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Global audience for nature docs expanding, says David Attenborough

By Karen Butler
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David Attenborough's new nature program "Dynasties" is to premiere on Saturday. Photo courtesy of BBC America
David Attenborough's new nature program "Dynasties" is to premiere on Saturday. Photo courtesy of BBC America

Jan. 18 (UPI) -- Renowned naturalist David Attenborough said he has seen the interest in natural history and programs about wildlife increase exponentially in recent years.

"People's understanding and comprehension and sympathy for the wild world has grown quite enormously and phenomenally and now the audience around the world is very, very sophisticated, indeed," he told UPI in a phone interview Monday.

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The 92-year-old host of Dynasties -- an animal program debuting on BBC America Saturday -- recalled how just a few decades ago many people didn't know what anteaters or red river hogs were.

"Now, it's hard to find an animal of any interest that the viewer doesn't already know something about," he said.

Dynasties executive producer Michael Gunton -- who also worked on the TV shows Life and Planet Earth -- said having international broadcast partners has opened up the viewership for the BBC's nature docu-series.

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"Hundreds of millions of people are watching this in China, which is a whole new audience," Gunton said.

While it is difficult to quantify the effect the shows have regarding financial support of wildlife organizations or an uptick in volunteerism for conservation efforts, Gunton said he frequently hears viewers say: "I want to do something." "I never knew this." "I'm now going to change my life behavior."

"One of the nice things about social media is you do get a lot of feedback," he said.

"There's no doubt that people are impacted by this. 1. That makes them more concerned and 2. more likely to do something about it and that's a happy outcome."

'Dynasties': A family drama starring endangered animals

Dynasties took four years to complete and is comprised of five, hour-long episodes, with each installment focusing on one specific community of endangered species -- lions, chimpanzees, tigers, painted wolves and Emperor penguins.

"The films I've been making over the last 40 or 50 years have been by and large about generalizations about animals," said Attenborough, whose many television efforts include Life and Blue Planet.

Dynasties, on the other hand, follows particular animals for significant amounts of time to document their real-life, daily dramas.

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Attenborough said he and the filmmakers make a bargain with the viewers from the very start of the show.

"We won't make up stories. We won't try to make even generalizations about the species as a whole. We are going to tell you exactly what THAT lioness is going to do," he said.

The filmmaking crews went out each day unsure of precisely what the "characters" in their series would get up to.

"It could be a disaster. It could be a triumph. Worse, nothing could happen at all, in which case, we wouldn't be able to show it," Attenborough laughed.

Gunton said he chose to chronicle the lives of animals that people seem interested in watching and that the BBC could gain access to at the time.

"These are animals that are studied well enough or known well enough that our experts could advise us that there is likely to be some kind of tumult, some kind of upheaval that will generate a story," Gunton said.

The "Lions" episode, for example, starts with the harsh reality of two lionesses abandoned by their mates and given no other choice but to hunt for food while also raising their cubs.

The filmmakers spent so much time watching the pride that they were able to document the cubs growing up and learning to hunt and fight, as well as how the lions relate to each other, divide work duties, care for the sick and injured, and cope when the young males leave to start their own families.

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Attenborough said he thinks there is definite value for parents to watch the show with their children.

"They share reactions. They share information," he said. "It's also a question of reality, of seeing how the natural world works."

The series addresses pain, hunting and death -- topics not often seen in children's programming.

"By taking the approach which Dynasties does, you can't dodge these things," he said. "If there is an animal that is going to be be beaten up, he is beaten up and you show that."

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