PBS NATURE celebrates its forty-first season this year, beginning Wednesday, October 19. The Season 41 premier

e episode, RUNNING WITH THE BEEST, documents the annual migration of more than a million wildebeest from one East African nation to another and back, as well as the issues surrounding this mass movement.

PBS NATURE executive producer Fred Kaufman, who has won eight Emmy Awards in that capacity, started on the series as a producer when it began back in 1982, and has been with it ever since. He explains how he became the executive producer, what’s going on with the wildebeest, and much more in this exclusive interview, conducted over Zoom.

ASSIGNMENT X: You’ve been with NATURE for forty-one years. Did you imagine you were going to spend four decades doing it when you started?

FRED KAUFMAN: [laughs] No, of course not. I was hired initially on a three-month contract. And what I was asked to do had nothing to do with nature or wildlife. It was a much more technical job. I did not have and do not have a background in natural history. I just thought, “I’ll do this, and I’ll go to another job, and then another job, and this will just be something on my resume for the time being.

AX: When did it turn into more than a three-month job?

KAUFMAN: It all blended together. After the three months, I think I was renewed for another three months, or six months, I don’t remember. but I was hired months before the series premiered. When it premiered in October, 1982, it got this glowing half-page review from John J. O’Connor, who was then the big television critic at the NEW YORK TIMES. The ratings were terrific, and the PBS stations loved it, and so, there was a feeling of, “This is our first season, there might be a second season,” and we started preparing for a second season.

That was it. There was no moment when anybody said, “Hey, this is it, you’re on staff,” or, “Make yourself comfortable, you’re going to be here for four decades,” it just kept going. I kept getting a paycheck [laughs], and after about a year-and-a-half, I would get a promotion, and I was just rocking back and forth, and going on, but frankly, I distinctly remember the first five years, thinking, “Well, I’ll eventually get another job. I’m not going to do this very long, I don’t really like wildlife, I don’t get it, it doesn’t really appeal to me,” and so there you have it [laughs].

AX: Did NATURE start appealing to you, or are you to this day going, “But I really want to do something else”?

KAUFMAN: When I began, wildlife documentaries were very science-oriented and observational. They were classic what we call in the industry classic “blue-chip films,” complete animal behavior, no people, about the science of how these animals behaved, that sort of thing. And that really didn’t appeal to me very much, and I frankly didn’t have the patience for it, and I didn’t find it all that interesting. To some degree, I still don’t.

I was with the series for nine years. At that point, the executive producer was leaving to do his own thing, and I got promoted to executive producer. I started looking for films that had a much more emotional story. I was more attracted to films that featured people in them, and with a storyline that was much more emotionally gripping than just the science of wildlife.

Eventually, when I found those stories, that was the real turn-on for me, because that to me was now real filmmaking. You’re dealing with emotions; it’s not simply the facts. Whether you’re producing it or watching it, it’s moving, it moves you. I liked that, and I wanted to do more of that.

So, eventually, the series became my own. It took time, but I got it to the point where, okay, I know why I like these films, and we’re going to make these kinds of films, and these are the kinds of filmmakers I want to work with, because they speak to me in a way that is very rewarding, and would work for our audience. So, it’s like anybody who takes over a company, or anything of that nature. It takes a little time to make it your own, and once you do, you’re much more invested in it and excited by it.

AX: What is the difference, at least for PBS NATURE, between the executive producer and the producer? Is the producer the out-in-the-field person?

KAUFMAN: Absolutely. The producer is hiring all the staff, the camera people, sound people. They’re hands-on, boots on the ground day to day, arranging the shoots, making contact with people at various locations to get permits, reviewing all the footage that comes in on a daily basis, course-correcting the show when needed, if something’s not going right. Very long hours in tents. Everything you’re doing, the decisions you’re making on the go will impact the final film. And so, it’s a different skill from what I’ve been doing.

AX: What you’re doing as executive producer is more dealing with the network and the overall big picture?

KAUFMAN: That’s right. I’m sort of the coach of the team, and the producers are the players, and so I want to always put them in positions to succeed, I want to make sure they have what they need, I want to make sure I’m available to advise whenever necessary. If somebody has a problem, I’m always around to offer suggestions, or try to make their lives easier. When a film is ready to be screened, I’m there to offer comments and critique, I’m there to offer how we want to promote the film, I sign off on the schedule, I deal with all our donors, I deal with PBS stations, I deal with the PBS hierarchy. There’s a bit of public relations involved, it’s managing staff, nurturing people, advising, comforting, all of that.

AX: When you say the shows are now more emotional and more people-oriented, what does that mean in terms of what we’re seeing?

KAUFMAN: It’s really about people who are so passionate about what they’re doing, or what they’re involved in, and the ups and downs of what that story could offer. [In 2011], we did a film which ultimately won an Emmy, called MY LIFE AS A TURKEY. It was about this researcher in Florida, Jim Hutto, who raised these wild turkeys himself, because he wanted to study how much of their behavior is instinct they’re born with, and how much of it they get taught by their mother. If they didn’t have a turkey mother, how much would he need to teach them?

That sounds kind of kooky in a way, but it’s a tear-jerking, emotional roller-coaster, because these young turkeys, which they call poults, imprinted on him, meaning everywhere he went, they went. They thought he was their mother. He had to sleep with them, he had to wake up with them; if he walked through the forest, they were right behind him. He recognizes personalities in the poults, he realizes so many things that they do they’re born with, that it’s instinct.

In fact, when they were out walking, they came upon this [tree stump]. It wasn’t natural; it was a straight plane where the tree was felled by workers. And these poults, these young turkeys, you could see they were confused by this. This wasn’t natural to them, they didn’t understand why it had this silhouette, it wasn’t a rotted tree. And so, it’s just extraordinarily moving, what he was observing. Then by the end, they grow up, and they leave home, so to speak. And it was a very emotional experience.

So, that’s what I’m looking for. I’m looking for loss, I’m looking for, there’s a new member of the family, there’s nurturing young that you ultimately need to let go and release. It’s having a goal to do something, and accomplishing that goal in the wild, whether it’s filming or something else. It’s having a goal and not accomplishing it. Maybe you’re sick, and you need to connect with wildlife in a way that could benefit you. Maybe it’s a lifelong dream to connect with wildlife in a certain way, and now you have a chance to do it in this film we’re making, so we’re going to give you that opportunity to do something you’ve always wanted to do. It’s all these things. All of that is uplifting, and it’s emotional, and it’s feel-good. In some cases, it isn’t; it’s emotional and draining and tear-jerking, and all of that. But that’s what appeals to me.

Now, if somebody else becomes executive producer of PBS NATURE, they may not like any of that stuff, and they might just want to make traditional documentaries that really explore animal behavior and the science behind things. But I veered off into that direction. And we do a little bit of everything. It’s not as if anything is exclusive. We do a lot of animal behavior observational films, the kinds of films that win awards. But this emotional factor is what turns me on.

AX: Your season premiere for PBS NATURE this year is RUNNING WITH THE BEEST. What would you say is the emotional factor there?

KAUFMAN: The wildebeest migration in East Africa is one of the great natural history events that take place on our planet. At its peak, it could be over a million wildebeest that do this migration between Tanzania, up to Kenya, back down to Tanzania.

The quick description is, they’re following the rains that allow for grass to grow, and they’re feeding on the grass along the way. And along the way, they’re giving birth to baby wildebeest. And they have lions, who are feeding on some of these.

So, these wildebeest are a keystone species. They support everything you’re seeing there. [The migration] is a very famous event – everybody filmed it at one point or another. And it’s now under threat in ways like never before. The changing climate – the wildebeest are expecting rains to come that may not come, and therefore, they could show up in places where there’s nothing to eat, or the rains may be focused in one particular area, and the wildebeest don’t bother migrating or moving, because they have everything there they want. There are tourist vehicles now interrupting the movement of the wildebeest.

The classic scene in this great wildebeest migration that takes place over many, many months is the wildebeest crossing the Mara River in Kenya. Again, this is a very well-known visual [shown in many documentaries and commercials]. They gather by the thousands on the banks of the Mara River, they’re waiting, we don’t know for what. And in the river, you have a number of crocodiles. And at some point, one of these wildebeest, whether voluntarily or perhaps pushed by the mass movement of them, dives into the river, and starts crossing the river to get to the other side. They all follow, it’s complete mayhem. You have crocodiles coming in and taking some of them. Others are slipping and falling off the embankment.

What’s made it more complicated now are the tourist vehicles that have cut off the additional crossing routes, and these wildebeest are ending up crossing the river in very unsafe conditions. The banks of the crossing, the banks of the river, are so high up that the wildebeest are ultimately falling down before they actually get in the water, and either breaking a leg, or just killing themselves completely.

The whole story of what’s going on, all these factors that are interfering with the wildebeest migration, are told by two Masai guides, Derrick Nabaala and Evalyn Sintoya. The Masai are the traditional people who live in Tanzania and Kenya. They are passionate about this, because this is their life. This is what they’ve seen. This is what their parents have seen, and have told them about. So, the story is told to us by two people who live there, grew up there, they’re now guides who inform other people about what’s going on. They’re passionate about the environment, they’re passionate about what’s going on, and it comes through in how they talk to us. And you feel for them, and you feel for this great event, and all the different factors that are conspiring against it, and what happens to all the other animals if the wildebeest aren’t there.

Like I said, the wildebeest are a huge factor in this ecosystem. So, it’s heartbreaking at times to hear them talk. Evalyn says, “Who’s going to be their voice?” when she’s talking about the wildebeest. “Who’s going to speak for them?” Which I thought was interesting, because our tagline is, “A voice for the natural world.”

You need people, committed and passionate, to stand up for wild animals and wild places, while everybody else might be focused on something else, or while money is a deciding factor of how things operate, and what gets done. You need people to put their foot down, and shout as loud as they can, “What’s going on, we need your attention, we need to make a difference, we need your help!” And that’s all moving.

AX: Does the documentary get into any efforts to reroute the tourist vehicles, so they’re not getting in the way of the wildebeest?

KAUFMAN: Much of that land that the wildebeest need to migrate has been fenced off by Africans to grow their crops, et cetera. So, that’s impacting them as well. One good sign is, the government is creating these conservancies, where they will pay you to cut down your fence, allow these wildebeest and other animals the freedom of movement, and they will make up in money what you might be losing in terms of the agriculture and their land usage. So, good efforts are underway to try to bring things back to where there’s more land for the wildlife, while people living off the land and benefitting from the land are not suffering [either].

AX: Can you tease what else is coming up this season on PBS NATURE?

KAUFMAN: Yes. WOODPECKERS: THE HOLE STORY is a very straightforward animal behavior film. It’s a fun, gorgeous, very well-produced look at woodpeckers and what they do. We all hear that drumming in the forest, and that’s a woodpecker, but most of the time, you’re not going to see them. This is a documentary about their lives, what they look for, the different species, how they care for their young, what they’re looking for in the trees, why they can drum like that against a tree and not get a concussion. That’s all explained, and it’s quite a sweet, terrific film.

Another thing that’s going to air in the fall is AMERICAN OCELOT. An ocelot looks like a jungle cat, almost like a little leopard, and it looks like it’s more at home in Central America than in the American South. It’s a story about some of these ocelots that are living in Texas, and how everybody – the ranchers and Fish and Wildlife – are all trying to figure out ways, similar to the wildebeest story, of having people own land and be responsible for the land, and yet not interfere with these ocelots, so they don’t go extinct.

And again, we have a filmmaker, Ben Masters, who is a Texan. He tells this story, and it’s all his footage. There are moving moments, emotional moments, of his passion for trying to do what’s best for this cat, while talking with all the other people and describing all the other factors of land use, et cetera, that makes it a very complicated story. And then you have these ocelots that are completely huggable and cute and wonderful, and you want the best things for them.

AX: Have you found over time that there is something unique about the filmmakers that you deal with, who involve themselves in these nature issues, as opposed to people who involve themselves in issues that are more human-centric, or people who involve themselves in other things entirely?

KAUFMAN: Well, I find that people in natural history filmmaking, they could be a little bit different, in that they love solitude. They’re in locations by themselves for long periods of time, they travel by themselves, they can be in a spot where there isn’t anybody for twelve hours a day, and they seem very comfortable with that, and in fact, they prefer that.

I once had a conversation with somebody, and I forget where they were filming, but I said, “Oh, my God, it sounds uncomfortable, you’re by yourself, you’re not interacting with anybody, how do you do that?” And he said, “Well, Fred, you take an hour-and-a-half to commute to New York, you walk through this jungle, it takes forever, you bump into people, how do you do what you do?” And I realized we just had different frames of reference [laughs]. So, they seem to enjoy being by themselves, they delight in being out in nature, they love it.

At times, we would have certain events at [the TV station] WNET, and the people who are responsible for the films we’re doing, they go into a complete panic when I say to them, “Do you have a sports jacket you could wear?” And they say, “I’ve never bought a sport jacket. I don’t have a suit. What do you mean, I need a sport jacket? I just have Timberland boots, and maybe a nice pair of jeans. That’s as fancy as it gets.” And so, they’re usually nice and accommodating and wonderful, but they clearly prefer being out in the wild than in an office.”

Some of them are hugely passionate and have a cause, and they do feel, not so much if they don’t do it, but if it doesn’t get done, that it’s a problem. So, it’s not selfishly, “If I don’t tell this story, if I don’t make this film, we all lose, and we all suffer.” It’s more, “Somebody needs to tell this story, you need to show this, and people need to be aware.”

AX: When it comes up for NATURE to be renewed, is that even a question at this point, or has PBS essentially said, “Unless PBS goes away, we’re good”?

KAUFMAN: Well, you’d have to ask PBS, but I think we’re in good shape. It takes about two years plus to make a film. And so, even if they canceled us tomorrow, it would take about three years to stop the ship. So many things are in the works. PBS has always been supportive. I think we bring so much value to the system, they recognize it. A PBS viewer loves PBS NATURE. The natural history genre is really in this incredible upswing of interest, between Netflix and Apple and the streamers and cable – even the networks. All of a sudden, it’s showing up. It always does well, it gets people’s attention. So, I don’t think we’re going away any time soon.

AX: And what else would you like people to know about PBS NATURE at this time?

KAUFMAN: I really try to push the idea of what we’re doing as being a voice for the natural world, and I think that’s what separates us from everybody else. It’s this idea of really speaking on behalf of wild places and wild animals, and being their champion. I feel that’s a guiding principle for me. I think that’s what most if not all our films do, and I would want people to think of us that way.

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Article: Exclusive Interview with Executive producer Fred Kaufman on the Season 41 premiere of PBS NATURE

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