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 BBC could go on doing ‘more with less’ but Planet Earth III on the same basis would be a descent into virtual reality.Most of the world’s wildlife has disappeared over the time the BBC has been making natural history films. It is time to rethink the model.
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. Such popular programmes are certainly a vote for ‘liking wildlife’, and make presenters famous. 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. The issue has long been debated within the nature and media circles. That debate has now been reinvigorated by strong criticism of Planet Earth II by a fellow BBC Producer.
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’.
On New Year’s Day
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 ‘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.
For instance, the World Wide Fund for Nature and Zoological Society of London’s authoritative 2016 Living Planet Report has concluded that between 1970 and 2012 there was a 58% decline of vertebrate population abundance worldwide. This encompasses the period in which Attenborough’s outstanding natural history series have been broadcast (starting with Life on Earth in 1979). The prime factor in this destruction is humankind’s insatiable need for space – destroying and degrading habitat at an appalling rate – coupled with species over-exploitation, pollution, invasive species, climate change and rampant poaching.
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. ‘ryanallan2010 ‘ declared the Planet Earth II ‘perhaps the finest TV show ever made. Perfection hosted by God himself’, while ‘BookwormFoundInBrick’ denounced Hughes-Games as ‘a mediocrity desperately seeking attention’.
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.
Conservation groups will not want to get into a public slanging match with wildlife film makers but with so much nature sliding so fast into oblivion, the time has come for a rethink about top-end nature TV. At the end of this blog I offer a few ideas on what could be done but first, I try to consider how we got into this position and some of the factors which may need to be reconciled if something it to change.
When I Wanted to ‘Be David Attenborough’
Back in the 1960s I was tasked with a Junior School essay on “what I want to do when I grow up”. I wrote that I’d either like to be David Attenborough, or a helicopter pilot: I couldn’t decide which. I didn’t manage either but David Attenborough’s Zoo Quest books had made a great impression, and I saw some footage from his early tv series of the same name. Here was a grown-up who seemed to have found a way to spend all his time going out into an amazing world of nature to collect animals for zoos, and showing other people how interesting they were.
But as I grew up it was not Attenborough who made me a conservationist and ultimately a campaigner. My role models were those who seemed to share my love of birds but who inspired me because they did something about threats to nature.
Foremost was Peter Scott, whose 1967 autobiography I read, The Eye of the Wind. Scott was also a film-maker (he made the first BBC natural history series, later called Look) but in addition had helped start the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Scott famously designed WWF’s giant panda logo, not just to thrill people about pandas but because it would reproduce well in black and white, as he and environmentalists like Max Nicholson felt it would help them raise funds to actually protect nature.
Scott had also started what is now the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) back in 1946, and through his paintings, writing and creation of visitor experiences was a relentless promoter of public awareness about conservation. In 1969 for instance WWT lobbied successfully against construction of a dam at the main breeding ground of pink-footed geese at Thjorsarver in Iceland. Descendants of those geese now spend the winter where I live, and around midwinter, thousands fly over my house every night and morning.
David Attenborough brought wildlife into millions of homes through tv but while a conservationist since boyhood, for the most part he was never a conservation practitioner. Nor were most of his films about conservation but about nature. While the likes of Scott and Nicholson and even a succession of Princes such as HRH The Prince Phillip immersed themselves in committees and organisations and ‘issues’, David Attenborough’s career developed mainly in TV world. He became Controller of BBC 2 from 1965 to 1969, where and amongst other things, he commissioned Monty Python.
Attenborough became Britain’s dominant media-celebrator of wildlife through his series The World About Us from 1967 – 87, and Wildlife on One, from 1977 to 2005. By then he had become internationally known, inspired numerous imitators and is widely credited for establishing an entire new genre of tv. He narrated and presented many other series such as Life on Earth (1979), Living Planet (1984), and in 2006 Planet Earth, which within a year, had been sold to over 130 countries made him into a global BBC brand.
Over those decades I became an amateur naturalist, trained and researched as an ecologist, helped start the London Wildlife Trust, worked as a campaigner for Friends of the Earth and WWF International, started a media charity to enable the media industry to help NGOs communicate better (Media Natura, now extinct), and worked for Greenpeace and have worked on many conservation campaigns since. So while I’ve never worked for the BBC or been a film-maker I am something of a witness to the question of how much high profile nature TV has helped conservation.
All that time, while Attenborough remained a reference point for people trying to understand what we did: “oh you mean like David Attenborough” or “did you see … ?” or “I guess you must know Attenborough”, the man himself rarely featured in anything we did. Sometimes this was not for want of us trying to involve him. The polite answer which often came back was along the lines that he felt himself to be ‘just a film-maker’.
Similarly, the BBC often proved less helpful, for example in providing footage for campaign or ‘awareness’ projects, than companies like Anglia TV, where Aubrey Buxton’s Survival (1961-2001) made rather more programmes with an overtly conservationist content (eg about gorillas, Antarctica).
So when I worked for WWF Intl 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.
By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22193619
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 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.
BBC strategy is to achieve three things: ‘to increase focus on premium, world?class content; to grow global brands; and to effect a gradual transformation to digital products and services’. The logic of high-end nature mega productions is framed by this context, which means any change to the winning formula faces many more obstacles than simply persuading David Attenborough himself. After the series was previewed to the media, Esther Addley wrote in The Guardian:
It is a measure of how important Planet Earth II is to the sometimes embattled BBC that at a packed screening in London this month for national and international press, the warm-up man was Tony Hall, the broadcaster’s director general.
For all those reasons, the Corporation is probably hoping that the debate sparked by Martin Hughes-Games will go away but the conservation community should not let that happen.
‘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.”
Presenters of BBC Autumnwatch: Martin Hughes-Games (left), Michaela Strachan and Chris Packham. photo Jo Charlesworth/BBC NHU
“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, a magazine mainly read by conservation professionals. 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 [read John Sparks full article here].
Moreover his part of the BBC was indeed trying to cover environmental issues. ‘The Natural World looked at the nuclear winter and the fate of the world’s topsoil and sweet water’, while three documentaries had ‘celebrated the recent Bruntland Report under the series title of ‘Only One Earth’’. ‘Celebrated’ is probably not a term the BBC would use now. Subsequent decades of attack by climate sceptics have left it scared to appear pro-environmental.
Sparks also explained ‘In 1983 I devised ‘Nature’, which for four years was the only series on BBC Television dedicated to issues affecting the natural world, and which received an audience of between 2.5 – 4.5 million’. This was an environmental news/ current affairs magazine programme, which ran for over 400 episodes but according to Gail Davis, Nature was not seen as a success in the BBC Natural History Unit. It compared unfavourably with ratings of the high-tech new offering of Supersense which used innovative ways of filming (and trained ‘wild’ animals) to wow viewers, and attracted audiences of over 10m. One of her pseudonymous interviewees said:
“Nature I thought of, but then I thought that it hasn’t really done anything. It should have done something but it hasn’t. I don’t think that it has really had an effect. […] I suppose the only thing that I can say about it, is it probably did a disservice in that people are terrified of now touching the environmental subjects within the Unit, because they know that they are going to get low viewing figures. Whether that is the fault of Nature, or whether the fault of changing climates, I don’t know. I’d like to say it had had an effect. It was the only conservation programme that we put out” (Jenny, interview 21.7.95).
Tony Soper presenting BBC’s Nature magazine programme. from: http://www.wildfilmhistory.org/film/130/Nature.html
Nature was eventually taken away from the nature film makers and finally closed in 1994. In Davis’s words: ‘rather than a milestone in the development of the Unit, several people suggested it was a millstone’.
Gail Davis referenced Andrew Neal, who became head of the Unit in 1989:
” It was a devastating blow. People in the Unit believe passionately that they should be making environmental programmes because they’re out there every day seeing what’s happening to the wildlife and to the planet” (quoted in Venue, 23.10.92).
The bruising folk-memory of the Nature ‘failure’ may be one reason why the Natural History Unit fell back on Attenborough’s traditional recipe of safe celebration of nature through marvellous pictures with only oblique, almost whispered moral generalities about our responsibility to look after it. In 1984 David Attenborough summed up his and probably thus the default BBC rationale like this:
My job as a natural history filmmaker is to convey the reality of the environment so that people will recognise its intrinsic value, its interest, its intrinsic merit and feel some responsibility for it. After that has been done, then the various pressure groups can get at them through their own channels and ask them to send a donation to, let us say, the World Wildlife Fund
At any event for the most part major BBC nature programmes, have made only tangential reference, and then mainly verbal rather than visual reference, to the threats to and destruction of nature, and mainly steered away from engagement with conservation projects or organisations. It’s the pictures that count on TV. In 1997 Gail Davis wrote:
The style of blue-chip natural history films was explained to me by John Sparks, series producer of the Natural World when I interviewed him in 1995. John Sparks is reputed to have coined the phrase, “blue-chip”: “It just means basically that kind of film, you know, which has got no people in it. Lovely, natural history. Nature in the raw. Beautifully filmed. High production values, good editing, good photography that sucks you into a place” (John Sparks, interview 13.6.95)
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.
At one nature reserve the RSPB had ‘opened up the nest of a great-spotted woodpecker, putting glass in front so people could watch from a hide as the birds went in and out of the tree’. But the RPSB also set up a video camera to relay live pictures into the hide. ‘Visitors settled themselves in front of the TV monitor – and ignored the real-life events that were happening a few feet further away behind the glass’. I have seen the same thing happen elsewhere.
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 ?
‘All over the world’ said Mills:
‘we frame our pictures as carefully as the directors of costume dramas, to exclude telegraph poles and electricity pylons, cars, roads and people. No such inappropriate vestige of reality may impinge on the period piece fantasy of the natural world we wish to purvey’.
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.
Webby Awards for instance, reports The Story of Life app, which:
‘released on iOS and Android on November 17, 2016, contains more than 1,000 of the greatest moments in television history, from more than 40 landmark natural history programmes. The culmination of over a year’s hard work by BBC Earth and our co-producer AKQA, it is offered to audiences globally as a gift from the BBC and Sir David. It can be downloaded from Apple and Google Play’.
Was There An Alternative ?
In the 1980s and 1990s it seems to have become conventional BBC wisdom that the ‘blue-chip’ model of natural history film-making could not be combined with environmentalism. Yet others did so, for instance Michael Rosenberg who produced the influential Channel 4 series Fragile Earth which ran from 1983 – 1992 and received many awards.
Phil Agland’s rainforest filming platform in Korup. from: http://www.wildfilmhistory.org
The British Film Institute guide to British film history says: ‘its simple and direct philosophy was to show a world that was intricate and beautiful but easy to destroy’, adding ‘the programme awakened our wonder at the continuous creativity of our fragile planet, while forcing us to confront the implications of the extermination of species on a scale equivalent to a genocide of nature’.
An anonymized BBC Natural History Unit member told researcher Gail Davis in 1995 that Fragile Earth “was a huge landmark … those films were brilliantly produced”. When he died in 2015, a newspaper obituary recalled that the reason Rosenberg moved to Channel 4 was because he was ‘frustrated with the BBC’s rather negative attitude towards environmental stories’.
Fragile Earth films by Phil Agland and other directors helped directly inspire conservation projects such as for the Korup Rainforest. Today Agland is still using film storytelling to help conservation, for example with the project by WWT and other groups to save the iconic Spoon-Billed Sandpiper from extinction.
Why the BBC mostly remained at arms length from conservation is something of a mystery. Gail Davis found Natural History Unit staff blaming the commissioners and the commissioners blaming a lack of ideas from the staff. Alastair Fothergill, Unit Head at the time, suggested an institutional problem: a lack of clarity ‘about how environmental problems should be covered’ in the BBC as a whole.
Davis also spoke to long-term BBC producer Richard Brock who agreed “the Unit does not do enough on conservation … we are doing what I call escapist natural history”. Brock also left the BBC. In 1995 he quit to set up Living Planet Productions and pursue a project Winners and Losers, tracing the fate of species recorded in the 1950s in 60 (now 70) new films. Remarkably, Brock has used his own BBC pension to fund the project, which can now be found on Vimeo and Youtube. Rather than made for TV, his films are made to be shown for free in the communities where wildlife is directly threatened, and where it may be saved. See also http://www.brockinitiative.org/, which includes good wishes from his old colleague David Attenborough.
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’).
David Attenborough does environmental impacts in 2000 on State of the Planet. from: http://tv-shows.prettyfamous.com/l/29547/State-of-the-Planet-With-David-Attenborough
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
Having embarked on its present strategy the BBC faces unresolved quandaries and dilemmas. It has been consistent in developing it’s natural history output but inconsistent both in its approach to whether nature films make any connection to conservation, and in its coverage of the environment across the BBC (which has of course included a host of other coverage such as on Horizon).
This may reflect divergent views within the BBC, which by media standards it is a vast enterprise. At one end there are ardent conservationists such as Springwatch presenter Chris Packham, who has been attacked by the shooting lobby for opposing persecution of protected birds of prey. At the other are overtly sceptical or hostile executives like Peter Barron, editor of Newsnight in 2007. During one of the BBC’s periodic bouts of angst about climate change coverage, he blogged: ‘is it our job to encourage people to be greener? I don’t think so’ and ‘I don’t think it’s the BBC’s job to try to save the planet’.
As a whole though, the BBC has erred away from advocating for conservation.
All broadcasters are sensitive to public mood and interests, and environmental coverage has flowered at times when environment was a ‘rising issue’ and ‘hit the headlines’ because of activism and political attention (for example when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher declared herself a ‘friend of the earth’ in 1989, and when David Cameron’s team adopted greenery as part of a project ‘detoxify’ the Tory brand in 2006). One difference between the BBC and commercial broadcasters is that it has a complex but much closer and often fraught relationship with government. Consequently it is much more sensitive to the mood swings of those in power. Ultimately the BBC depends upon retaining political support for its survival.
It seems to me that the BBC’s rule of thumb in this area can be approximated to this: nature coverage is always ok and harmless (green light); connecting nature to conservation and any working relationship with NGOs is to be treated with caution (amber light); and environmentalism is potentially dangerous and best left treated as a contestable two-sided political controversy (red light). That enables deft repositioning anywhere along the spectrum from overt green advocacy, to studied neutrality to outright ‘scepticism’, in order to align with the political mood of the times.
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.
What Can Be Done ?
Peter Barron is right. Legally, it’s not the BBC’s ‘job’ to save the planet. Nor is it Unilever’s job nor Marks and Spencer, or Sky TV (gone carbon neutral for ten years) or a host of other corporates who are anyway doing something about it. So to be credible, I think the BBC can forget that argument.
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. At least it should start a conversation. 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.
John Muir – Hero
John Muir (right) and Teddy Roosevelt, namer of the Teddy Bear, at Yosemite. From https://www.nps.gov/yose/learn/historyculture/muir-influences.htm
My own first suggestion for a drama – preferably at a Hollywood epic level of course – would be one about the long-dead and therefore suitable environmental hero, John Muir. This Victorian Scotsman is the mainly unsung super-star of conservation. After his family emigrated to the United States he inspired the ‘wilderness’ movement, walked across America, was the first to prove that glaciers moved, saved Yosemite redwoods, persuaded President Roosevelt to establish a network of protected areas and founded the Sierra Club, which in turn led to Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace. The conservation movement lacks heroes known for their real achievements and Muir’s life story is a “couldn’t make it up” trail of extraordinary adventures.
Congruence – Walk the Talk – ‘No Planet Earth III’, not yet
Second, the BBC could help itself, and help conservation, by applying a few communications fundamentals. For one thing, if it does actually want viewers to get any sort of conservation message, it needs to display what psychologists call ‘congruence’. This means that for someone or some organisation to be convincing, for us to believe they really believe a thing is important, they need to look like they believe it, sound like they believe it, and act accordingly.
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.
Of course that is too radical for BBC management and so unlikely unless Attenborough himself suggested it.
Here’s How To Help
At the very minimum, the BBC could at least make a visible, noticeable effort to help conservation while still ploughing its existing furrow. In the crudest iteration, it could add a simple screen or section at the end of all its more popular (‘blue chip’) broadcasts which don’t show the reality of threats faced by wildlife, explaining what they are, and signposting viewers to help real conservation projects. “The wildlife you have seen in this film lives precariously in a few small pocket of habitat and is vanishing. You can help put this right by …”
The BBC should also recognize that Attenborough’s mental model of passing on viewers to conservation groups who will ‘use their own channels’ to recruit them has two key failings. First, unless the content of the programme or an accompanying ‘message’ makes the audience feel it is somehow responsible, there will be no ‘it’s about me’ alignment and no result. Second, even if ‘inspiration’ is to flow into action, the ‘channels’ of even the best resourced NGOs, are tiny: a water pistol compared to the Niagara Falls of the BBC blockbusters. So it behoves the BBC to actively refer connect its interested viewers to conservation projects as other broadcasters have done before. Digital media such as SMS, Twitter and Facebook now make this easy.
Likewise, it could also re-run it’s conservation fundraising telethon but with more resource. The BBC Wildlife Fund raised almost £3m and closed in 2012. Not to be sneezed at but tiny compared with Comic Relief started by BBC’s Richard Curtis and Lenny Henry, which at the end of the 2015 had raised over £1 billion over 30-years. In 2016 alone it raised £100m for charities such as Barnardo’s, Cancer Research UK and Oxfam, and viewers were thanked by BBC Director General Tony Hall.
Scandal – Not Doom and Gloom – The Optimism of Rewilding
For another, it could consider the difference between scandal and tragedy. Film makers have long known that ‘all doom and gloom’ is a turn-off: healthy people stay sane by not making themselves unhappy. But simply adding a sotto voce, whimsical fragment of regret at the end of a wildlife spectacular, is no solution.
Planet Earth II Series producer, Tom Hugh-Jones said, “David does a very poignant wrap-up to explain that for most animals, what we are doing to the planet is a bit of a tragedy.”
A bit of a tragedy ! That is perhaps an understatement for the thousands of animal species facing near-term oblivion but whereas a tragedy is demotivational, as nothing can be done about it (a problem with no solution), once something can be done, tragedy becomes a scandal (a problem with a solution that is not yet implemented).
It is this which the BBC could attach to the bad-news that awesome, splendid and magical nature is vanishing. The solution could frame an entire story, a programme or series. Campaign groups do this all the time: having a solution which is not being put into practice gives you the psychological licence to talk more about the problem until it is but it means being connected to real life.
The most obvious candidate is ‘rewilding’: reconnecting those ‘pockets’ which leave wildlife fatally isolated. Ecological guru E O Wilson has called for half the planet to be put aside to allow nature to survive.
The BBC has of course mentioned rewilding but often as a ‘controversy’. Instead it needs to get behind it. Rewilding captures the popular imagination because it is positive, optimistic and part of the nature solution. Perhaps Springwatch should next be based at Knepp, the amazing rewilding project in Sussex with its charismatic owner Charlie Burrell.
An English river being rewilded at Knepp
But rewilding is going on across the world, and could easily form a series of international scope. It is full of people and nature stories with scope for the high empathy encounters which David Attenborough has done so well, as with gorillas or the memorable encounter with a blind baby black rhino in episode 6 of Africa.
Key Target Audiences
Third, rather than just thinking about ‘smuggling in’ conservation to genre formats (comedy, sport, drama etc), the BBC could get to grips with audience psychology.
The aspirational Prospectors for example, under-served by the formats of nature programming, as opposed to lifestyle, sport or game show formats and achievement dramas such as The Apprentice. The fact that most ‘green’ groups are dominated by Pioneers is one major obstacle to effective conservation.
To engage Prospectors (about 30% of the population and over-represented amongst people working full time in organisations) you need to enable them to look good and feel good: for example to get ‘good at’ nature. The BBC can do this. Comic Relief does it be enabling people to become locally famous for 15 minutes. Producing the best nature garden with the most wildlife, or getting to be the best at navigating the landscape by knowing nature could be their sort of programmes, and have a huge positive impact.
Fourth, at least in my view, when it comes to a ‘back catalogue’ the BBC should remember its roots and connect its viewers and listeners with nature’s unvarnished, authentic reality. I hear that some in the BBC perceive this as incorrigibly antediluvian but I think younger and older audiences would appreciate it. For example Lord Reith chose a live broadcast of a signing nightingale for the first BBC Outside Broadcast. When I and thousands of others, pressed the BBC to restart such broadcasts, Lord Hall pointed to programmes such as on Tweet of the Day but these are of recorded and therefore probably long-dead nightingales. This is the road to the ‘media museum’ (wildlife salient in our lives but only virtually) which I argue is a growing cause of extinctions. If on the other hand, the BBC helped encourage its audience to demand real live nature, it would be a force against extinction.
A Debt to Repay
We can all suffer from group-think and almost every human being is adept at rationalising what they do, in order to avoid the discomfort of cognitive dissonance but it seems to me that the BBC has allowed itself to indulge in both, in a way which is unhealthy and unethical. When it redefines the purpose of natural history films as therapeutic escapism – which there is a market for – it offers audiences a second-best substitute for conservation, and buries the question of whether it has any responsibility to actually help nature, whether for moral or ethical reasons, as a matter of social or corporate responsibility, or from any residual public service duty.
David Attenborough is not the issue, nor is his commitment to nature. He does a lot of direct good works supporting conservation initiatives, such as for Wildlife Trusts. He has spoken out on climate change and a host of other issues.
The BBC ‘pays no rent’ for nature: it has a debt to repay, and could yet really help ‘save the planet’.
Chris Rose, January 2017 firstname.lastname@example.org