WILD KINGDOM

U.S. Wildlife/Nature Program

Mutual 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.

Perkins' 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.

Unlike 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.

 


Marlin Perkins

Many 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.

-Jim Wehmeyer

HOSTS Marlin Perkins Jim Fowler Stan Brock

PROGRAMMING HISTORY

NBC
January 1968-June 1968                       Sunday 7:00-7:30
January 1969-June 1969                       Sunday 7:00-7:30
September 1969-June 1970                  Sunday 7:00-7:30
September 1970-April 1971                   Sunday 7:00-7:30
First Run Syndication 1971-1988

FURTHER READING

Cimons, Marlene. "It's Not Easy to Deceive a Grebe." TV Guide (Radnor, Pennsylvania), 26 October 1974.

"How to Capture a Live Fur Coat." TV Guide (Radnor, Pennsylvania), 15 February 1964.

Kern, J. "Marlin Perkins' Wild Wild Kingdom." TV Guide (Radnor, Pennsylvania), 20 April 1963.

"Marlin Perkins." Variety Obituaries, Vol. 10. New York: Garland, 1988.

Rouse, Sarah, and Katharine Loughrey, compilers. Three Decades of Television: The Catalog of Television Programs Acquired by the Library of Congress, 1949-1979. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1989.

Siebert, Charles. "The Artifice of the Natural." Harper's (New York), February, 1993.

Walsh, Patrick. "Television's Dr. Dolittle Returns to the Air." TV Guide (Radnor, Pennsylvania), 17 February 1968.

 

See also Wildlife and Nature Programs