Doug Phillips Discovering Alabama is an Emmy-winning television series focusing on Alabama’s natural environment. Host and series creator Doug Phillips, an environmental educator and nature writer at the University of Alabama (UA), has filmed more than 100 episodes in almost 40 years for Alabama Public Television (APT). Each episode focuses on a different aspect of Alabama’s natural diversity and promotes natural resource conservation and environmental stewardship. Discovering Alabama is produced by the Alabama Museum of Natural History and UA in partnership with Alabama Public Television.
The series began in 1984 as an outgrowth of Phillips’s life-long travels and explorations in Alabama’s natural areas, which began during his youth on a remote farm in rural Alabama. These experiences led Phillips to earn a Ph.D. in Educational Research from UA and subsequently to develop college courses offering field work in environmental science education for teachers. Phillips notes that the concept for the series came from discussions with teachers who were inspired by the field outings and wanted to bring the experience to a wider audience. From this discussion, the idea for a statewide television series evolved.
The first Discovering Alabama programs were developed in conjunction with the Alabama Natural Heritage Program, a statewide natural diversity database initiated by Phillips with support from the Nature Conservancy. Six programs were produced during the pilot season, featuring various notable wild areas representative of Alabama’s natural diversity. These programs were filmed on location, largely in real time and without a prepared script, establishing the informal and personal presentation style that would come to characterize the series.
Mobile-Tensaw Delta Discovering Alabama programs range from general topics, such as “Alabama’s Geological History” and “Alabama Wetlands,” to more specific topics, such as “Longleaf Ecosystem” and “Sipsey Wilderness.” For example, in “Delta Revisited,” Phillips returns to the Mobile-Tensaw Delta, one of the nation’s largest wetlands and the featured topic of an early Discovering Alabama program in 1985. Phillips discusses changes that have taken place since the earlier visit, noting that the local population of American alligator has increased dramatically after years of severe decline. The camera crew follows Phillips on a canoe journey deep into the Delta, encountering other native animals and many of its intriguing aspects, from the ruins of ancient Indian dwellings to the cypress-shrouded route of the William Bartram Canoe Trail. The “Red-Cockaded Woodpecker” episode takes viewers into a large tract of longleaf pine forest to learn about the endangered woodpecker, which had become the subject of angry debate pitting timber industry groups against environmental groups. As the program explains, this is the only species of woodpecker that makes its den in a living pine tree, using the pine sap as a defense against marauding snakes. Throughout the program, various wildlife and forestry experts provide insightful commentary on the plight of the woodpecker, the longleaf pine forest ecosystems, and issues relating to the protection of both.
Alabama Soils Lesson Discovering Alabama is designed to be educational and entertaining for general audiences while also serving as a learning resource for Alabama classrooms. The staff produces DVDs and web-based videos as well as supplementary multidisciplinary teacher guides that correlate with Alabama’s K-12 course requirements in science, social studies, and other subjects. Each Discovering Alabama episode typically combines relevant information about geology, geography, flora and fauna, and important ecological relationships in addition to pertinent cultural history. Where appropriate, the series incorporates aspects of the arts, philosophical reflection, and other areas of enrichment.
Discovering Alabama programs typically are broadcast by Alabama Public Television to more than one million viewers annually. Special daytime broadcasts are made available for Alabama classrooms, where the series’ programs are a popular resource for teachers throughout the state. Over the years, Discovering Alabama has kept pace with advancing technology and today is produced in high-definition videography and surround-sound audio.
The series has won many honors, including awards for superior educational programming from national organizations such as the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service and the U.S. Forest Service and from private organizations such as The Nature Conservancy of Alabama and the Alabama Wildlife Federation. Discovering Alabama episodes have been nominated 10 times for Emmy awards and have won five awards, two of which focused on the Gulf oil spill. Phillips and his work on the series also are credited for helping to establish the Alabama Forever Wild Land Trust conservation program and the creation of the “Discovering Our Heritage” curriculum for Alabama schools. DVDs and Teacher Guides are made available on the show’s official website as are links to online viewing opportunities.
Phillips, Doug. Discovering Alabama Wetlands. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2002.
———. Discovering Alabama Forests. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2006.