‘Wild Kingdom’ creator Don Meier, 1915-2019

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Don Meier

Don Meier

TV pioneer
turned millions
of family rooms
into theaters
of untamed nature
every Sunday night
for decades

Legendary Chicago filmmaker Donald Meier died peacefully of natural causes last Saturday night. Over the course of a half-century career, the 104-year-old creator, producer, and director of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom built a legacy that will last for generations.

Spanning 25 years, 332 episodes, and 47 countries, the NBC television series Wild Kingdom turned millions of family rooms into theaters of untamed nature every Sunday night. Decades before the existence of Discovery Channel and Animal Planet, it offered a compendium of animals hunting, eating, and frolicking in their own natural habitats. In an era when the tube rarely offered more than half a dozen viewing options on any given night, the show brought families and popcorn together across the republic.

 
MUTUAL OF OMAHA’S WILD KINGDOM
EXPLORING THE WILD KINGDOM

 

 
Early Career
A Nebraska native and University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate, Meier began his career in the 1940s with WBKB after serving as a U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel in World War II. He joined NBC as director of the Dave Garroway Show in the 1950s, and went on to produce shows like Quiz Kids, Mr. Wizard, and Zoo Parade before creating Wild Kingdom.

Marlin Perkins
Marlin Perkins

The concept for Wild Kingdom came out of an inspiration “to take TV viewers into the wild” that struck Meier during his Zoo Parade years. It won over the execs at NBC, but needed a sponsor.

Meier pitched the idea 84 times before striking a deal with Mutual of Omaha. He connected with the Nebraska-based insurance company as they were in talks with St. Louis Zoo Director Marlin Perkins about building a national image through a half-hour TV program.

 
Wild Kingdom
Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom debuted on NBC in January 1963 with Perkins as host. It won Emmys for outstanding program achievement in 1966, 1967, 1968, and 1969. During an interview years later, Meier said that the show achieved much of its success by uniting viewers with the host.

“We always edited it so that the program looked as though you were looking over Marlin’s shoulder and participating with him in the action,” he explained.

Meier filming on-location in Africa
Meier filming on-location in Africa

Former co-host Jim Fowler considered Wild Kingdom to be one of television’s first reality TV shows. “We actually went out and had the adventures and had the experiences that we showed on television,” he explained.

At the same time, according to Chicago’s Museum of Broadcast Communications curator Wally Podrazik, the series pioneered television branding by including the sponsor’s name in the show’s official title.

“Anyone who grew up in that era doesn’t immediately say ‘Wild Kingdom,’” he explains. “(The) first reference is ‘Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.'”

Wild Kingdom gained syndication after parting with NBC in 1974. Running through 1988, it peaked with 34 million viewers across 224 U.S. TV stations.

Reflecting on the show’s success in his 90s, Meier said that Wild Kingdom’s greatest achievement was transforming how audiences viewed wildlife and wild places.

“I could see the changes happening all the time,” he said. “It doesn’t take very much awareness to come to the conclusion that we better take care of the planet now rather than later.”

Meier passed away exactly one year after memorial services were held for Lorena Meier, his wife of 68-years, who died at age 100. Meier is survived by his many loving nieces, nephews, and their families. His legacy of supporting students and higher education continues through the Donald and Lorena Meier Foundation.

 
Send your TV updates to Reel Chicago Editor Dan Patton, dan@reelchicago.com.

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