The doc, which was produced by Plimsoll Productions, the Bristol-based company behind Apple TV+’s Tiny World, follows the lionesses of a pride in South Africa’s Kruger National Park.
Rob Wade, Fox President of Alternative Entertainment & Specials, said that it has been exploring the premium wildlife space for a while.
These projects are examples of the broadcast networks looking for new opportunities in a crowded non-scripted landscape. Wade said that Fox has a number of shows in advanced development that are closer to factual formats than entertainment formats.
He namechecked British format The Repair Shop (right), where family heirlooms are restored for their owners by experts. The show, which airs on BBC One and is produced by Warner Bros.’ Richochet, is essentially a cross between The Great British Bake Off and Antiques Roadshow.
Wade said it was “bothersome” that there weren’t more factual entertainment formats on air in the U.S. “You look at the UK markets and other markets like France and they’re really entertaining, and they hit so many things that I love about entertainment, about enriching the culture. They entertain, yet at the same time they educate to a degree.”
The challenge, he says, is that these shows haven’t tended to translate unless they’ve had a very “sticky” or “clear” format and they have tended to be the domain of the lifestyle cable networks.
But he said that Fox’s acquisition of AVOD streamer Tubi has provides an opportunity. “It’s really interesting as the business changes to look at what now Tubi means for us and thinking about the long tail of shows. You have to look at stuff like a fact-ent show and maybe live same day, they’re not as sticky as an entertainment show or a gameshow or a competition show, but they’re very watchable again and again. They have a longer tail, I think, than many entertainment shows. It’s a very interesting space to play in,” he added.
Gorman, who along with Wade is a Brit who knows that market well, highlighted that ultimately, it’s down to the number of slots on the schedule. In the UK and in other European territories, many of these shows start in earlier dayparts, what Brits call access primetime or shoulder peak, before moving to primetime in success.
“There’s really only a two-hour window where [some of the networks] are scheduling. It’s a smaller window. You don’t have that teatime slot that you have in the UK. But we are very active in that space and we help program not just for NBC, but for all the platforms within the ecosystem, and now a streamer,” he added.
These shows are generally very cost-effective. “That’s why factual often does so well because it’s cheaper to produce than the big shiny floor stuff,” he said. “We’re super thankful that we’re able to play in every space or fill every bucket.”
One of the studio’s commissions is a reboot of genealogy series Who Do You Think You Are? The show, which originally ran for three seasons on NBC from 2010 before moving to TLC (left), was ordered by NBC in 2019 from exec producers Lisa Kudrow and Dan Bucatinsky with Warner Bros.’ Shed Media and Ancestry producing.
Jenny Groom, EVP, Unscripted, told Deadline that it is still proceeding with the show, although it was interrupted by the pandemic. “That one was really tricky because during Covid, as you can imagine, traveling celebrities to all of these international spots became just not doable, so we had to shut down for a little bit,” she said. “But now we’re looking at the stories again and picking up on when we could start up again and just kind of getting all the schedules and details into place. But that’s one that hopefully we will be moving forward with again from a scheduling and shooting standpoint in the near future.”
CBS also has its eye on these softer formats alongside its juggernaut adventure formats Survivor and The Amazing Race and its new slate of entertainment shows such as Come Dance With Me. Last year, it ordered Secret Celebrity Renovation, a format reminiscent of HGTV’s Celebrity IOU, that will feature home improvement contractor and Man Cave star Jason Cameron and interior designer and star of HGTV’s Design Star Sabrina Soto as they set out to help celebrities show their appreciation with a special renovation gift to a meaningful person from their hometown. These lighter formats have always performed well on the network with shows such as Undercover Boss, from Studio Lambert, recently airing its 10th season.
Similarly, ABC, known for shiny floor shows such as Dancing with the Stars and dating behemoth The Bachelor, also moved into this space last year with Emergency Call (right).
The show, which is based on a Belgian format, is hosted by Luke Wilson and documents the first few minutes of emergencies told through the lens of America’s 911 call takers. It is produced by 8Hours Television, the production company founded by MasterChef exec producer Adeline Ramage Rooney and former Zodiak Media US boss Jonny Slow.
The first five episodes launched in September and the remaining five episodes are expected to air later this year. Rob Mills, EVP, Unscripted and Alternative Entertainment, Walt Disney Television, told Deadline, “It was an interesting and different format and it was really fun to try it. It was fun to do something that felt a little bit different and outside the box.”