Natural Wonders: Q&A With Nature Series Producer Bill Murphy

March 28th, 2012

Every year on April 22, people across the world celebrate Earth Day. On Nature, the award-winning series produced by THIRTEEN and now in its 30th season, every day is Earth Day.  Each week, the series brings the beauty and endless wonders of our planet to viewers, capturing the world’s ecosystems and their varied inhabitants in intimate detail.

Series Producer Bill Murphy spoke with THIRTEEN about the dedication and detail that go into the creation of television’s premier natural history series.

This interview was originally conducted and condensed for the April 2012 THIRTEEN Program Guide.

Nature is one of the most-watched primetime series on public television. Why does the series continue to attract so many viewers and filmmakers?

Bill Murphy: I think it’s because we’re committed to finding the most interesting stories in our genre, spending the appropriate time researching and developing films before we go into production, and working with the best filmmakers in the natural history business. And, of course, we couldn’t do it without the loyal support of THIRTEEN and its viewers.

Filmmakers are always telling me how much they love working with THIRTEEN and the Nature team because we know what we’re doing and they trust our guidance and support. I like to think that’s true, but I also know the best filmmakers in this business are very attracted to the fact that we can tell out our stories without commercial interruption. That’s a real luxury in today’s media landscape.

How do you find story ideas, and what qualities do you look for when considering submissions?

BM: There are many paths to finding story ideas that work for Nature.  Ideas are pitched to us by both domestic and international independent producers, as well as major broadcast commissioners like the BBC and National Geographic.  Some of the things we think about when evaluating proposals are: Is this story a right fit for Nature?  How strong is the story and will it hold our audience’s attention?  Does the producer have the talent, access, and experience to make the film in question?  Although Nature is known for its story-driven classic blue chip natural history films and stunning cinematography work, such as Ocean Giants — which is scheduled for rebroadcast three consecutive Wednesdays beginning March 28 — we also feel it’s important to address some of the key topical conservation issue-oriented stories as we did in Salmon: Running the Gauntlet, which looks at the collapsing Pacific salmon populations and the ongoing debate on how to save this endangered species.

We’re also attracted to stories that require “special access” and give our viewers an inside look at an environmental situation that may otherwise be off-limits. One of Nature’s filmmaking teams took great risks to produce Braving Iraq, the story of one man’s extraordinary efforts to restore both animals and people in the Mesopotamian Marshes in Iraq destroyed by Saddam Hussein in the early 1990’s.  And Radioactive Wolves examines the health of wildlife populations in Chernobyl’s exclusion zone, the area around the reactor that remains too dangerously radioactive for human habitation 25 years after the meltdown of the nuclear power plant.  You can catch a special encore presentation of this film Wednesday, April 25.

Watch a preview of Ocean Giants:

You work closely with wildlife filmmakers who have a wide range of experience and narrative styles. What does your work with them involve, and what do you find most rewarding about these collaborations?

BM: I have a great job!  I get to work closely with some of the most passionate and dedicated people in the filmmaking business who, in spite of long grueling days working in some of the most inhospitable environments, all seem to really love what they do for a living and are genuinely grateful that we’re providing them with the opportunity to make films for Nature’s loyal audience. Every film requires a different level of attention, but in general my job involves working with my colleagues on the development of stories and shaping our films editorially, both in the field and during post production.  I’m also responsible for pitching story ideas to potential international co-production partners in order to raise funds to help us finance our big projects, and I act as the point person on the Nature team for producers and co-production partners on all production-related questions and concerns. I also negotiate all the production and co-production deals.

Do you have a favorite personal memory from your 15 years of working on Nature?

BM: One of my favorite memories was spending time in Alaska during the Winter of 1999  filming  one of my favorite Nature programs, Sled Dogs: An Alaskan Epic. It was an extremely cold winter with evening temperatures averaging 50 degrees below zero as we followed several sled dog teams participating in the Iditarod race from Anchorage to Nome.  Nature was still shooting on super 16mm film at that time and it was so cold the film was snapping in half as we tried to load it into the cameras.   Our production team slept mostly in tents and, when lucky, cabins as we traveled across the beautiful state of Alaska using planes, helicopters and snow mobiles. The film crew was fantastic and somehow found a way to persevere all of the weather and logistical challenges and still make a beautiful film.

Is there a program you’re particularly excited about in the 30th anniversary season or beyond?

BM: One of my favorite programs that premiered during Nature’s 30th season is My Life as a Turkey, the true story of writer, naturalist, and “turkey mom” Joe Hutto.  If you haven’t seen it, I recommend streaming it from Thirteen.org.  It’s must-see TV.  I’m also very excited about our pipeline of films in production for our 31st season,  so stay tuned!

Watch the full episode of My Life as a Turkey: