Peabody Award Winners: Partisan Pictures, Thirteen/WNET New York, ‘NATURE: Silence of the Bees’

Jun 15, 2008  •  Post A Comment

The 26-year-old PBS series “Nature” won its first Peabody Award two decades ago for a program on the drying up of an African watering hole. But it hasn’t been resting on its laurels since: It won its second two years ago, and its third this season, for “Silence of the Bees,” proving that even in an era when there is more nature documentary competition than ever, the program can still compete.
“Silence of the Bees,” produced by Partisan Pictures and New York’s WNET-TV, where “Nature” originates, took on the global die-off of honeybees that is threatening the world food supply. It looks at the bees’ crucial role in the food chain and the various theories for what’s happening.
The Peabody judges singled it out as the “first in-depth investigation” into the unexplained phenomenon; the New York Times called it “emotionally exhausting.”
Fred Kaufman, the program’s executive producer, said he had seen news reports on the disappearing bees, a phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder, but, as with all series, “I need to be convinced there’s an hour’s worth of story to do. Beyond the disappearing bees, what else do you do?”
As he dug further with Partisan’s Doug Shultz, the episode’s writer-producer, Mr. Kaufman said he found “a lot of elements of this that were really rich.”
For one, he said, “I didn’t have any idea about just how much food bees are responsible for getting on the table of Americans,” pollinating about one-third of the crop species in the U.S. “It’s a $15 billion industry,” he said, as commercial beekeepers transport their hives from state to state to meet demand.
“I just didn’t realize the scope of the role they play,” he said.
Once they saw the potential of the story, there was the question of how to handle a story that was rapidly evolving. “This was new terrain for us,” he said. “We wanted to document this, but we didn’t think the story would tie itself up by the time we put it on the air.”
The five-month turnaround—with shooting in five countries, no less—was a departure as well; many “Nature” episodes can take a year to do as the producers wait for, say, baby animals to be born. “Animal behavior isn’t something you can rush,” Mr. Kaufman noted.
But the producers pushed to get the honeybee story on the air quickly, he said: “The minute you feel you have a great story, you feel everybody else knows it, too and think everybody else will jump on it.”
Going forward, “Nature,” which has an episode on endangered species in the works, also from Partisan Pictures, plans to put more environmental stories into its mix, Mr. Kaufman said.
But he has no plans to follow the current trend among some rivals for “extreme nature and danger and flashing teeth and paws.”
“I still think what we do is different from most,” he said, calling the program’s approach “an informative and intelligent look at our world.”

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