The term “reality TV” is such a broad one. Excluding big bucks shiny floor talent shows such as The X Factor, it's often viewed as a cheap and easy way for broadcasters to make money - generating conflict and viewer numbers in equal measure. Oh, and making “celebrities” of some of the biggest non-entities to ever walk the planet.
So it was refreshing to go on a trip to South Africa for a behind-the-scenes look at a reality show to judge it first-hand. A visit to the five-star Shamwari Game Reserve in South Africa with wildlife channel Animal Planet had absolutely nothing to do with it.
Unearthed: Film School Wild, a Barron TV production series which first aired last year, selects a number of amateur wildlife film-makers from around the world to take part in an intensive film-making course with series director Andrew Barron and wildlife film-maker Lyndal Davies.
But is this series really about finding the next school of documentary film-makers or is it just about making compelling TV? “It's a bit of both,” says Philip Luff, senior vice-president and general manager at Animal Planet International, a Discovery Communications channel. “Series one was purely about the film-makers whereas this second series has more tension. While the mission is to make a series, it must also engage the viewers.”
This is a sentiment echoed by esteemed wildlife film-maker Mike Birkhead, whose credits include Moose in the Glen and the Sir David Attenborough-narrated Battle to Save the Tiger for the BBC, who is one of the judges on the show. “The fact that it is catchy TV does not mean it is not a good way of finding talent,” he says. “There were three excellent films this year.”
The format is simple. Students from around the world send in their short documentaries before the finalists go to South Africa to make another mini doc, the best of which is selected by a panel of judges who also include Wildscreen chief executive Harriet Nimmo.
However, Luff, who was not involved in the first series, says he made changes to the second to make it more informal and give it more cliff-hangers. “I hated [the series] at first and wanted to axe it,” he says. “So I told the team to prove to me it was worth keeping. We decided to cut the format down from six finalists to four to make it more intimate, so we got to know the film-makers better.”
Likewise, the worst-performing student in each round was forced to sit out the subsequent exercise, introducing that touch of cruelty that seems to be so crucial to the reality show genre. For example, a disappointing effort from Mexican Jorge Cevera Hauser meant he had to sit out diving with great white sharks.
Trying out new talent
Luff explains that the motivation behind the series was the dearth of newcomers to wildlife film-making. “Whenever you watch wildlife series you come across the same people. They are great people, but how are others supposed to get a chance? If you don't have the contacts it's very difficult. This gives talented people a step up.”
Wildlife film-making in the UK and US is one of the hardest industries to break into, says Nimmo. It is crucial, she adds, to encourage new talent in developing countries in order to discover the next Attenborough. It is in emerging markets where rapid economic development is putting particular pressures on the natural world.
“It is so urgent that we make wildlife film-making cool and aspirational, with new conservation heroes and role models other than the traditional middle-class and, dare I say, middle-aged, white people. So it is inspiring to see Mexican and Indian Unearthed finalists this year - and let's hope we'll soon see young Chinese and African wildlife film-makers.”
As it looks to broaden the talent pool, Unearthed also hopes to inspire a new audience that might not watch a more traditional blue-chip nature doc. “Naturally it is always going to be important to find new ideas for storytelling and fresh perspectives,” says Nimmo. “This is even more crucial when trying to reach young people, today's YouTube generation, and indeed the advertisers' markets.”
There's no doubt that the series is one way of finding the next generation of wildlife film-makers - but is it the best way? And what happened to the first series' candidates and eventual winner?
Contestants really do come back to “reality” at the end of the series. There is no multimillion-pound contract but the winner does get to walk away with the Sony Z1 camera he or she was given to film with. The Sony Z1 is “an excellent choice” for this type of film-making, according to producer/director John Downer. “Although it's not full broadcast quality HD, the HDV format, used correctly, can still capture stunning images that stand up well on TV,” he says.
In terms of the boost the contest gives to contestants' careers, one of last year's competitors, Karla Munguia Colmenero from Mexico, used the contacts she made on the show to get a place on the production team for a new 15 x 30-minute Animal Planet series about life on a game reserve.
Barron says this attitude is needed if the students are going to make it. “There are no guarantees: we are all freelancers and we have to do stuff off our own back,” he says. “But Karla is the paradigm and she did just that. Last year's winner, Mayur Kamath Niranjan from India, has also made further inroads by starting up his own independent production company.”
Promoting the genre
“There couldn't be a better time to give film-making a go,” adds Downer. “The new prosumer cameras and editing systems are so cheap and the quality is so good it really democratises the whole process. In theory, anyone with a good knowledge of wildlife and understanding of the film medium can make a fantastic film for very little money.”
Animal Planet is planning a third series but Nimmo says the channel should branch out and do a show on the finalists' progress over the next few years and see what becomes of them. Whether the show has a third run or leads to spin-offs, many hope the programme will give this genre the coverage it deserves. Says Birkhead: “It is a serious genre that should be treated like the rest of TV and analysed in the same way, but it isn't.”
Unearthed: Film School Wild premieres on Animal Planet on Monday 28 April at 9pm, and every night until Monday 5 May