What's Real And What's Not Behind Reality TV's Nature Shows?

Wildlife filmmaker Chris Palmer recently wrote a book that looked at his career and which, to the consternation of some other filmmakers, revealed some of the tricks of the trade. Courtesy photo.

I have my doubts about “reality TV.” So seldom do any of my outback adventures become quite as harrowing as those carried out by survivalist stars on The Discovery Channel

It’s the same way for all of my hiking buddies who similarly are well-traveled. We must be doing something wrong, we reckon, because not once have any of us had to drink our own urine in the backcountry or slay a cobra (or rattlesnake) and eat its flesh to survive.

Nor have I ever been charged by a carnivore despite doing a lot of hiking, unarmed, in bear country.

You might have heard about the recent dust-up in Alaska over the killing of a black bear by producers of another Discovery Channel concoction, Gold Rush: Alaska.

Upon review, it appeared the bruin was killed for no good reason such as self-defense. Instead it died to feed viewers’ fantasies that Alaska is filled with all kinds of imminent mortal dangers.

Which leads to the purpose of this column.

In 2010, renowned wildlife filmmaker Chris Palmer wrote a book and planted the seeds for a revolution, the effects of which might not be obvious to all of us who are citizens of TV nation.

Mr. Palmer is no stranger to the West. The professor of environmental studies at American University in Washington D.C. (and who has a graduate degree from Harvard and moonlights as a stand-up comedian), he makes numerous trips to national parks and other public lands on account of his former main occupation.

Mr. Palmer made nature documentaries about wildlife. Over the course of many years, he not only won global cinematic acclaim and reached audiences of millions, he enlisted conservationists like Robert Redford and Paul Newman to serve as narrators.

He collaborated with Ted Turner, while working with both the National Audubon Society and National Wildlife Federation, to get his films and a series by Jacques-Yves Cousteau aired.

He is a fierce proponent of environmental education and he, along with many of his prominent cinematographer friends, understand the power of raising eco-awareness.

That’s one of the reasons why the international Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival in Wyoming and the International Wildlife Film Festival in Missoula, Montana got started, he says.

But from Marlin Perkins, host of the old Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, to Bear Grylls, star of The Discovery Channel’s Man vs. Wild reality TV show, there’s been a hidden secret: It involves staged scenes and exploitation of captive animals to create an illusion, often duping an unsuspecting public.

Mr. Palmer’s book, Shooting In The Wild: An Insider’s Account of Making Movies In The Animal Kingdom, is the most important ever written about nature documentaries.

While the fascinating tome is fueling a campaign to mandate full disclosure in how films are made, there have been guilty parties striking back in anger now that Mr. Palmer has blown their cover.

When I spoke with Mr. Palmer not long ago for an interview with Wildlife Art Journal, he explained, “A few people are angry at me for giving away the trade secrets. One critic who makes part of his living by renting out wild animals to filmmakers, called me a parasitic bottom feeder.”

He added: “But most people are delighted by the book and are relieved that at last someone who knows what they’re talking about is bringing these topics out for airing.”

Filmmakers, Mr. Palmer says sympathetically, are under enormous pressure to get “the money shots” that propel projects forward, and he admits to having rented game farm animals to help convey animal behavior that couldn’t be captured easily in the wild.

“I began to think about the foundational ethical issue, ‘Do the ends justify the means?'” he says. “For the first 10 to 15 years of my life as a film producer, the answer was 'yes.' After that, I began to question whether harassing an animal to get a shot was justified by the conservation benefits of the film being made.”

Mr. Palmer is joined today by famed Jackson Hole wildlife photographer Tom Mangelsen and Cristina Mittermeier, leader of the International League of Conservation Photographers, in bringing scrutiny to game farms.

While it serves no purpose to cast aspersions at filmmakers in hindsight, Mr. Palmer offers plenty of contemporary examples likely to resonate with the B.S. meters of backcountry enthusiasts, including die-hard outdoorspeople here who recreate in national parks.

One of Mr. Palmer’s targets is the late Timothy Treadwell, whom he said engaged in idiotic behavior with brown bears in Katmai National Park and Preserve in Alaska and paid the price by losing his life.

Another is Mr. Grylls, the former British special forces chap who teaches viewers survival skills on Man vs. Wild and, allegedly, drinks his own urine and catches, and eats, deadly snakes.

Mr. Palmer looks upon Mr. Grylls, who smudges his face and starched laundered cloths with mud, with incredulity—particularly after it was revealed that Mr. Grylls and crew, off camera, had stayed in hotels though they claimed to be operating off the grid of civilization.

“He [Grylls] provides a good example of how not to behave in the wild,” Mr. Palmer says. “He wantonly kills animals to push up the ratings, and he takes unnecessary risks. I wonder how many people have been hurt by following his example?”

If the noble objective is to educate, inspire and entertain the masses about wildlife and its struggles to survive in the modern world, then truth, Mr. Palmer says, should not be a casualty, nor, for that matter, ethics and morals.

“Lots of great conscientious people work in this industry,” he says. “We can do better. I know we can.”

Comments

I’ve never seen any of these shows (don’t get reception where I live) but I had some boys out on a hike once who were nuts for Survivor. They spent an inordinate amount of time figuring out how to trap and eat the ground squirrels. One of them finally informed me that if he had a jar of peanut butter, he would leave it open, and when the squirrels came for it, he would bash them with a rock.

“If you have a jar of peanut butter,” I commented, “Why would you eat the squirrels?”

“Oh, yeah,” he responded. Back to the drawing board!

No mention of "Survivor Man"!?

Well I guess if you are one of the people who have actually been lost in the woods and had seen a show like this it may actually have some value.

Besides I think criticizing Bear Grylls for his wardrobe while you are pictured in a 70+ dollar Yellow Polo shirt and jeans is a bit of the pot calling the kettle black... Though I do agree on the antics he performs are a bit on the sketchy side and could definitely cause people to imitate him.

Matt: Great thoughts. Indeed, it might be calling the kettle black if, in wearing his polo shirt, Palmer was pretending to be hosting a reality TV show, after he pretended that his plane crashed and he was marooned in the Amazon, but the photo was taken of him as he, being a college professor, was on his way to deliver a lecture. As for any of us getting lost in the woods, the manuals that have been published by the Boy Scouts of America for years and sold cheaply at most Army Navy stores, provide more portable valuable hand's on information as any offered by Grylls, and with far less melodrama and commercial interruption.

I remember seeing some documentary on the City of Anchorage's bear hazing team. They were shown dramatically throwing unsecured trash cans at some black bears to get them to take off. I wonder if they perhaps laid in wait with a situation they knew was going to produce a bear incident.

Being a backcountry enthusiast, my b.s. meter went off the first time I saw Bear Grylls defying "certain" death on his show.

I'd love to see one of the fake "reality" show stars actually facing a serious wilderness survival situation. With no crew, no script, no planted "incidents." The trouble with tv is, it's so hard to know the truth when you're sitting in your living room, warm and dry and surrounded by civilization. Camera angles seem designed to fool the eye, along with the dramatic music and voiceovers.

I do recall the story of a lost kid (Boy Scout, maybe?) within the past year or so who survived alone and lost in the mountains overnight by thinking about what Bear Grylls (or one of those guys, not really sure which) would do. One point in the guy's favor, I suppose. Overall, though, I'm not a fan. There's no such thing as "reality" tv!

The book looks interesting. I want to read it now. Thanks for writing about it.

Unlike Tom, I have no doubts, I gave up on The Discovery Channel long ago.
Folks really thought it was all real reality? LMAO!
Time for me to jack off line and go for a wander awhile...

Those like Grylls make me sick. They 'capture' snakes then eat the poor innocent things. The tv show is not life or death and a poor animal has to die.....not right. I saw the Gold Rush episode where they killed the bear. Uncalled for especially since it was their fault a bear was in their camp (food left out) and it was not the same bear that took the cookies/crackers anyway. Just seeing shows that take animals (even those already dead) and destroy their bodies bothers me as the animal was ultimately killed not for food, but for entertainment. Or the cooking shows where they kill the animal on the show for a judge to eat. Still not right.

I assumed that more people knew that shows like PBS's Nature, and Wild Kingdom were fake.

Those very same deceptive practices, in some cases much more harmful, are widespread by those that get cover by environmental symbolism. Examples anyone? Just pick any feel good argument and most likely you'll find some disturbing real motivations.

Teddy Roosevelt would turn over in his grave.

I'm still a fan of Steve Irwin and think that his shows were the best. The purpose of his shows were to educate, not to kill creatures for entertainment. The wildlife shows (especially ones with snake or gator encounters) that unnecessarily kill animals are just plain ridiculous. Yes, most (if not all) of his encounters were obviously fake, but he didn't kill the animals. At the most he captured them and relocated them away from humans.

I guess I don't see the big deal? I think most people see these shows as representing a situation that could occur. If it gets people interested in conservation( which sometimes does involving killing an animal)then the overall good has been achieved.

There must have been a time of innocence, when just seeing a moving image of wild animals "doing their thing" was exciting in it's own right. My guess is that audiences began to get bored with just watching animals be animals for a couple of hours, so in order to keep the ratings up, keep the advertising sales up, in other words, chase the holy dollar, it became "necessary" to "spice things up"....add drama....develop a story arc. There are now standard story arcs that are recycled over and over: the birth of the young animal and it's struggle to survive to adulthood; the struggle for survival for animals that live in marginal environments, from deserts to the polar ice; animals in conflict with humans over habitat incursions. The list goes on and on. You just pick an animal and put it in a story arc that hasn't been done before and you have a show. Or, do it the other way around: pick an arc and then select an animal that hasn't been covered like that before. How long has this been going on? According to this Wikipedia article, at least since Disney won a Oscar for "White Wilderness": http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_Wilderness_(film) The fakery has been known about for many years and still these shows survive and thrive. Why? I think it's because people willingly suspend disbelief just as the do when watching a magician. Plus, they want to be entertained, so there has to be dramatic tension built up and the released. There aren't enough viewers who'd watch an hour's footage of a snow leopard crouched on a rock to make such a film economically successful. And in the end, if the film maker hopes to earn a living from commercial display of their film, then economics ultimately drives the process. Here's a radical idea: just go outside and sit and watch and you'll be amazed at what you see, whether it's ants or elephants. Just watch and think about what you're seeing. We've forgotten that this is how Jane Goodall did it when she started out in the Gombe - she just sat and watched chimps all day and took notes on what she observed. You don't have to go to Africa....you can start in your own backyard, and if you try it you'll see that deeply observing nature is a lot more fun than watching television fakery.