Wall Street Journal


National Geographic’s Live TV Spectacle

Capitalizing on the live-programming trend, National Geographic bets on ‘Earth Live,’ featuring wildlife in action

By John Jurgensen
July 5, 2017 1:03 p.m. ET

Bats, bull sharks, lions and langurs are getting roped into the quest to create live television events.

While other TV networks have used live musicals and sports events to try to harness mass audiences, the National Geographic channel is luring viewers with a two-hour special starring animals around the world filmed in real time. “Earth Live,” airing Sunday night, will cut among camera feeds from wildlife cinematographers in 16 countries across 12 time zones.

Unlike typical wildlife programs where crews spend months in the field capturing animal highlights, “Earth Live” will rely on raw footage of creatures in the moment. Producers zeroed in on shooting locations and a date with a full moon to maximize their chances for drama. If weather, technology and the wildlife itself cooperate, viewers will see lion prides in Kenya hunting by moonlight during a wildebeest migration, and macaque monkeys in Thailand smashing mussels on the beach for their breakfast.

The animals “are our superstars, but like any talent you hope they perform on the day you need them to,” says Tim Pastore, National Geographic’s president of original programming and production.


To combat overcrowded TV schedules, audience indifference and the ratings- deflating force of DVRs, TV networks continue to invest in live programming. NBC, which kicked things off in 2013 with “The Sound of Music Live,” scheduled “Jesus Christ Superstar” for next Easter (though it postponed a production of “Bye Bye Birdie” ). Fox will stage live versions of “Rent” and “A Christmas Story” next season. ABC is planning an adaptation of Disney ’s “The Little Mermaid.”


National Geographic channel has dabbled in its own version of such stunts, airing live footage of a brain surgery and astronauts on the International Space Station. “Earth Live,” however, is a bigger bet in terms of budget and logistical challenges. It brings a commensurate risk of giving viewers a lackluster day in the (wild) life of the planet, or the cringe-worthy experience of watching a high- wire act gone wrong.

After years of reality shows about survivalists and other rugged characters, the channel has been launching more ambitious shows to steer its programming back into sync with National Geographic’s 129-year-old brand. They include the channel’s first fully scripted series, “Genius” (about the life of Albert Einstein), and “Mars,” a documentary-drama hybrid.

The channel is part of a joint venture between the National Geographic Society and 21st Century Fox . 21st Century Fox and News Corp , parent company of The Wall Street Journal, share common ownership.


An ‘Earth Live’ camera test team films wildlife in color under the starry night sky in Sabi Sand, South Africa. PHOTO: NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC/JAMES HENDRY

As the director of many live awards shows, including Oscars, Emmys and Tonys broadcasts, “Earth Live” director Glenn Weiss is more accustomed to corralling footage of celebrities than animals. He’ll orchestrate feeds coming in from the field to a studio in midtown Manhattan. There, naturalist Chris Packham will provide on-camera commentary, along with hosts Phil Keoghan and Jane Lynch, who says her role as host is to “stand there in amazement and say ‘Wow!’”

National Geographic has deployed wildlife cinematographers who specialize in the species and locations they’ll be shooting. They include Sophie Darlington, tracking lions in the Maasai Mara game reserve in Kenya; Bob Poole, looking out for hyenas that come into Ethiopian villages for food by night; and Andy Casagrande, sending underwater images of bull sharks on the prowl in Fiji. Producers in New York will keep an eye on social media so if any specific animals emerge as stars, they can respond with more footage.


New technology, including a camera with capability of capturing images in color of animals under moonlight, made it more feasible to tape animal nightlife. “Earth Live” locations include a cave near San Antonio, where millions of


Mexican free-tailed bats should emerge at dusk, and in Finland, near the Arctic Circle, where there’s some sunlight in the sky at 3 a.m. when wolverines are expected to be on the move.

Plans for the special started two years ago when executive producer Al Berman pitched the concept to National Geographic. That began the process of narrowing down more than 100 potential shooting locations, and dates with a full moon that would bring heightened tides and animal activity. “We looked right across the calendar, in both Northern and Southern hemispheres. If you want to choose one night to look at animals, this is the night,” says executive producer Andrew Jackson.

In the run-up to July 9, researchers and camera crews have been keeping tabs on members of the wildlife cast to make sure they’re behaving as expected and in their places for several weekend rehearsals before the big show.


Write to John Jurgensen at john.jurgensen@wsj.com

Appeared in the July 6, 2017, print edition as 'national Geographic’s live tv spectacle WILDLIFE.'

Copyright ©2017 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved