REVIEWS: Kratts’ Creatures

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, June 1998:

Kratts’ Creatures
with Martin Kratt, Chris Kratt, and Shannon Duff
PBS, 4:30 p.m. daily, school day afternoons and weekend mornings.

After Wolf Clifton, 7, saw one
episode of Kratt’s Creatures at his cousin
Eric’s house, on a local Public Broadcasting
System station that doesn’t reach here, there
was no peace until we’d figured out how to get
the program by satellite from KBDI-Denver.
There was still a conflict, in that because of
the difference in time zones, K r a t t ’ s
Creatures airs here an hour earlier than it’s
supposed to––soon enough after the end of
Wolf’s school day that he has to rush right in
the door and turn on the TV, and even then he
often misses the opening sequence.
But ANIMAL PEOPLE p u b l i s h e r
Kim Bartlett, Wolf’s mommy, is also his driver,
and was soon so hooked on K r a t t ’ s
Creatures herself that they rarely miss the start
of the original material.

That’s the kind of response, multiplied
thousands of times, that got K r a t t ’ s
Creatures on the air in the first place, as the
TV establishment insisted it wouldn’t work.
Martin Kratt, 30, and Chris Kratt,
26, had evolved their idea for a wildlife/
adventure-and-comedy serial since childhood,
split between New Jersey and a former farm
near Burlington, Vermont. They camped
each summer on the Vermont property, they
told ANIMAL PEOPLE through publicist
Susan McLennan, and “That’s where we first
went creature adventuring, exploring the land
for all kinds of animals that we knew––and
even ones we didn’t.” Their St. Bernard had
repeated misadventures with porcupine quills.
Looking for careers working with
animals, Martin majored in zoology at Duke
University; Chris studied biology at Carleton
College in Minnesota.
“We were considering research or
veterinary medicine,” Martin Kratz told Jon
Kaplan of TV Guide. “We were always driven
to help endangered species. When I graduated,
I got a job with a professor studying howler
monkeys in Costa Rica. And there were so
many great animals down there––I wanted to
explore some more.”
Different style
They had long wanted to make a different
style of nature documentary. In the traditional
style, Martin explained, “The wildlife
footage was excellent, but the films were all
the same. Same format, same style of presenter.
And nobody was talking directly to the
people who like animals the most, and that’s
kids. So Chris grabbed a video camera and
joined me in Costa Rica. We filmed whatever
animals we found. And we came up with what
we thought were fun ideas, like ‘Slowly Goes
The Sloth,’ where Chris turns into a sloth and
eats in slow motion.”
Walt Disney and Jacques Cousteau
had popularized nature documentaries by aiming
to capture the attention of whole families
at once, who in the 1950s and 1960s gathered
around a single TV set to watch a single program.
With the advent of multiple household
TV sets and home video, that audience fragmented––and
the Disney/Cousteau presentation
was meanwhile severely dated by
advances in videography, ecological understanding,
and social sensibility.
“It’s horrifying when I see what we
used to do,” Cousteau himself admitted in a
1986 interview with Louise B. Parks of the
Houston Chronicle. “If you look at the law
today, and our shows 15 years ago, we would
go to jail.” [The BBC2 documentary series
R e p u t a t i o n s on May 18, 1998 exposed the
fakery and animal abuse in filming that Cousteau
lived to decry. He died in June 1997.] It wasn’t quite true that no one was
doing nature video for children, as N a t i o n a l
Geographic did produce the acclaimed Really
Wild Animals and GeoKids series. Still, the
field was dominated by the likes of Marty
Stouffer, whose programs in the 1970s and
1980s evolved toward ever more closely
spaced attacks and pursuits, and more blood
and guts, despite frequent denunciations of
steel-jawed leghold traps that in February 1988
caused Trapper and Predator Caller publisher
Chuck Spearman to apologize to his readers
for publishing a Stouffer press release.
By the early 1990s, much nature TV
had devolved into wildlife snuff porn.
Episodes reaching authentic animal lovers
tended to spark protest write-ins, like the one
that influenced WNET-TV in New York City
to pull an episode of the Discovery Channel
N a t u r e series that featured a bear attacking a
tethered deer.
It wasn’t stuff for Wolf, or any sensitive
child. But it was making money. PBS
paid Stouffer $14.85 million under a 1977 contract
that ran for 13 years, then paid him $3.21
million in 1994 to air the reruns. The British
Broadcasting Company natural history unit
earned $20 million in export revenues in 1995
alone, mostly for sale of raw footage to PBS
and Discovery. The latter was airing 65 hours
of nature programming a week.
Fighting “wildlife snuff”
Unable to crack the crowded field
with their child-oriented combination of science
and slapstick, Martin and Kris Kratt tried
again, taking their video camera with them on
expeditions to Madagascar and to Chinoteague
Island, off Virginia, to study the famed
Chinoteague wild ponies.
“At the end of each adventure,” they
explained through McLennan, “we’d edit the
footage we captured on our Dad’s VCR. Then
we’d take the films out to schools, where we
showed them to kids. While the kids watched
the films, we’d watch them, gauging their
reactions. At the end of our presentations,
we’d hang out with the kids and find out what
they liked and what they didn’t like. We took
their suggestions very seriously and we
learned a lot. We’d go back and re-edit or reshoot
as necessary. We did this for about five
years, pitching broadcasters all the while, but
nobody bought the show until one day when
we went in to pitch PBS on a 13-episode
weekly series. At the end of the meeting, they
ordered 50,” in a package deal totalling $8.5
million––a comparative bargain.
That’s the short version. Recalls
Kratts’ Creatures executive producer Leo
Eaton, who began promoting the Kratt brothers
at Maryland Public Television in 1992,
“Their sense of adventure, off-the-wall visual
comedy, and passion about the natural world
came across clearly,” in an early audition.
“Just to make sure I took them seriously,
Martin Kratt––a very determined man––covered
my desk with handwritten letters from
kids at schools where they’d already shown the
videos. Of course the kids loved them. I took
a tape home for my four-year-old son. After
he’d asked to see it 20 times, I gave in” and
set wheels in motion to get Kratts’ Creatures
started, with an initial investment of $20,000.
The Kratt brothers debuted on TV
with a series of three-minute Earth Creatures
Reports aired by CNN’s Real News For Kids
and Nickelodeon’s Letters To The Earth,
while Eaton called on network officials with a
half-hour premiere for a more ambitious effort,
based on a Kratt expedition to the Amazon
rainforest. The premiere won the Best
Children’s Film award at the 1993 Jackson
Hole Wildlife Film Festival. Paragon
Entertainment, of Toronto, bought the concept
and began to shape it into the present
series, applying lessons learned as the longtime
producers of Shari Lewis’ Lamb Chop’s
“We wanted to keep the energy,
adventure, and exhuberance of the early
videos, but we also wanted to widen the
appeal,” says Eaton. Paragon added
writer/producer Wilson Coneybeare to the
Kratts’ Creatures team, who previously wrote
for Shining Time Station; added the animated
character Ttark in a commentary role comparable
to that of Spin, the wise-cracking earthpersonna
whose voice is done by actor Dudley
Moore, in National Geographic children’s
nature videos; and introduced Shannon Duff,
as Allison Baldwin, a fictional computer whiz
who directs the Kratt brothers on their missions.
A distinguished Canadian child actress,
Duff––15 when the first episodes were
taped––had more professional performing
experience than both Kratts combined.
These additions secured the PBS
contract. The 21-month production cycle for
the first 50 episodes began in July 1994.
“For almost a year,” Eaton remembers,
“the Kratt brothers and their main-unit
camera crew traveled far from civilization
across Africa, Australia, Central America,
and North America, often filming 15-hour
days and seven-day weeks. At the same time
10 wildlife camera crews scattered around the
world, recording the thousands of hours of
wildlife footage required to make K r a t t s ’
Creatures a reality.”
Magic moments
Two of their most ignominious
moments later inspired hit episodes. On a rare
day off in Botswana, Martin recalls, “Chris
and I grabbed a jeep and a camera and set off
to track lions. By sunset we were miles from
camp. We’d seen plenty of other wildlife, but
no lions. Then one of those African storms hit,
with lightning flashing all over the sky and
rain coming down in torrents. In minutes, the
grassland was a swamp and our jeep was stuck
up to its axles in mud. We spent all night digging
out of that swamp, getting stuck six more
times. Once we had to sit quiet for an hour
while the lions we’d been tracking came to
check us out. And when we did stagger into
camp at dawn, filthy and exhausted, we had
only enough time to clean up before heading
out for another day’s shooting.”
Some of that experience apparently
inspired not only coverage of lions, but also a
scene in which the Kratt brothers run out of
gas trying to drag-race a cheetah, and end up
pushing their truck through the middle of
nowhere as the head-shaking cheetah watches.
The other disaster turned to success
came when they visited three orphaned chimpanzees
in Kenya. “Chimps use sticks to crack
open figs,” Chris explains, “but these didn’t
have a mom to show them what to do. We
became their teachers. Sophie, a four-yearold,
was having a great time hitting every fig
in sight until she turned to the camera. Maybe
she thought there were figs inside. She started
whacking that lens until it shattered into millions
of bits. We lost a lens, but we got a
great moment for the show.”
But great video was only part of creating
a hit. As the Kratts prepared for their
mid-1996 daily debut, the Federal Communications
Commission cracked down on children’s
programming, requiring stations to air
more educational material to qualify for broadcast
license renewal. That opened new time
for just what the Kratt brothers had. Simultaneously,
Stouffer self-destructed, taking
with him much of the rest of the nature video
establishment––who otherwise might have had
the jump on the newly available air slots.
Creatures of the hour
The PBS embrace of Stouffer began
to weaken when in January 1996 he was convicted
by jury trial of illegally cutting a trail
for his personal use inside the grounds of the
Aspen Center for Environmental Studies.
Stouffer’s reputation could have survived that,
but then the Denver Post published interviews
with numerous wildlife suppliers and handlers
who accused Stouffer of faking many of the
dramatic animal attacks in his programs.
Amplified by other media, the charges resurrected
accounts of similar misdeeds, a generation
earlier, by Marlin Perkins of W i l d
K i n g d o m, and by some of the Disney film
suppliers––but their practices had supposedly
been stopped by public outcry. The Stouffer
case renewed outrage just after distributors had
re-released the old Perkins and Disney specials
in home video format, having forgotten––if
younger people in the business ever knew––
why they were once withdrawn.
Amid a rising national hue-and-cry
over staged animal fighting and other inhumane
techniques, KBDI-Denver, the flagship
station for PBS nature shows, suspended airing
Stouffer’s Wild America series.
The first 50 Kratts’ Creatures
episodes were just about the only wildlife
video immediately available in TV format
from people with clean reputations.
Since then, another 50 episodes
have been produced, with 50 more on the
way. The Kratt brothers are among the hottest
property on educational TV, winning raves
from mass media critics and endorsements
from both the “hunter/conservationist”
National Wildlife Federation and the animal
rights-oriented Ark Trust. The latter in 1996
honored Kratts’ Creatures with a Genesis
Award as “Outstanding Children’s Series.”
Kratts’ Creatures ratings are now
rivaled mainly by imitators. Spinoffs include
an 18-title book series from Scholastic and a
set of 12 PolyGram home videos, distributed
since November 1996 by Time-Life Video.
Just a few years ago, Time-Life
Video was in ill repute with animal protection
activists for marketing quality videos with sensational
language seeming to represent them as
Stouffer-genre wildlife snuff, in apparent
capitulation to trend.
The Kratt brothers––as they intended
––have turned that whole trend around

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