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Roll Camera!

Emmy-winning Texas Parks & Wildlife TV show celebrates three decades of wonder.

By Lydia Saldaña

On a cold winter day, the sun sets near Eagle Lake as the full moon rises over the horizon. The sky darkens and, as if on cue, thousands of geese begin pouring from the sky to settle in for the night, creating an extraordinary silhouette against a glowing lunar backdrop. For Texas Parks & Wildlife television series producer Lee Smith, it was a magical moment, captured forever as his camera rolled, totally unplanned. Smith was at the right place at just the right time to capture a wild and wonderful moment to be shared later with us all.

Smith, who retired in 2014, was one of the original members of the team that began producing a television show about Texas wildlife and state parks in 1985. Over the years, he and his colleagues have traveled the length and breadth of Texas to share stories about magnificent wildlife, awe-inspiring landscapes and the dedicated professionals working to conserve them. It’s rare for any television program to have a 30-year run — much less one produced by a state agency — but that’s how long television audiences in Texas and beyond have been entertained, informed and inspired by these talented storytellers.

In the Beginning

In the early 1980s, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department leaders considered ways to raise the public profile of the agency. Roy Hogan, then-administrative services director, was inspired by a comment from a new Texas Parks and Wildlife commissioner that the agency was the best-kept secret in state government. He and then-Executive Director Dickie Travis kicked around a few ideas and decided: Let’s do a TV show!

“If you talk to anyone who says we had some sort of plan, don’t believe them,” recalls Hogan. “It was just a crazy idea. If we had known then what we found out later, we would have never done it!”

Producing a television program from scratch is no easy feat, with equipment to buy, producers to hire and distribution channels to consider. Hogan didn’t have a clue about any of those things, so he hired Anne Benning. Her plan was to create a high-quality product, then convince the program directors at PBS stations in Texas to pick it up.

“The original idea was to create a companion to the magazine, so we aimed for one show a month,” Benning says. “There were just two of us at the beginning. We put three programs together before we visited with the folks at KLRU in Austin.”

And the rest, as they say, is history. After seeing those first three programs of Made in Texas (the original series name), KLRU committed to air them in 1985, and other Texas stations followed suit.

“The production quality has always been very good,” says Maria Rodriguez, KLRU’s senior vice president for programming. “That’s one of the reasons we’ve always been interested in airing it. The program allows our viewers to see the natural and cultural wonders of Texas.”

Bruce at Bracken

Bruce Biermann films the bat emergence at Bracken Cave.

From Monthly to Weekly

When Benning left her position in 1989, Richard Roberts succeeded her as executive producer. He was impressed with the high production values of the show and the broadcast-quality equipment already in place. Roberts transitioned the program from monthly to weekly in 1991, also changing the format from a single topic to a magazine-style show, with several features in each half-hour episode. The name of the series was changed to Texas Parks & Wildlife, like the magazine.

“It’s a good formula for a show because you can mix and match stories and appeal to more people,” Roberts says. “We established a really good rapport with stations all around the state, and the series was picked up weekly. The show has been on ever since.”

Producing a season of half-hour weekly programs is a yearlong task. Producers are responsible for coming up with story ideas, doing field production, writing scripts and editing the final product. With cameras at the ready, these talented storytellers travel the state, from the depths of the Gulf of Mexico to show how artificial reefs are created to the mountains of West Texas for a visual lesson on how wildlife biologists monitor bighorn sheep populations. It’s a dream job for any video producer who loves the outdoors.

“My favorite time in the field is when I’m following someone on some kind of journey,” says producer Alan Fisher. “Maybe they’re trying to catch a fish and they finally do. Or a biologist is trying to capture an animal that they are studying and they finally succeed. I think everybody can identify with that feeling; it’s just a universal, human thing. It’s a real treat to be there for that, to capture and then share that moment.”

As the years rolled by, new producers were hired as others left or retired.

“The show’s been on longer than I’ve been alive,” says Kyle Banowsky, one of the newest members of the team. “There are so many people who have been here for so long. I consider all of them my mentors and my teachers. I feel hugely grateful to be a part of this.”

Bastrop

Don Cash and Mark Thurman cover the 2011 Bastrop fires.

Technology Transformation

Communication technology has changed dramatically over the years, and the program has evolved with it, mastering ways to reach new audiences with these changing tools of the trade.

“When I started here in 2001, we were shooting on large tapes and editing from tape deck to tape deck, the video equivalent of writing on a typewriter,” Fisher says. “We’ve since gone to computer-based editing and are on our third incarnation of software. Instead of videotape, we’re now shooting on tiny little digital cards.”

Whitney Bishop came on board in 2007. She was thrilled to work on a program she had watched for years, one she always thought of as “the National Geographic of Texas.” Bishop not only produces video, she also manages TPWD’s primary social media channels.

“One of the most significant events in our history was taking our videos online,” Bishop says. “People don’t just watch TV anymore. They watch videos online; they look at videos on their cellphone. So we want to take our TV show out to where people are. In addition to TV, our videos are on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and PBS Online.”

In the mid-1990s, the PBS show had a potential weekly audience of more than 200,000. Like other programs on PBS and the major networks, broadcast viewership began to dwindle as a plethora of other options became available to viewers. But once TPWD took to YouTube, audience numbers exploded. Since 2009, when the first video was posted online, TPWD’s YouTube channel has had more than 10.8 million views. So now, instead of creating one video with a single purpose of being programmed into the PBS show, producers are finding multiple outlets and larger audiences for their work.

“The stories we produce for the show are repurposed in as many ways as possible to maximize our efforts,” says Bruce Biermann, who replaced Roberts as executive producer in 2013. “We’re constantly evolving to meet the needs of new media outlets. But no matter the outlet, at the core will be the quality products and stories that are motivated by the high standards for the PBS television series.”

Over the years, viewers have shared their appreciation for those high standards in letters, phone calls and emails.

“I just wanted to express my thanks and admiration to all of you for the tremendous programs you produce each week,” wrote one viewer. “The caring and effort you all put forth on behalf of our beautiful natural resources is so informative, interesting and inspiring. Thank you for helping to educate and inspire the public. You are making such a positive and vital difference.”

Lee Smith

Lee Smith was a member of the first team of producers who covered the state from the coast to West Texas.

Texas: The State of Water

One of the signature efforts of Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine in the 2000s was the commitment to cover the important water issues facing the state. The first Texas: The State of Water special magazine issue was published in July 2002. The following year, a one-hour companion television documentary on water was produced. The water communications initiative spanned an entire decade and included 10 themed, annual magazine issues, five one-hour documentaries (some narrated by Walter Cronkite), a companion website and a symposium. The materials produced for the initiative are still being used in TPWD’s conservation education efforts. Lee Smith produced four of the five documentaries, and while he was primary producer, everyone in the shop took part in the production.

“Everyone pitched in,” says Don Cash, PBS series producer. “We all felt ownership in this important project.”

PBS stations across Texas aired the programs in prime time.

“Texas Parks and Wildlife has always been at the forefront of important issues facing our state,” KLRU’s Rodriguez says. “If we lose resources like water, wildlife and parklands, these are things we’ll never get back. TPWD has helped our viewers understand what Texas has and what we need to hold on to.”

Emmy

Ron Kabele (right), Bruce Biermann and the staff have won multiple awards for their work.

The Next 30 Years

As the calendar turns toward another year of production in 2016, the daily grind of work to keep the series up and running continues.

“It’s phenomenal and humbling to be part of this,” Biermann says. “I don’t know of any other state-operated television program that has this longevity. I believe that as long as there is PBS, we’ll have a home for our storytellers.”

That’s a belief underscored by PBS executives.

“Seldom do any programs last 30 years anywhere but PBS,” says Bill Stotesbery, KLRU’s general manager. “PBS is willing to maintain the relationship with a producer for high-quality programming and keep it up over the years. It’s a great relationship, and we hope there’s another 30 years!”

From the people responsible for getting it started to those now in the trenches, being involved in this production has been a labor of love.

“I am eternally grateful for this experience,” Benning says.

“The fact that it was good and kept getting better is a real testament to TPWD’s commitment to the program. We just wanted to do something right, and here we are 30 years later. We did something right.”

Biermann is committed to continuing the show’s legacy.

“We know we’re standing on the shoulders of those who came before us, who had the vision, enthusiasm and talent to create and continue the show,” Biermann says. “It’s now in our hands to carry it forward and evolve to meet the expectations of newer audiences.”

Wild Life

Find out more about the history of the show and some of the “wild” times our producers have experienced in the field at tpwd.texas.gov/tv30.


By the numbers:

Total number of stories: 991
Total number of shows: 641
Regional Emmys: 28
Total number of awards: 205
Total number of contributing producers: 28
Weekly PBS viewers: 50,000+
Total YouTube views: 10.8 million and counting


TV Contest!

Tell us a story idea you would like to see featured on the Texas Parks & Wildlife television series. If your idea wins, you can be part of the story or the TV crew — plus receive some exciting prizes. For more information, visit tpwd.texas.gov/tv30.

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