Nebraska Native Reflects On “Wild Kingdom” At 50

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February 1st, 2013

by Barney McCoy

“Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom” is one of television’s most successful wildlife programs. It averaged 34 million viewers in the United States and mostly kept that audience for 25 years.

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This year marks the 50th anniversary for “Wild Kingdom.” Every Sunday, the program brought unpredictable wildlife encounters into the homes of millions of Americans. Everything from charging elephants and cute baby lions to 200 pound anacondas.

Hosted by naturalist Marlin Perkins and with co-hosts like Jim Fowler, every week “Wild Kingdom” gave audiences rough and tumble family entertainment. No special effects, no scripts, no glamorous cast. Here, the animals were the stars.

Marlin Perkins was host of "Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom" from 1963-1985. He also served as director of the Saint Louis Zoo. Through "Wild Kingdom," Perkins helped millions of the television viewers foster a greater appreciation for wildlife and habitat preservation. (Photo Courtesy Mutual of Omaha)

Marlin Perkins was host of “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom” from 1963-1985. He also served as director of the Saint Louis Zoo. Through “Wild Kingdom,” Perkins helped millions of the television viewers foster a greater appreciation for wildlife and habitat preservation. (Photo Courtesy Mutual of Omaha)

“I’m continually surprised at how many people remember it,” Fowler said.

Fowler, now 80-years-old, says “Wild Kingdom” was one of television’s first reality shows.“We actually went out and had the adventures and had the experiences that we showed on television,” he said.

“Wild Kingdom” creator Don Meier grew up in Oshkosh, Neb. and was the show’s executive producer. “We always edited it so that the program looked as though you were looking over Marlin’s shoulder and participating with him in the action,” Meier said.

Meier turned 98 this week and says the secret of the success of “Wild Kingdom” was to make it exciting and informative. “It was not intended to educate a scientific audience but it was rather to be enjoyed by the general public,” he said.

Almost 500 “Wild Kingdom” programs were produced between 1963 and 1988. Filmed in 47 countries, Fowler says the program was so popular it often outdrew the National Football League game of the week.

“And we had to do a little capture, wrestle and tag because we were opposite football some of the time,” Fowler said. “The program had some excitement to it and some unpredictability.”

Without Mutual of Omaha, “Wild Kingdom” may never have been a television program. NBC told Meier his program had to have a sponsor to pay for the program’s production. Meier visited 84 potential sponsors and was turned down 84 times.

And then through a chance conversation, Marlin Perkins learned Mutual of Omaha Insurance Company wanted to build a national image for itself around a new TV program. That program made its debut in January 1963 on NBC.

Wally Podrazik, the curator at Chicago’s Museum of Broadcast Communications, calls “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom” one of the earliest examples of effective television branding.

"Wild Kingdom" production crews visited 47 countries, filming in some of earth’s most remote regions during the 25 years the popular program aired on television.  During the 1960’s and 70’s, "Wild Kingdom" was watched by 34 million Americans each week.  (Photo Courtesy Don Meier)

“Wild Kingdom” production crews visited 47 countries, filming in some of earth’s most remote regions during the 25 years the popular program aired on television. During the 1960’s and 70’s, “Wild Kingdom” was watched by 34 million Americans each week. (Photo Courtesy Don Meier)

“Anyone who grew up in that era doesn’t immediately say ‘Wild Kingdom.’ First reference is ‘Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom,’” Podrazik said.

In 1974, “Wild Kingdom” parted with NBC, becoming one of television’s most successful syndicated programs. 34 million Americans watched “Wild Kingdom” each week on 224 TV stations.

For many people the program also changed the way that they thought about wildlife and wild places. People like New York film producer Jennifer Hile.

“I am very much an example sort of a living legacy of a show like that,” Hile said. “It was such a beautiful show and it took me to places I would’ve never thought about. And it inspired me to try to do something similar to convey a passion of wild life and the beauty of it, and why the world is a better by having wild animals in it.”

Marlin Perkins traveled to Africa as host of dozens of "Wild Kingdom" episodes during the TV program’s 25 years on the air.  (Photo Courtesy Don Meier)

Marlin Perkins traveled to Africa as host of dozens of “Wild Kingdom” episodes during the TV program’s 25 years on the air. (Photo Courtesy Don Meier)

Could programs like “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom” survive in today’s TV landscape? Fowler believes shows like “Wild Kingdom” could still have a place and an audience.

“We need to talk a lot more about why the natural world is important to the quality of life of human beings,” Fowler said.

50 years after its debut, “Wild Kingdom” creator Don Meier looks at his program through the eyes of someone who’s lived on this planet for 98 years.

“There were places that I went when I was doing ‘Wild Kingdom’ that I could see the changes happening all the time,” Meier said. “It doesn’t take very much awareness to come to the conclusion that we better take care of the planet now rather than later.”

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