DOG WHISPERER REAL REALITY TV
by Jim Milio, Melissa Jo Peltier and Mark Hufnail
Whenever you get a call from two network vice presidents at the same time, it’s either very good news…or very bad news. John Ford, Executive VP of the National Geographic Channel, and Michael Cascio, Senior VP of Programming were on the line.
“We want to pick up a second season of Dog Whisperer, said Ford and Cascio.
“GREAT,” we said.
“Plus, we’re going to expand the show from half-hour episodes to hour episodes.” “REALLY GREAT,” we said.
“And because the ratings keep going up, we’re moving the show into prime time, Friday nights at 8.”
“EVEN BETTER,” said we.
“And by the way, we want you to shoot the series in HD this year.”
To celebrate its upcoming fifth anniversary, the National Geographic Channel team made a bold decision to launch the channel in high definition. To that end, the channel’s team decided that virtually all of their primetime lineup would henceforth be shot in HD. With their quality mix of exploration, science and cultural programming, if any channel seemed perfect for the jaw-dropping quality of HD, it was the National Geographic Channel!
We weren’t exactly strangers to Highdef. In January 2000, our company, MPH Entertainment, funded and videotaped a major paleontology expedition in a remote part of Egypt, all in HD. Other HD projects followed, including a primetime special, Big Cat Magic, produced simultaneously for Animal Planet and Discovery’s HD channel.
While producing Big Cat Magic, we met with Kay Sumner whom we knew from the TV Academy, and Kay’s partner Sheila Emery, whom Jim had known since his days as the producer/director of Rescue 911. The Los Angeles Times had recently run a profile on – Cesar Millan – who, it was alleged, could fix virtually any bad dog behavior, sometimes in a matter of seconds. In the article, the Times referred to Millan as a “dog whisperer.” The article resulted in scores of producers descending on Millan’s Dog Psychology Center located near downtown Los Angeles. Kay and Sheila made the best impression and Cesar signed an option with them. They made a short videotape and brought it to MPH. We were instantly intrigued.
Not long afterward, Cesar, his wife Ilusion and a very large pit bull named Daddy paid a visit to our Burbank offices. Cesar talked passionately about the “power of energy” and how even dogs that have been troubled for ten years or more can be completely turned around, sometimes in an afternoon. After the Millans left, the three of us turned to each other with the same thought: “That guy is going to be a star. Let’s help him do it.”
Kay already had preliminary talks with Animal Planet, and the network had a keen interest in Cesar but wouldn’t commit beyond a single pilot episode. Kay also found interest at National Geographic Channel. Fortunately for us, John Ford had recently left Discovery Networks and was now an executive VP at the National Geographic Channel, where his programming had yielded the fastest ratings growth in the industry. MPH had previously produced three specials for Ford while he was heading the TLC production team. After we put together a program concept and shot a second demo video, Ford and the National Geographic Channel stepped up to the plate and took a huge swing, ordering not one, not thirteen, but an incredible twenty-six (standard def) episodes!
As the first day of shooting Dog Whisperer with Cesar Millan approached, we prepped a story about a young woman with a very, very nasty Chihuahua named Nunu. Out came the standard def Betacams and Mini- DV’s, Cesar worked his magic, Nunu returned to a passive little Chihuahua. Cesar had made a huge difference in less than three hours. Later that same day, we covered a story about a Great Dane named Kane who refused to walk on shiny floors. Our cameras rolled as the distressed owners tried every which way to get that dog onto the linoleum floor of the school where the mom worked—to no avail. Jim, who was directing that day, turned to the cameraman and remarked, “If Cesar can’t get that dog to go inside that school, we are so screwed.” Incredibly, after Cesar (weighing in at 155 pounds vs. the Great Dane’s 160) start- ed working with the dog, within eleven minutes Kane was happily walking back and forth down the shiny linoleum floors with his astonished owners.
Dog Whisperer with Cesar Millan premiered to respectable ratings, but as subsequent episodes aired, word of mouth started building…and building. Cesar’s guest appearances on Good Morning America, The Tonight Show and Oprah also provided a big boost to the series’ popularity.
So Dog Whisperer had a new season…but HD? We love the HD format, but we weren’t convinced that the series was a good candidate for HD, given the types of equipment available at the time and the many complications mixed formats pose in post. We like to say that Dog Whisperer is the only REAL reality show on television. You can’t convince dogs to fake bizarre behaviors, and Cesar won’t allow retakes when he’s working with a dog (“They don’t understand “take two,” he says). We truly never know where Cesar—or the dogs—are going to go or what they’re going to do. If Cesar is busy corralling a snarling dog in someone’s house, with his back to a picture window blaring with afternoon sun, the last thing on his mind is the look of the show. Our intrepid cameramen work hard at not missing any of the action—crawling under and over furniture, pushing through shrubbery, splashing in pools – while trying not to get bitten in close quarters with large, shorttempered canines. With all this, we just weren’t prepared to add what seemed like an extra layer of technical problems to our already complicated production.
But National Geographic Channel had raised the production standards bar. Despite the fact that this is a program where traditional “survey and prep” is a rarity, and rehearsal is completely out of the question, our camera team, led by cinematographer Bryan Duggan, have risen to the occasion. Also, since the Panasonic Varicams we elected to use can be a bit cumbersome compared to Mini- DV cameras, we wondered if we could get in close enough to the action to get those great dog face close-ups that we—and our viewers— have come to love. Would the dogs freak out with ominous HD lenses looming only inches from their snouts? Luckily for us, most of them didn’t seem to mind, and we’ve now had a fair share of very expensive glass covered with friendly licks and marks from wet canine noses.
We love the way the show looks in HD. There’s so much information packed in every HD frame…even the field directors and videographers are pleasantly surprised at their run-and-gun footage. We’ve also come to love our online editor Walt at Victory Studios LA, and marvel at how he can create pretty pictures from almost anything we throw at him.
So far this season we’ve filmed a dog obsessed with swimming, a wicked Chihuahua that makes Nunu look like the Dalai Lama, a non-stop sniffer, a Great Dane that sleeps between its owners every night, and the demon dog owned by the Executive VP of the LA Lakers. We’re proud that our cameras rolled as Cesar worked with three troubled canine victims from Hurricane Katrina and reunited one with his owner, against all odds – all in glorious HD.
We’re excited and honored that Dog Whisperer with Cesar Millan is helping inaugurate National Geographic Channel’s new all-HD format, where the barks are now barkier and the bites even bitier.