Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom - 50 Years of Adventure in the Livingroom

And in walked humanity.

Fifty years ago, on January 6th, 1963, a ground-breaking nature show premiered on NBC Sunday primetime. America would soon discover there was nothing quite as endearing as sitting down and enjoying an episode of Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom.

Between Marlin Perkins and Jim Fowler presenting the grand tour of Africa and beyond, and the life-time subscription to National Geographic my grandfather willed me, I could think of no better life than to travel the world and write the stories I might come across. I was inspired to learn photography and videography, and to hone my skills as a writer. Of course, practicality changed some of the purposes to which I would apply those skills, but I still travelled the globe and scripted my exploits thanks largely to their inspirations.

The shows concept was revolutionary in its undertaking, and would become a trailblazer for nature-related education production. A humanized plot was introduced to give personality to the animals, presented by a grandfatherly gentleman in the studio, and the accessible 'bwana' in the field. As the audience was guided by Perkins and Fowler, the animals became so familiar the audience couldn't help but feel a connection. Viewers were emotionally drawn, compelled perhaps, to stand witness the very real side of the animal kingdom. Primetime conservation awareness was born, and we haven't looked away since.

These furry characters that came into our homes each week were our brothers and sisters in the chain of life. In order to achieve this connection with the audience, Perkins and Fowler built each story with great tempo. Do the lion cubs survive the dry season? Does the young gazelle live long enough to gain the strength to outrun the stalking cheetah? We needed to stay tuned in order to find out. And you can bet your back-country bippy we did, each and every week without fail.

There exists a cultural misnomer that Perkins sat safely in the studio while Fowler entangled himself in the most dangerous of man vs. beast struggles. These came not from the show, but from monologue bits delivered by Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show. With a screen shot over his shoulder of Jim wrestling a giant anaconda, Johnny would mimic Marlin. "And now, a while Jim does something dangerous, a word about how our insurance might protect your family in such an event. Mutual of Omaha."

These days, you can catch the old shows on YouTube, thanks to the official Wild Kingdom TV channel. The clip I'm streaming below is the 'Memorable Moments' episode from 1985, Marlin Perkins' last season with the series. He would pass away the next year from cancer. You can find his NY Times obituary linked here.

In 2002, the series experienced a resurgence, as Animal Planet began showing sporadic, but newly produced, specials under the perpetual sponsorship of Mutual of Omaha. The specials grew in
popularity until 2005, when it once again hit the air on a weekly basis in its old NBC timeslot, Sunday night. Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom lived again.

Since that wonderful Sunday night 50 years ago, several worthy programs have entered our living rooms, with personalities as diverse as the Kratt brothers, Jeff Corwin, and the late Steve Irwin, not to mention the small-screen programming of the National Geographic Channel, Animal Planet, and the myriad more of cable offerings.

If you will indulge yourself, gentle reader, take a moment and enjoy a few of those first re-connections to nature, brought to you by Wild Kingdom, and keep them in mind when watching today's updated versions. In a sense, Wild Kingdom is the Honeymooners of nature programs. The formula never seems to grow old.

It's time to give credit where credit is due - Thank you Marlin and Jim, and thank you Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom.

Here's to fifty more years of reminding us of our place on this earth.