There are but few exquisitely beautiful, natural wonders still intact on planet Earth and Yellowstone National Park, which harbors an ecosystem that covers 2.2 million square acres of habitat where approximately 400 creatures call home, is definitely one of them. Spanning across the Rocky Mountains, northwestern Wyoming, southwestern Montana and eastern Idaho, the world’s first national park bears the world’s most geologically dynamic areas with an underground volcanic system that holds enough lava to demolish the entire Western half of the United States. With breathtaking views sitting on top such wildly hostile land, it’s easy to see why National Geographic chose the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem as the star for its first ever live stream broadcast.
Co-hosted by news anchor Josh Elliott and zoologist Chris Packham, with roving reporter Jenna Wolfe, Nat Geo will film in real time to show viewers unprecedented views of Yellowstone, showcasing its miraculous geothermal hot springs and diverse wildlife in action. With never seen before aerial views from the Gallatin Mountain Range to Old Faithful to Lamar Valley, along with contributions from Emmy-Award winning cinematographers Bob Poole and Jeff Hogan, the goal is to fully immerse the audience into this marvel landscape.
Three days before the production went live, I got to speak with executive producer Al Berman, whose work includes NASA’s groundbreaking Live From Space series which broadcasted from the International Space Station and FOX’s Heaven Sent, which followed skydiver Luke Aikins’ 5-mile fall from above the clouds, I asked him what viewers can expect to see on the four-night Yellowstone Live special.
“We’re simply showing Yellowstone as it really is,” Berman said, whose on-site production team included 34 cameras and a 180 person crew. “We’re letting people take away from it what they want. We really are being true to the, ‘Hey, this is the park and you’ve never seen it this way.’”
Berman wasn’t nervous for the live premiere, the veteran producer has a Plan B, Plan C, even a Plan D in case the show is interrupted by unforeseen complications such as sudden earthquakes which happen daily, sudden lightening cutting camera feeds or injuring crew, animal barbary producing human carnage, etc, but he admits that preparation has been incredibly challenging. The most difficult task thus far? Obtaining those elusive location filming permits. The access granted to Nat Geo is unprecedented and took the good part of year to reach a compromise with the various government agencies and National Park Services.
However, Berman thrives off of challenges, and was game for whatever hoops he needed to jump through to make this production truly revolutionary.
“That’s what I really enjoy,” he said. “And people know that about me. If it’s never been tried before, or if you want to do something that requires four planes that have cameras on them, why not try?”
This kind of enthusiasm is shared by series hosts, Josh Elliott and Chris Packham.
“So often, hyperbolic promotion will always win out,” Elliott said. “But to say that this is unprecedented, is actually true. The park service, the ranger personnel, including the superintendent of Yellowstone are excited for the broadcast. They understand it’s a massive undertaking and yet they are here to ensure that our footprint is as small as it can possibly be. Let’s see these animals in their natural habitats, unsolicitedly doing things, to appreciate the delicate balance that they strike here and every day, which is conservation and access.”
And therein lies both the possible success and failure of this four-night broadcast. On the one hand, watching grizzly bears and bison wander free along with never seen before views of the 10,000 hydrothermal features all over the park, is inherent entertainment. On the other hand, wildlife creatures can be uncooperative and unanticipated weather could ruin viewers from seeing the deep blue, boiling hot waters of the hot springs, capable of dissolving a human body overnight.
To break things up during the one-hour broadcast, Yellowstone Live will disperse a few pre-planned segments throughout.
“One of the interesting things that we’re going to do,” Elliott revealed, “we’re going to set up a campsite, but we’re going to do it incorrectly. We’re going to make all the common mistakes that most campers do. We’re going to hang the food too low. We’re going to leave the aromatic food strewn about. We’re gonna make it interesting for them, and sort of show you, again, in real time, what can happen if you are not respectful of the wildlife.”
Respecting the animals Yellowstone’s awe-inspiring ecosystem has ramifications that far outreach preserving the park itself. Studies form the hot springs led to the billion dollar discovery of DNA sequencing and if we stop protecting this sprawling North American treasure, the results will not just negatively affect this precious land and its wildlife, but the future of humanity and scientific exploration.
Chris Packham, a zoologist from the U.K.,who has explored many of the world’s finest conservancies and national parks, remains remarkably in awe of Yellowstone, especially its staff, who somehow manage the four million tourists the park receives each year.
“Aside from being a fabulous reserve and world heritage site, it’s also a magnificent scientific lab,” Packham said. “Scientists are able to come here and look at these invasive species, develop methods to try and moderate them or remove them, and that again, it’s being done, and that’s really heartening. It’s one of those places you stand and you look over, and it’s the only place on earth that’s like that. Incredibly important, there are very few places left in the northern hemisphere where there is this amount of space and freedom and degree of protection for the things that live there.”
Appreciating all that Yellowstone has to offer with the least amount of human interference is the heart of this gutsy new series, and with great risk, will hopefully come, great reward. If viewers can recognize the distinct, native pulse of Yellowstone, and register that the park is an incredibly rich, complex living and breathing entity, then maybe they’ll fall in love with Yellowstone, too.