Los Angeles — Twenty years ago, PBS' "Nature" enticed viewers with a film tracking a day in the life of a fig tree yes, a fig tree and the animals and insects dependent on it.
That was when broadcast television largely ignored the natural sciences and before channels like Discovery, Animal Planet and National Geographic roamed the cable world.
"Nature" now has to compete for audiences who have other choices and who have become jaded about exotic wonders, said Fred Kaufman, the series' executive producer.
To meet the challenge, "Nature" has evolved.
It has updated its perspective, added Hollywood glamour and even incorporated the kind of thrills that would make a reality series proud.
"We're doing a film on bloodsuckers, animals that live off blood, everything from leeches to mosquitoes to vampire bats," said Kaufman. "Twenty years ago, that would have been enough."
To up the ante, the film's producer, Mark Ferns, allowed himself to be nibbled by his subjects. He's fine, Kaufman says, and the film will be the livelier for it when it airs next season.
"Nature" also has sought new viewers by adding celebrities to the scenery, with Robin Williams, Goldie Hawn, Richard Dreyfuss and Julia Roberts (twice) among those going on safari for PBS.
Wanting to entertain, too
The series wraps its anniversary season today with "The Polar Bears of Churchill with Ewan McGregor." The film features the "Star Wars" actor on a search for the world's largest land carnivore in northern Canada.
McGregor "is so much fun, so excited about it. You have to find the right personality, who really goes into it enthusiastically and gives of themselves on camera," Kaufman said.
Did Kaufman, who started with "Nature" as a production assistant when it debuted in 1982, have any concerns about making the program appear less serious by including actors?
"In some ways I wanted to do that," Kaufman replied. "I just don't want to be thought of as a public television series that's heavily scientific and void of any entertainment. I wanted to experiment with loosening up a bit."
That doesn't mean abandoning the show's standards, he added. "There's just as much science and content. Just the window dressing's different."
Famous names haven't necessarily translated into higher ratings, but Kaufman says it's just part of the effort to find new ways to tell stories and to highlight animal-human interaction more vividly and candidly.
Gaining an audience
When "Nature" began in 1982, the brainchild of George Page, then director of science and natural history at Thirteen/WNET in New York, the series tended to cut civilization out of the picture.
"You could watch a whole season of nature and count on one hand the number of people in it. ... The cameraman would specifically frame out telephone poles and telephone lines to give an untouched look to the wild," Kaufman recalled.
The first film was the acclaimed BBC miniseries "The Flight of the Condor." Most of the early programs were from England, which Kaufman said had a rich tradition of natural history filmmaking.
Today, the majority of "Nature" films are produced or co-produced by WNET. They offer a more realistic view of the impact of human development on animals and their environment, Kaufman said.
"Inherent in most of the films we do is that the greatest threat to these animals is man, usually in taking over their habitat and creating problems," he said. "Whether we're talking about African elephants or grizzly bears in Montana, it's the same old story of trying to strike a balance."
The work done by "Nature" and other science shows has made an impact, Kaufman contends. The Emmy-winning series is among PBS' highest-rated shows.
"I think in general the audience today is 'greener' than it's ever been" and more willing to consider the needs of animals, he said.
Besides, he adds, "human-animal relations can make for very good television just the way, we treat our pets, for instance."