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Producing Outdoor Sports TV Shows or Films

By James A. Swan, Ph.D
Numbers of hunters and fishermen are going up. One reason is the various outdoor sports TV channels and the numerous shows they broadcast are encouraging folks to get outside, and they are finally getting help from more mainstream TV channel programming. Shows such as NOVA, NATURE, WILD and other shows on the National Geographic Channel, MAN VS WILD, Jean-Michel Cousteau and David Attenborough are increasingly showing people who hunt and fish as good guys, even heroes.
One nature show that has recently won many awards is the BBC’s 20-part series HUMAN PLANET, narrated by actor John Hurt. Each hour-long show takes on special type of environment – deserts, mountains, rivers, grasslands, tundra, etc. Each shows native people, as well as modern cultures. The shows spend a surprising amount of time on hunting and fishing, accurately showing them as a foundation for survival. The “Rivers” HUMAN PLANET show, for example, spends considerable time showing people fishing under sometimes very dangerous conditions. Another show on grasslands follows African natives carrying primitive spears stealing meat from the kills of lions, something that has been done for thousands of years. In the “Jungles” show the natives are hunting monkeys. In another on deserts Mongolian sheep herders are flying eagles to catch fox and wolves for fur needed to keep them warm in winter. In the Arctic tundra show, the Saami or Lapps of Scandinavia herd reindeer that they will kill for meat and hides.
Programs like these help sell reality shows including DUCK DYNASTY, AMERICAN HOGGERS, SWAMP PEOPLE, and AMERICAN JUNGLE that feature hunting by modern folks.
In this paper I will focus more on what the rest of the media is doing to create a negative stereotype of hunters, but ultimately I will assert that you as outdoor writers can (to borrow a phrase from David Mamet's hit film) "Wag The Dog" and influence how others portray hunting and hunters, changing the image of the hunter from villian and criminal to that of a hero.
Television is one of the most potent educators of our times. Some people who watch nature and outdoor TV shows will be moved to take along a video camera, not just for their own enjoyment but with the thought that they might create their own show. The TV of tomorrow is being born today. Be patient if you decide that you want to produce your own show. The crews in the field and in the studio that are used on these big shows have years of experience as well as truckloads of expensive equipment. Nonetheless, if this appeals to you, by all means give it a try. Here are some resources that you may find helpful.
One of the best online places to find books, videos, etc. on making movies and TV is Michael Wiese’s website. His book The Independent Film and Video Maker’s Guide is a classic.
A highly-recommended book about making wildlife films is http://www.amazon.com/Shooting-Wild-Insiders-Account-Kingdom/dp/1578051487 by Chris Palmer, whose films have appeared on the Disney Channel, PBS, and Animal Planet.
Realize that there is a lot of competition and be willing to spend time on story and editing. A good book on the art and science of editing is In The Blink of An Eye by a real master of editing, Walter Murch. An excellent book on directing is On Directing Film by David Mamet who wrote the screenplay for the popular big screen movie about wilderness survival “The Edge.” Syd Field’s books on screenwriting are also excellent.
If you start getting some good footage that looks like it has potential for a documentary, outdoor show or a reality show, and you think you have a great idea for a new show, some tips. Y ou will need to develop a “pitch” and a short compelling “sizzler” (2-3 minutes maximum) to demonstrate what the show will be like. You may also go ahead and shoot an entire “pilot” (first show) if it’s a series.
Check out the submission procedure for the production company or network (like the Outdoor Channel) where you want to submit. Be aware that when you approach a network or a production company, do not attempt to pitch your story without first asking permission. The quickest way to get a rejection is to not ask first if people will accept unsolicited proposals. The general procedure for any pitches is to first get approval and then fill out a submission release request and then send in what you have. This protects the network or production company from lawsuits. Also, be aware that rejection is the norm. This is a very competitive field.
If you’re aiming for PBS, there are guidelines for submissions online. Realize this a highly competitive and the budgets for these shows are serious. According to the California Council for the Humanities that funds many PBS documentaries, typical budgets for an hour on PBS run from $450,000 to over a million dollars for some of the most popular shows: ten times the budgets of most outdoor shows.
How you fund your show is different for each project. For making the documentary “Endangered Species: CA Fish and Game Wardens”, we got support from organizations including the CA Waterfowl Assn., the Wild Sheep Foundation, Northern CA Federation of Flyfishers and the Sierra Club, and one grant from a foundation, but the bulk of funding came from the 40 county fish and game commissions throughout the state.
The bottom line is that nature TV shows of all kinds entertain millions, and may inspire people to get outdoors and support conservation. If these shows enable non-hunters and fishermen to see people hunting and fishing and they come to understand why people hunt and fish, some viewers may soften their views on outdoor sports, support preserving the heritage and maybe even give it a try themselves. The growing number of people who are taking up hunting and fishing as “the ideal range-free food” is truly a good sign of the value of using electronic screens to educate indoor-dwelling people about the value of nature to their health and well-being.