With so much wildlife sliding into oblivion, we now need a rethink about BBC’s flagship nature series, and we should challenge the BBC’s caution on promoting a conservation message amidst wildlife broadcasting.
BBC production genius, big budgets and the gentle charisma of David Attenborough were combined to take the BBCs hallmark nature spectaculars to new heights in Planet Earth II. It is more awe inspiring, more immersive, more cinematic than ever before. Yet for nature’s sake there should be no Planet Earth III on the same model.
Planet Earth II goes too far in supplying high-dose nature therapy at the sofa, without showing how nature needs help, how it can be helped, or helping viewers to help. Given his age, the BBC may fear Planet Earth III may be unimaginable without David Attenborough’s magic touch but the rest of the cast may soon anyway be unavailable: the natural world celebrated in these BBC statement movies is simply vanishing.
The success of Planet Earth II
When the BBC’s Planet Earth II aired in Britain before Christmas, it immediately became the UK’s most-watched natural history programme for 15 years. It is being sold around the world, and a few days after it went online at Tencent in China, the first two episodes had been downloaded 61 million times.
The millions of viewers who watch TV nature mega-series such Planet Earth II presented by David Attenborough, probably assume they must help save nature. An academic study described them as Natures’ Saviours: Celebrity Conservationists in the Television Age. Yet when conservation professionals and media analysts have tried to discern some sort of media-cause and conservation-effect, the answer has never been very clear.
BBC Executives were reportedly “thrilled by the huge audiences watching the programme”, especially as “more than 2 million of the 12 million total weekly UK audience are in the prized 16-34 age range, meaning the programme has attracted more young adult viewers than The X Factor”.
Martin Hughes-Games – off message, on the money
I imagine they were less than thrilled on New Years Day 2017 when Martin Hughes-Games, presenter of BBC programmes such as Springwatch, took aim at the new nature mega-series in The Guardian with his article: ‘The BBC’s Planet Earth II did not help the natural world’.
“I fear this series, and others like it, have become a disaster for the world’s wildlife. These programmes are pure entertainment, brilliantly executed but ultimately a significant contributor to the planet-wide extinction of wildlife we’re presiding over.
The justification, say the programme makers, is that if people (the audience) become interested in the natural world they will start to care about the natural world, and will be more likely to want to get involved in trying to conserve it. Unfortunately the scientific evidence shows this is nonsense.
Yet these programmes are still made as if this worldwide mass extinction is simply not happening. The producers continue to go to the rapidly shrinking parks and reserves to make their films – creating a beautiful, beguiling fantasy world, a utopia where tigers still roam free and untroubled, where the natural world exists as if man had never been.
By fostering this lie they are lulling the huge worldwide audience into a false sense of security”.
Opinion amongst Guardian readers was divided: many agreed with Martin Hugh-Games but some Attenborough devotees were outraged at such sacrilege. Over 1000 comments were posted within a few days, and letters followed. Several media friends of mine agreed with the argument but said ‘Attenborough was the wrong target’. No doubt they were thinking about how programming decisions get made. When I sampled opinion amongst long-standing environmentalists, I found almost universal agreement: Hughes-Games essentially has it right. Few doubt that the overall effect of decades of nature broadcasting on conservation has been positive but their view is that the nature spectaculars are now more of a hindrance than a help. Reluctantly, I have to agree.
Earlier in my career when I worked for WWF International and similar groups struggling to protect ‘biodiversity’, I remember railing, like Martin Hughes-Games, against the unintended consequences of wildlife-spectacle TV, of which Attenborough’s series were pre-eminent. I met many people disappointed when their experience of visiting a nature reserve did not live up to the intense cornucopia of wildlife presented on TV but a greater frustration was that the big audiences were shown fantastic wildlife living in forests which seemed to go on forever but which off-screen, were fast vanishing. Now, unless conservation action is dramatically stepped up, the problem is vastly more acute: we are in the end game for nature.
Why it’s big business
Natural history programme making has become a big business because it gets ratings. The relative ease with which films made in the ‘classic’ all-nature format can transfer across languages and cultures, has helped create a global market. Plus if we are shown only nature, with no signs of human activity, the programmes have a longer shelf-life, and viewer research tends to show that immersive, amazement-generating spectacle is what entertains and retains the biggest audiences.
The BBC has made itself a global leader in ‘blue chip’ nature TV, although as Morgan Richards has pointed out, the formula of spectacular nature in “primeval wilderness” can be traced back to Disney’s True-Life Adventure films (1948-1960), which also “set the precedent for wildlife documentary’s persistent marginalisation of environmental issues”. Today Disney is looking again at the market, one which only organisations with big budgets can play in because of the time, travel, research and development, technology and marketing involved in making such wildlife epics.
Planet Earth I cost £8m to film and made £20m for the sales arm, BBC Enterprises. Planet Earth II, no doubt cost much more and may make even more. It was filmed in UHD and HDR formats (a first), made use of new 4K cameras, and involved filming for over 2000 days, more than 100 trips by six producers to 40 countries, and features countless sequences that could not have been achieved without new, ultra-lightweight cameras and drones.
Planet Earth II has a score by Hollywood composer Hans Zimmer (personally I thought it was great), stunning Hollywood style cinematography (the desert scenes recalled and bettered David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia I thought) and was hyped in advance just like Hollywood movie.
The ‘package’ of such programmes may say little or nothing about conservation or how to help but the film-makers are now routinely making themselves the story, with features about how challenging and exciting it was to make, and celebrating the new technology. In 2012 The Natural History TV Report enthused:
“The blue chip still exists, and has pushed its production values further and further into the stratosphere with every new landmark show, making sure it’s at the forefront of each advance in production technology from HD, to 3D to 4K and from time lapse to slo-mo to low light”.
As in other globally competitive sectors from cars to pharmaceuticals and consumer IT, market success now depends on going-to-scale. Financing big-ticket productions, known in the BBC as ‘landmark series’, has led the Corporation into co-productions with competitors. ‘ BBC’s Frozen Planet and Blue Planet were made with Discovery Channel. Planet Earth I was made with Discovery and NHK, and Planet Earth II was made by three parts of the BBC including its new non-public service entity BBC Studios, plus ZDF, Tencent, and France Televisions.
Nature is the BBC’s second largest investment genre. Sales from BBC Worldwide a commercial part of the BBC, returned £222.2m to the coffers in 2015/6. This helps the Corporation fend off demands from Conservative politicians to abolish the licence fee, a constant worry of BBC managers and the governing BBC Trust.
‘Almost like a drug’
Martin Hughes-Games has expressed similar concerns before. In October 2015 before the start of the programme Autumnwatch, he said big wildlife shows had created “a form of entertainment, a utopian world that bears no resemblance to the reality”.
“I’ve been doing this for 35 years and we always used to say what Sir David [Attenborough] used to say, which was that by making people aware of wildlife and conservation issues – that’s the first step – they will get involved,” he said. “That’s been the plan but clearly that has not worked; we have failed.”
“I fear those beautiful seductive programmes are not balanced by a clearer idea of what is going on and the loss of habitat … It’s almost like a drug. We love it and we come back and we lose ourselves in the beauty of these places, not realising that the habitats they are being filmed in are getting tinier and tinier. We don’t reflect that.”
This year Hughes-Game’s argument was reported and sharpened in an article by a Guardian journalist , and framed in terms of rivalry: “Planet Earth II ‘a disaster for world’s wildlife’ says rival nature producer”, It was then widely re-reported in other media.
As long ago as the 1980s, the BBC Natural History Unit was under similar public criticism for the way its compelling output portrayed nature without much reference to threats to nature. For example from The Listener in 1983:
“Paradoxically, wildlife on TV may be piling up new problems for the conservationist lobby rather than helping it. After all if we see countless host of creatures, crammed into one Technicolor half hour through the unseen wonders of TV technology and editing, then they can’t be that endangered can they?”
(Listener, 3.11.83 quoted by Gail Davis).
In 1987, ‘environmental issues’ were climbing high on the social agenda and the then Head of the Natural History Unit John Sparks made the case for the BBC’s approach in ‘Broadcasting and the Conservation Challenge’, in ECOS. Sparks acknowledged that: “for many years the BBC concentrated mostly – but not exclusively – on an Arcadian wild world interpreted with in a framework of sciences” and he sometimes got letters complaining about the lack of reference to destruction of nature in the BBC’s output. But surveys, he argued, showed TV nature programming did lead some people towards more engagement with nature, and figures suggested nearly a million people might have been made more available to join conservation projects as a result.
An “Ooh, Ah, Yuck or Click” film ?
In 1989, conservation-minded film-maker Stephen Mills authored another article in ECOS: ‘The Entertainment Imperative: Wildlife Films and Conservation’ (here) subtitled ‘Why wildlife films don’t always please conservationists’. BBC commissioners he said, used this ‘unwritten convention’ to categorize programme ideas:
“An “ooh” film is about pandas or koala bears, and it shows how they spend their whole lives cuddling their young without the interference of social workers. An “aah” film makes you gasp with wonder. It describes how the peculiar fly orchid is pollinated by just one species of insect – and shows you the process from inside the flower. The “yuck” film shows in sticky detail the slimy sex-life of the large yellow slug Limax pseudoflavus, and it lasts for half an hour. The “click” film is the slimy sex-life of Limax pseudoflavus part 2, including a treatise on the need to conserve the species in Stow-on the-Wold: the click is everyone turning off their televisions”.
A mission to amaze
Few people, observed Mills, watched natural history TV “to exercise their brains. At least 80 percent said they watched simply for the photography”. TV natural history, noted Mills “enhances reality … it shows you things you really wouldn’t see”.
“Every year the amazement factor is jacked up a notch or two. A kingfisher diving into the river is no longer good enough. Now you must deliver it hurtling into the champagne ice bucket at a Buckingham Palace Garden Party”.
This increased costs which raised the stakes in terms of required ratings. The BBC was embarking on its mission to amaze, impress and stupefy natural history audiences. TV natural history was progressively pulled away from real life nature. By accident rather than design, audiences were primed to consume nature through screens. The small screens of 1980s TV sets meant close-ups were important. Viewers expected them and real outdoor nature very rarely offered the same experience.
A moral bind
In 1997 Mills, who contributed films such as Tiger Crisis to the BBC, published a far more despondent article in the Times Literary Supplement: ‘Pocket Tigers: The sad unseen reality behind the wildlife film‘. ‘Pockets’ referred to pockets of surviving tiger habitat. He described capturing footage of a beautiful and terrifying encounter with a tiger which ended as it left the track he was on and disappeared into the forest. What the film did not show was that:
“when the tiger left the track, it was because he did not wish to cross the railway line that chops in half this particular relic of forest, and that he turned away to avoid the raucous tinny radios stabbling out from the village up the line”.
For a journalist, the answer might be to report the reality but what are nature film makers ? Documentary makers (and if so of what type ?), entertainers, advocates, or something else ?
The wildlife film-maker, wrote Mills, is “in a moral bind. Put simply, he makes his living out of nature; nature is disappearing. If he says too much about that he loses his audience. If he does not, he loses his subject.” Mills ended:
“The loss of wilderness is a truth so sad, so overwhelming that to reflect reality, it would be the subject of every wildlife film. That, of course, would neither be entertaining nor ultimately dramatic. So it seems that as film makers we are doomed either to fail our audience or fail our cause”.
Helping viewers feel better
In 2016 David Attenborough himself described such ‘blue chip’ wildlife programmes as a ‘form of therapy’ for viewers craving a respite from their concerns about the future of the planet. Where once the rationale was to prime the audience do good by supporting conservation, now it has morphed into making the audience feel good. He pointed out that when in 2001 his programme Blue Planet first aired on the day after 9/11, it dramatically exceeded expected ratings as it was broadcast at a moment when “as a nation we craved refuge from the horror and uncertainty”. The motivation, he argues is that audiences are “reconnecting with a planet whose beauty is unblemished”. How this helps conservation is harder to see.
This new rationale is maybe the natural end state for the TV nature blockbuster. It accepts that blue-chip nature programmes are not just escapism but more like an anaesthetic which leaves the audience ‘stunned’, and no longer having to worry about what is happening to nature.
Ironically, over the years in which the Attenborough team brought nature spectaculars to their current potency, a growing body of evidence has shown that exposure to nature is indeed ‘good for’ people, psychologically and physiologically. Author Richard Mabey wrote about how it helped him fight depression in Nature Cure. Richard Louv has led a popular movement to recognize nature deficit disorder and ‘Vitamin N’, the importance of first-hand experience of nature in child development. Doctors such as William Bird who has worked with the RSPB and Natural England and the NHS, have demonstrated how just being in or seeing ‘greenery’ and even more so ‘becoming lost’ in nature, reduces stress and improves health.
All that is a reason to ‘prescribe nature’ and design buildings, places and lifestyles to include it but unless it is converted into real-world experiences, it helps people not nature. Moreover, the research that Louv and others are acting upon shows that physical real-life immersion in nature, and being able to read and recognize, relate to and understand it (ecoliteracy if you like or in old fashioned terms, actual natural history), is necessary for it to have a profound and lasting effect on young people so they grow up ‘hard wired’ to love it and want to protect it. That makes engaging with real nature more like Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, something which empowers people rather than a liquid cosh of synthetic nature-fentanyl to temporarily suppress anxiety.
Campaigners, marketers, advertisers, fundraisers and motivational trainers also know that first sedating your audience is not a great way to get them to contemplate action. If natural history TV programming is to lead to action that makes a difference, the visual content needs to be designed accordingly, and that could be done.
There is a market for TV-nature as therapy. As E O Wilson pointed out, all human beings start out ‘biophilic’. We need nature. After watching James Cameron’s Avatar with its utopian planet Pandora, some movie-goers got withdrawal symptoms and were depressed because they could not live in tune with nature along with the fictional Na’vi. If real nature continues to vanish, this could be the future of BBC Natural History programming.
Some nature film producers already complain about the sums they are charged for filming in National Parks and Nature Reserves in developing countries, even though that can obviously help conservation (a point the BBC could make a virtue of by explaining it). Maybe the BBC, Disney and the like will end up running their own parks to film in? Or possibly just resort to CGI and reworking old material.
The BBC itself has experimented. It has had moments when it even ‘nature’ programmes tackled environment head on, such as David Attenborough’s The State of the Planet (2000), ‘a smaller three-part series … the first wildlife documentary to deal comprehensively with environmental issues on a global scale’ (Morgan Richards, ‘Greening Wildlife Documentary’).
On the 50th anniversary of the Natural History Unit in 2007 it broadcast Saving Planet Earth, comprising nine celebrity-presented documentaries on conservation struggles to save animals. At the same time it launched its own charity, ‘the BBC Wildlife Fund’ and raised £1m with a BBC telethon fronted by Alan Titchmarsh. A second live telethon Wild Night In followed in in 2010 presented by Kate Humble, Chris Packham and Martin Hughes-Games featuring conservation projects which had benefited from the support of the BBC Wildlife Fund, raising another £1 million.
In the UK the BBC can also point to the achievements of the Springwatch stable of programmes fronted by the same team. There is not enough space to discuss them in detail here but they have done a lot to engage audiences with real-world nature, and get big audiences. Similarly, working with Natural England from 2005 – 2010 it backed Breathing Places, a mix of programming and outdoor nature activities, which aimed to move TV nature audiences out of the ‘BBC bubble’ and into real world projects.
The BBC dilemma
I do not know what the current thinking is inside the BBC. A 2013 analysis by IBT (International Broadcasting Trust) heard from Matt Walker, editor of the BBC’s online Nature site ‘that those dealing with natural history’ were ‘having a discussion internally about what role the BBC should play – are they neutral observers or should the BBC act as a vocal supporter of nature?’ “From a public service point of view”, he said, “the BBC is naturally supportive of the natural world and therefore not agnostic about habitat loss”. Fine enough although it doesn’t seem to have led to any noticeable change if the latest iteration of its halo-brand, Planet Earth II, is anything to go by.
In November 2016 the new head of the BBC’s Natural History Unit, Julian Hector, said of Planet Earth II:
“Audiences love Sir David’s authenticity and the craft of the programme-makers that give us a window on the motivations of the animals. When so much is going on in the human world, that the natural world has an agenda all of its own, regardless, gives us a place to escape.”
The problem which conservationists are increasingly left with, is that nature no longer has a place to escape to.
‘No Planet Earth III’, not yet
Martin Hughes-Games proposes a ‘conservation tax’ to fund 20% of ‘natural history’ commissions ‘across all channels’ as conservation oriented TV showing ‘the reality of what’s happening to wildlife worldwide’, including through drama and other formats. It’s a reasonable option. The first step is for the BBC to recognize that there is a problem, and the second to talk to people about it from outside the BBC.
The single biggest thing the BBC could now do for conservation would be if it were to announce that the corporation is no longer making ‘blue chip’ nature spectaculars because it is concerned that they mislead people about the real state of the planet. If David Attenborough announced there would be no Planet Earth III until the tide was turned on destruction of the environments it showed, that would send an unequivocal signal and provoke a global social and political conversation. If that’s not possible, then running a bigger, better nature-celebrating telethon alongside the next blockbuster, such as Blue Planet 2, would be a positive contribution.
Communications consultant, co-founder of BANC and ECOS, former Greenpeace UK Campaigns Director.