of Omaha's Wild Kingdom (also titled Wild Kingdom) was
one of television's first wildlife/nature programs, and stands among
the genre's most popular and longest-running examples. Wild Kingdom
premiered in a Sunday afternoon timeslot on NBC in January 1963,
and remained a Sunday afternoon staple until the start of the 1968-69
television season, when it was moved to Sunday evenings. NBC dropped
Wild Kingdom from its regular series lineup altogether in
April 1971 as part of the programming changes and cutbacks each
of the three networks were making at that time in response to the
newly-created Prime Time Access Rule. Interestingly, Wild Kingdom
found its largest audience as a prime-access syndicated program,
playing to an estimated 34 million people on 224 stations by 1974,
and beating out the likes of The Lawrence Welk Show and
Hee Haw to top the American Research Bureau ratings for syndicated
series in October of that year. Though a good number of the episodes
aired after 1971 were repackaged reruns from earlier network days,
new episodes continued to be produced and included in the syndicated
program packages as well. Wild Kingdom continued to be produced
and distributed in first-run syndication until the fall of 1988.
The perennial host and figurehead of Wild Kingdom was zoologist
Marlin Perkins. Perkins began his zoological career as reptile curator
at the St. Louis Zoo in 1926, then became director or the Buffalo
Zoo in the late 1930s and early 1940s, the Lincoln Park Zoo (Chicago)
through the 1950s, and finally the St. Louis Zoo in 1962, a position
he held until his death on 14 June 1986. Throughout his career,
Perkins was drawn to the medium of television as a means of promoting
a conservationist ethic and popularizing a corresponding understanding
of wildlife and the natural world.
initiated his involvement in the production of nature programming
in 1945, when television itself was only beginning to work its way
into the fabric of American life. Having recently been named director
of Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo, Perkins began hosting a wildlife
television program on a small local Chicago station, WBKB. Perkins
then became the host of Zoo Parade in 1949, which began its
eight-year run on Chicago station WNBQ before becoming an NBC network
show early in 1950. A precursor of sorts to the regularly-featured
animal segments on The Tonight Show and other late-night
talk shows, Zoo Parade was a location-bound production (filmed
in the reptile house basement) during which Perkins would present
and describe the life and peculiarities of Lincoln Park Zoo animals.
Soon after his move to the St. Louis Zoo in 1962, Perkins and Zoo
Parade's producer-director Don Meier were convinced by representatives
of the Mutual of Omaha Insurance Company to create Wild Kingdom.
Perkins remained involved with the production of Wild Kingdom
until a year before his death on 14 June 1986.
Zoo Parade, Wild Kingdom was shot on film almost entirely
in the field, and featured encounters with wildlife in their natural
habitat. Indeed, one of the program's signature features was the
footage of Marlin Perkins, or his assistants Jim Fowler and later
Stan Brock, pursuing and at times physically engaging with the wildlife-of-the-week,
whether that meant mud-wrestling with alligators, struggling to
get free from the vice-like grip of a massive water snake, running
from unexpectedly awakened elephants or seemingly angered sea lions,
or jumping from a helicopter onto the back of an elk in the snows
of Montana. Edited to emphasize the dangerous, dramatic or comedic
interplay between man and beast, accompanied by the appropriate
soundtrack mix of music and natural sound, and always punctuated
by the familiar voice-overs of Marlin or Jim, the popular narrative
conceit of Wild Kingdom was criticized at times by some zoologists
and environmentalists for putting entertainment values before those
of ecological education. Yet Wild Kingdom reflected in precisely
these ways many of the dominant ecophilosophical and ecological
tenets of its day. Set "out in nature," as one reviewer put it,
and structured around the actions and thoughts of protagonists who
have left the ordered world of the zoo to explore the unpredictable
and often alien landscape of nature, Wild Kingdom echoed
the conservationist idea of the natural world and the human world
as, at best, separate but equal kingdoms.
wildlife/nature series since Wild Kingdom have developed
different and less human-centered narrative strategies with which
to represent the natural world, strategies which may themselves
reflect a contemporary ecophilosophical shift away from the anthropocentric
essence of conservationism toward a more ecocentrically-defined
environmentalism. In their day, however, Marlin Perkins and Jim
Fowler were, in the words of Charles Seibert, "television's cowboy
naturalists," and their weekly rides proved to be among the most
popular in television history.
HOSTS Marlin Perkins Jim Fowler Stan Brock
January 1968-June 1968 Sunday
January 1969-June 1969
September 1969-June 1970 Sunday
September 1970-April 1971 Sunday
First Run Syndication 1971-1988
Marlene. "It's Not Easy to Deceive a Grebe." TV Guide (Radnor,
Pennsylvania), 26 October 1974.
to Capture a Live Fur Coat." TV Guide (Radnor, Pennsylvania),
15 February 1964.
J. "Marlin Perkins' Wild Wild Kingdom." TV Guide (Radnor,
Pennsylvania), 20 April 1963.
Perkins." Variety Obituaries, Vol. 10. New York: Garland,
Sarah, and Katharine Loughrey, compilers. Three Decades of Television:
The Catalog of Television Programs Acquired by the Library of Congress,
D.C.: Library of Congress, 1989.
Charles. "The Artifice of the Natural." Harper's (New York),
Patrick. "Television's Dr. Dolittle Returns to the Air." TV Guide
(Radnor, Pennsylvania), 17 February 1968.
also Wildlife and Nature