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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, April 11, 2010

When animals attack, someone's ready to put it on TV

By Neal Justin
McClatchy-Tribune News Service

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

A wood ant prepares to eject formic acid at an intruder in the Discovery Channel's 11-part series "Life."

KIM TAYLOR | Discovery

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Imagine a prime-time drama in which a detective pounces on a suspect, tears his skin off with his teeth, then proceeds to have unclothed, unbridled sex with his partner. It would never happen — unless the cops were a couple of lions.

The nature documentary, once considered a cuddly alternative to a trip to the zoo, has become the most graphic and gratuitous genre in entertainment. A colleague of mine, who shall remain nameless, drools so much over footage of animal attacks on YouTube that I'm thinking about turning him in to PETA.

He's not alone. Cable executives are so convinced that there's a wide audience for "nature lovers," they've just launched National Geographic Wild, a network that captures grizzlies stalking elk calves, crocodiles slithering into the lions' den and sharks searching for a mid-afternoon snack.

Even PBS' venerable "Nature" series is getting into the act. In the appropriately titled episode "Moment of Impact," we get a blow-by-blow analysis of how a lion brings down a wildebeest.

Discovery Channel's "Life," the 11-part series that debuted March 21, could have just as easily been called "Death," as it spotlights everything from a Komodo dragon poisoning a water buffalo to a Venus flytrap luring in its prey.

Animal Planet has seen its audience grow ever since it rebranded itself two years ago and began developing shows like "Fatal Attractions" and "River Monsters," in which human beings interact with deadly beasts.

"We think the audience is ready for the new, gutsy compelling stories that we're telling now, stories that happen on those margins where the lives of humans and animals intersect," said Marjorie Kaplan, president of Animal Planet Media. "It's the place where we humans get to remember and get to re-experience that primal flicker in ourselves that we do not want to see extinguished."

New high-definition cameras that can do everything from shooting 3,000 frames a second to slipping into tiny burrows have made it easier for filmmakers to capture their subjects in more intimate, and ferocious, ways.

"It really has to do with the extraordinary technology that is available to filmmakers," said Janet Hess, research editor for "Nature." "We're now able to catch a bat in the middle of the night catching an insect with his feet. These are things you've never seen before."

Hess would certainly take umbrage if I called "Moment of Impact" "animal porn."

"The point is not just to see a gory scene," she said. "The point is to understand what's going on. Once we do, we move on."

Geoff Daniels, senior vice president of development and production for the National Geographic channels, also makes a great character witness for the defense.

"I think there is an aspect of the daily drama of survival in the natural world, but it's not something we intend to bang on ruthlessly," he said.

"We're not going to exploit that narrow form of programming. We want to inform, we want to entertain and we want to make great television, but there's got to be a point to it as well."

Valid points, but I can't help but think Daniels and Hess sound like the guys who claim they only pick up Playboy for the articles.