‘Earth Live’: TV’s Biggest Live Event Yet Brings Lions to Your Living Room

Billed as the Olympics of Wildlife TV, Nat Geo’s ‘Earth Live’ will broadcast live safaris from 16 countries on six continents. Now all they have to do is get the animals to behave.

National Geographic

There may not be an Olympics this summer, but the world’s strongest swimmers, fastest runners, and most ruthless, blood-hungry survivors will still be broadcast live around the globe. In an unprecedented event meant to bring the world’s most fascinating animals to your living room in real, unedited time, National Geographic is bringing to you TV’s most ambitious (and, yes, one of its most expensive) live telecasts outside of the Olympic Games.

It is bringing to you the earth, live.

Earth Live will air live for two hours on Sunday night, July 9, bringing safaris from Africa, underwater expeditions from Alaska, and witty commentary from co-hosts Jane Lynch and Phil Keoghan in a New York City control room simultaneously to audiences in 12 time zones.

Earlier this week, film crews, wildlife experts, and star nature filmmakers were dispatched across the world.

The breakdown: six continents, 16 countries, 28 locations, and 52 cameras in total, not to mention the lions, hyenas, wolverines, crocodiles, bullhead sharks, humpback whales, ocelots, bald eagles, bats, and even weaver ants (to mention a few) the team has been tracking for upward of four years in hopes that they’ll pull out star turns for their live TV debuts on Sunday night.

“I would describe this as the most ambitious project I’ve ever been involved in,” says executive producer Al Berman, an alum of Survivor and The Apprentice, who has over 6,000 hours of live network television under his belt.

The fact that anything can happen, from a pride of lions attacking wildebeest to the same cats simply sleeping for two hours, is the biggest selling point. “The best broadcast will be unexpected,” Berman says. “We’re living in the expectation of unpredictability.”

The idea is to upend the way viewers are conditioned to experience wildlife programming, be it associations with stuffy nature documentaries narrated by stodgy British men that doubled as sleeping pills for middle school science classes all across the country, or even the cinematic Planet Earth-like clips that typically require months of tracking and editing for mere seconds of footage.

Director Glenn Weis, who’s been at the helm of live award shows including the Oscars and Emmys, will juggle the globe’s worth of footage from New York.

Earth Live will bounce between segments featuring, say, cinematographer Andy Casagrande monitoring an underwater feeding frenzy of bull sharks off the coast of Fiji, Bob Poole wielding a high-tech ultra-lowlight camera to track hyenas in Ethiopia by moonlight, and filmmaker Sophie Darlington in Kenya’s Masaai Mara hoping to give revolutionary glimpses at lions hunting at night using a state-of-the-art, military-grade thermal imaging camera—and much more.

Speaking from her hometown in the United Kingdom days before flying out to Africa, Darlington is a spitfire of boundless enthusiasm for the project as she jokes about her role in the show.

“They’ve done all the hard work, and I’m just parachuting in for the glamour,” she laughs, bringing up the trackers who have spent years monitoring multiple prides’ hunting, sleeping, eating, and mating habits—basically their every move—to zero in on the cats with the least risk of stage fright come Sunday night. “I’m joking,” she goes on. “I get to be the fall guy when all the lions sleep.”

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The investment Earth Live is making to at least try to ensure that doesn’t happen are the aforementioned lowlight and thermal cameras that use the moonlight to capture footage in what appears to be full color, as if it bright daylight outside even though Darlington and her crew will be pursuing the prides in the pitch-black of night.

The result is the rare opportunity to produce a veritable safari at a time when the cats are actually doing something, which should astound anyone who’s been on a trek only to see them pretty much just sit there.

“At night, especially at pre-dawn when we’ll be with them, it should be when they’re at their most active and really taking off,” says Darlington, who hopes she gets to capture some family and hunting behavior from the lions. “I’m also a realist, so it’s being glad we just get them awake. They sleep 20 out of 24 hours as a rule. When they do nothing they are possibly the least interesting animals in the world, but when they’re awake they’re the most interesting.”

Of course, the fact that no one can guarantee anything will actually happen is the ruling talking point among anyone involved in the Earth Live production, which has been upwards of four years in the making. The unpredictability is two-pronged. There’s the technical fiascos—a satellite goes down, a thunderstorm rolls in—but then there’s the animals themselves.

But to combat the reality that this is live and you can’t guarantee what will happen, or that even anything will happen, the production is rife with contingencies. There’s the sheer number of animals being followed of course, that can be cut to any given moment should Darlington encounter a pride of snoozing lions. But there’s also the immense amount of research that’s taken place.

Berman says that exactly a year ago, on the same day that they’ll be shooting this weekend, they sent crews to over 30 locations to scout the animals and see what their behaviors were, and winnowed their final locations and subjects based on that.  

“For instance,” he says, “in Thailand we know that the moon will create an extremely low tide at 8 p.m. Eastern Time, and so the macaque monkeys are going to be out there with their rocks smashing the oysters and eating them. We’re pretty positive in that.”

And if they don’t? That’s where Jane Lynch comes in.

“I’m going to have some jokes in my back pocket,” Lynch says, recognizing her role as the night’s resident self-deprecator and biggest contingency for disappointing animal behavior.

More than that, though, she sees her role as representing the person who has never ventured out into wildlife, who may not even have had interest in seeing what goes on with these animals around the world before the excitement of the live event may have sucked them into Earth Live.

“I will be the eyes and ears and mind of the person who has never done this kind of adventuring, and I’m sure I will be standing amazed with my mouth agape a lot of the time,” she says.

“I’m more domestic than outdoor,” she goes on. “Big fan of dogs and cats. But in terms of vacations and adventuring, I go from one Four Seasons to the next. I’m very much into my creature comforts as a human being, but have a great interest and a great curiosity about what goes on with other creatures of this planet that I haven’t had acquaintance of.”

The word “Live!” has become more valuable star billing on television than even the biggest Hollywood A-listers lately, with networks in a rat race to capitalize on a revived audience appetite for real-time broadcasts, the rare ratings win in a landscape where delayed, streaming, and splintered viewing makes it nearly impossible to convince viewers to watch a program when it actually airs.

NBC’s The Sound of Music Live! certainly kicked off the trend in 2013, which has seen networks stage anything-can-happen productions of everything from Grease to Hairspray to even The Passion in the wake of its ratings coup. A dizzying number of productions are slated for next season—Rent, A Christmas Story, Jesus Christ Superstar—but it’s not just musicals. National Geographic has gotten in on the stunt nature of it all with live broadcasts of brain surgery and even dispatches from space.

“I think it’s out of the desire that we want more and more,” Lynch says. “We’ve been in the world of contrived stories for the last however many years and now we have the technology where we can bring this stuff to you live and people get excited about that, that it’s happening in the moment, that it’s spontaneous, that it’s not something that’s been through the editing room.”

And no one is more keenly aware of the precariousness of that—and, sure, the excitement, too—than the people who will be in on the ground hoping that, in this Super Bowl of Wildlife Programming, their animals are in shape to carry the ball to the end zone.

“I hope people will embrace that, the kind of, ‘Look, nature is writing the script,’” Darlington says. “I know it’s a cheesy line, but that’s the truth of it. If the lions decide they’re all going to go into a bush, we’ll find something else lovely to show you. The preparation is immense. But the animals, it’s their story to tell.”