Exploring the Wild Kingdom

Click here to see a trailer of Exploring the Wild Kingdom

A documentary produced by Barney McCoy and the College of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in collaboration with NET Television.


Few television programs had the impact of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. A dream fulfilled for creator and executive producer Don Meier, Wild Kingdom was appointment television for 34 million viewers each Sunday. Wild Kingdom was the definition of a television wildlife program for a quarter century. In the process it helped inspire an environmental consciousness in a new generation of viewers.

Wild Kingdom also pioneered the use of color film and synch-sound, to bring wild animals from lush jungles, scorching deserts, and icy arctic expanses into television homes across America.

This was visceral television. Charging elephants covered in dust and sweat. Blood stained lions devouring prey they had been run to earth. No program before captured it as well as Wild Kingdom.

Marlin Perkins, director of the St. Louis Zoo, was Wild Kingdom’s iconic host. He was the show’s avuncular voice of authority. Paired with younger, telegenic co-hosts like Jim Fowler, Peter Gros, and Stan Brock, the always affable Perkins was a great fit for Wild Kingdom. He was a respected naturalist. Perkins talked about wildlife in ways his audience understood. While his youthful co-hosts wrestled alligators and dodged venomous snakes, Perkins put these exciting encounters into context.

Sometimes, Perkins got involved too.  Millions of people remember the Wild Kingdom episode where Perkins thrashed away in a South American swamp wrestling a snapping 20 foot anaconda before it was roped and bagged.

Each week, Wild Kingdom took its family oriented audience on an unrivaled television wildlife adventure. But this program, with its unpredictable wildlife encounters, not only entertained its audiences it also influenced its their attitudes about wildlife and
habitat preservation.

Marlin Perkins wasn’t the only reason the show became the most popular wildlife program in America.  Behind the scenes was a shrewd storyteller.  Producer Don Meier had the skill and instincts to continually reinvent the program. In our documentary “Exploring the Wild Kingdom,” we will follow the dynamic evolution of the series as it evolved. Audiences will experience the physical and technical challenges faced by series creator Don Meier, a Nebraska native and broadcast pioneer.

When the program began, the cameras visited animals in the safety of a zoo. When the program reached its peak, the cameras went into the “Wild Kingdom” to experience animals in their own habitat. It went beyond artificial zoo walls, taking viewers into the animal’s world of jungles, deserts, and savannas. Wild Kingdom’s audience saw wildlife behavior with an intimacy it had never experienced before. Wild Kingdom crews invented new equipment and cinematography techniques to meet the demands of the harsh environments in which they frequently worked. They used lasers to help their cameras stay focused on swift moving wildlife.  They developed dual cameras so Wild Kingdom photographers could simultaneously capture close-up and wide-angle film shots of wildlife.

But perhaps even more importantly, Wild Kingdom began featuring scientists and researchers who stressed wildlife research. The show helped pioneer an ecological perspective.  It made it clear that wild animals should be preserved and that wildlife can’t survive without an environmentally sound native habitat.

This environmentally sophisticated point-of-view established a tone and style for wildlife programming that endures today. Wild Kingdom’s pioneering format continues to be copied by today’s TV wildlife shows and networks.

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About Bernard McCoy

My views are my own and not a reflection of my employer. I'm a professor of Journalism at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. I've also been a working journalist for the past 29 years. I have covered news stories in war zones, reported on human and natural disasters, presidential conventions, a presidential inauguration and the September 11th, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center in New York City. My career experiences include work as an award-winning documentary producer, television news reporter, photographer, producer, and anchor. I worked at WIBW-TV, Topeka, KS., KCTV, Kansas City, MO, WKBD-TV, Detroit, MI., WILX-TV, Lansing, MI. and WBNS-TV, Columbus, OH. I have also worked as a contributing reporter for The Columbus Dispatch, Associated Press, CBS, CNN, the Ohio News Network and lecture at the Kosovo Institute of Journalism and Communications. I have a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Kansas and a master’s degree in telecommunications management from Michigan State University.
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