Out of Africa, Live Coverage of Nature in Wild


Live TV--usually the most abused and overused technology of modern broadcasting--will reach an exciting new dimension in September when cameras in Kenya beam back instant pictures to the United States.

Not of drug busts. Not of Nazi secret treasure buried in a rain forest. Not of heads of state meeting for photo opportunities. Not of a disaster. Not of titillation.

But of nature.

Yes, yes. Your eyes are glazing over. Your body is getting numb. You’re envisioning live pictures of coffee trees, of underbrush, of grass, of ants, of birds warbling, of everything you’ve never cared about.


That’s because you don’t know what the BBC and cable’s Discovery Channel are planning.


A panorama of wildlife. At last, live TV not as a gimmick, but as an honest expression of unpredictable reality. Some of it horrifying, some of it exhilarating.

“There will be thousands and thousands of wildebeests carpeting the area,” Robin Hellier, a producer in the BBC’s natural history unit, said from London about the fabled migration of these African antelopes. “They have to come across the river, and in crossing, quite a lot of them perish. They drown or quite a lot of them get taken by crocodile, and you see the bodies floating down the river, and you get scavengers coming in to mop up the carcasses. And on the field, the wildebeests are grazing. You have prides of lions following the migration, plus you have cheetahs, wild dogs, elephants, waterbirds.”

And, refreshingly, none of them mugging for the camera.

Three live, half-hour programs, plus a taped hour review, will air the weekend of Sept. 22-24, concluding a month in which Discovery will focus largely on programs relating to Africa.

Although designed in part to raise Discovery’s profile, the lengthy African programming bloc is also an impressive commitment to preservation. It will begin with “Ivory Wars,” a Discovery-produced documentary about the decimation of Africa’s elephant population through poaching. Ben Kingsley will narrate.

“I’ve been wanting to make this film for about three years,” said Tim Cowling, senior vice president in charge of production for Discovery, whose emphasis on documentaries--most of which are unavailable elsewhere in the United States--makes it one of TV’s valued resources.

That value is now increasing.

“We’re taking a stand as a network, saying it is wrong that elephants are killed for man’s ego, for trinkets, for ornamentation,” Cowling said. “We’re talking about the ivory trade, roving bands of poachers with automatic weapons mowing down elephants. They’re destroying a species.”


“Ivory Wars” will be the first hour-length documentary produced by the Discovery Channel. It’s the live programs, though, that will make the splashiest history.

The BBC’s nature unit turns out a whopping 80 documentaries a year. After pioneering live nature telecasts for a decade in England, however, the BBC began searching for a production partner to help defray the cost of grander projects. The first of these, airing on Discovery, was a live program using underwater cameras to show life beneath the Red Sea.

The live African telecasts are far more ambitious.

Plan One was to set up at a water hole. Too risky. “We couldn’t guarantee anything would happen there,” Hellier said. The migration of wildebeests--whose massive herds help sustain so many predators--seemed a surer bet.

The BBC selected as a site the Musiara area in the Masai Mara game reserve near Lake Victoria in Southwest Kenya. Mobility is essential. Seven cameras will be deployed, two on a ridge and the rest in fast-moving mobile units. There will be two anchors, one on the ridge and the other--a naturalist expert--in one of the mobile units.

The BBC has developed its own technology to enable live nature telecasts from these remote areas. For the Red Sea program, for example, its divers wore special helmets that transmitted live sound to go along with the live pictures.

In Kenya, a series of microwave links will send the broadcast signal to an Earth station 80 miles away. From there, the signal will be beamed to a satellite, then relayed to London and then the United States.

All in an instant.

“If all goes as well as we could possibly dream for, you will have beautiful scenes which will give you an atmospheric feel for this part of East Africa, and within that setting you should see sequences of all the major mammals there,” Hellier said.

There are worst-case scenarios, too. One, the technology will falter. Two, there will be a live telecast with nothing happening.

Hellier will prepare for the latter possibility by sending in two camera crews early to tape segments that can be slipped into the live telecast in the event of non-action.

“We assume most people like to see real action--kills,” he said. “But if you’ve got a pride of lions that have spent all this time eyeing wildebeests without making a kill, we will have a trick up our sleeve.” The trick--properly identified for viewers--will be a taped kill.

Live kills could be problems, too. Although Hellier opposes sanitizing violence in nature, he recognizes that some viewers may have difficulty coping with the realities of the wild, and that the spontaneity that makes live TV so exciting is also its weakness.

“An awful lot of the kills are fairly lengthy and unpleasant,” he said. “When you’re doing a film, you have the luxury of bringing it back and deciding how much blood and gore you show an audience. So if we do get a kill live, I’ll have to make the judgment when we should go on to something else.”

The potential is there for extraordinary television.

Using her pseudonym of Isak Dinesen, Karen Blixen writes in “Out of Africa” of feeling “infinitely small” in a land so “endlessly big.” If the BBC and Discovery are able to capture that feeling, then we should be infinitely and endlessly grateful.