Stephen McQuillan, creative director at UK indie Humble Bee Films considers what the immediate future holds for adventure programming, from moving past the pandemic to the growing interest from Hollywood talent.
Gold standard unscripted adventure programming has the ability to take viewers somewhere they’ve never been in their lifetime – or could ever expect to be – and tell an amazing story from that very location.
In the summer of 1978, I went on a family holiday to Mallorca. It was my first trip abroad and even as a five-year-old it felt like going through a portal to another universe. The sun, the smells, the different shaped cola bottles, all felt so exotic. I watched the World Cup final in the hotel bar with my dad and brother surrounded by Germans and Dutch people and it felt a mighty long way from my home town of Ballymena. As an adult, I was lucky enough to travel the globe, making TV programmes and then more recently pitching programmes in places like Brisbane, Tokyo and New Orleans – and then in March 2020 the travel stopped. It stopped for everyone, of course, and now the only way we can all see the outside world is through our screens.
Travel & adventure boom
At its best, the travel and adventure genre can take one’s breath away. In the last 12 months like many other producers, I have worked with production teams to get out into the world and make television in remote locations. But I think we can all agree it has been a slog and due to all the obvious restrictions, the end product is often compromised. However, as the pandemic hopefully moves on to a positive conclusion in the not-so-distant future, the sense of escapism that programme makers, broadcasters and viewers all want back on the small screen looks possible again.
I’ve been starting to see signs that things are really opening up again. In the US, we’ve already had invitations to pitching rounds from major natural history broadcasters and I know from plenty of indie bosses I’ve spoken to that UK prodcos are responsibly planning trips to South-East Asia, Australia and Africa. So – touch wood – the horizon looks bright.
And for those of us working in the travel and adventure programming space, there’s further reason to be buoyant. From Ben Fogle’s Channel 5 travelogue in Chernobyl (was it really commissioned because it rhymes?!) to Gordon Ramsey’s Uncharted success on National Geographic, we’ve seen that this style of content has been in high demand during 2020. So much so that I believe we are now on the cusp of something of a travel and adventure series boom.
The evolution of this genre over the last few years has been fascinating. In recent times, we’ve seen a deluge of A-List Hollywood talent hosting these shows, with the likes of National Geographic series One Strange Rock, starring Will Smith, and Limitless, which follows Rush star Chris Hemsworth on his mission to transform himself by training for six extraordinary challenges.
This A-Lister unscripted trend will undoubtedly continue as audiences yearn for more and more familiar famous faces to transport them to far away places. Increasingly, we’ll see more and more big names attaching themselves to these projects – testament to the fact that travel and adventure is no longer the genre Hollywood stars reluctantly place in their schedules. They are now working on these series because they want to.
And it won’t just be the natural history juggernauts like National Geographic leading the way. Other generalist broadcasters and SVOD services will be getting into this space too – and already we’ve seen the BBC (Race Across The World) and YouTube are starting to order some of this content. With budgets and tariffs potentially coming in much lower (under the US$1m-an-hour mark) as we come out of lockdown, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see more niche operators moving into this genre very soon.
All this will serve as a massive boost to the UK factual indie community, with many companies already looking to broaden their offering and move into this area. Indeed, we at Humble Bee will be building on our blue-chip natural history slate with more factual, history and adventure programming over the coming months, a strategy that’s been massively boosted by the recent hire of our new head of development Jayne Edwards.
One thing is almost certain, while the number of commissions will no doubt surge once we fully emerge out of lockdown, working practices will differ considerably compared to what came before. I expect UK indies working abroad will hire and choose to work with more local crews going forward, as we all look to safeguard staff and behave responsibly as the remnants of the pandemic still linger, while also looking to cut back on our carbon footprints. I for one will embrace this change but will also accept that, while it could be boom time at the end of 2021, careful planning and consideration for our natural environment will be at the forefront of everything we do.