Formula for the Future

Wildlife and its habitat are the inextricable links in a natural history program's DNA. As a result, the genre is closely related to conservation issues - what affects one has impact on the other. But are the producers who profit from the natural world responsible for covering conservation issues as much as they do cute, furry creatures? And are broadcasters - the other half of the industry's double helix - obligated to invest in both? Richard Brock, executive producer of Living Planet Productions, and Peter Weil, VP and GM of Animal Planet International, discuss the question of accountability
September 1, 2003

In 1995, Richard Brock left a 35-year career with the BBC Natural History Unit to become an executive producer at Bristol-based prodco Living Planet Productions. He has since made over 100 films on conservation and started the Brock Initiative. The latter uses film to raise awareness of local conservation issues within targeted communities, as well as among business execs whose decisions affect the environment, government policy makers, etc.

RealScreen: You’ve questioned the motives of outlets such as Discovery for programming natural history docs. Why, and what’s your concern?

Brock: I suppose the two main motives are to get a good audience – an appreciative and large audience – and to make money. If conservation comes into it, it’s almost by chance. [Discovery] should be concerned that as a result of the various programs it has shown over the years, wildlife and the environment are better off. It’s not enough for them to say, ‘We’ve told people how wonderful these animals are or how great this place is, therefore they’ll care about them.’ That worked for a long while, but it’s out of date.

RealScreen: Is Discovery obligated to address conservation issues?

Brock: By not telling people what’s happening on the ground, they ultimately won’t have any lemurs [for example] left to film. It will all be archive footage. The backlash is that the audience will turn around and say, ‘We never heard about this. Nobody told us this was going on.’

Discovery – and I would say this about any broadcaster these days – has made a lot of money. They’ve been very successful and they deserve credit for that. I appreciate that their audiences have to be attracted to a program and stay watching it, but they really should put some of that money back into where they got it from. That’s what I call the payback stage.

RealScreen: Do all programs need to have a conservation angle?

Brock: No, I would never say that. The fact is that it’s very difficult at the moment to put [conservation films] to a large audience. It will go out on a minority channel at a minority time. [Broadcasters] then say there is balance. But, the audience is minute. You might as well not do it. That isn’t balance.

The term ‘conservation program’ has a legacy from the old days, when the bad news came at the end and everyone was depressed. [But], you could take the ingredients of the most popular, non-conservation films – the snake wrangling, the adventure stuff and the clever camera work – and build them into a conservation story. It’s not one or the other, it’s just up to us to come up with a mixture, and then the commissioners will hopefully give it a go. There’s very little evidence of that.

RealScreen: Have you given up on TV?

Brock: I sort of gave up. What I do now is make films for [targeted audiences] – as well as TV, hopefully. We’re now doing that in several countries, where television films are used to tackle [conservation] subjects with the local people to try to improve things on the ground. If you can reach those people and explain to them what’s going on and how to make it better, then you’ll probably make more difference than on television.

But, I think television ought to help fund what I’m trying to do. That sounds like a plea for money, but that’s the payback. We could look at it like we’re the generation that screwed up. But, we’re also at the tipping point where we could be the generation that fixed it.

Since his first broadcasting job with Granada, Peter Weil has worked with the BBC, Mentorn Barraclough Carey, BW Productions and, most recently, Discovery. In his current role as senior VP and GM of Animal Planet International, he manages both the commercial and editorial interests of the outlet.

RealScreen: What is Animal Planet’s motive for programming natural history docs?

Weil: The most basic is Discovery’s original proposition, which is ‘Discover your world’. It’s to increase people’s awareness and sensitivity to the world around us – in all its beauty and manifestations – and to look at some of the issues in the natural world.

RealScreen: Does Animal Planet do conservation programming?

Weil: The short answer is yes. But, it depends what you mean by conservation programming. There’s one style that hasa very narrow focus and appeals to people who are very committed to conservation. We have done some programs like that. Last January, for example, in the U.K. and Europe, we did an 8 x 30-minute series called Animal Frontline that explored animal rights and conservation activities around the world. But, we’re dealing with a mainstream audience; we are a commercial channel. It’s important that we engage with our public and keep people entertained. We try to tackle conservation issues through a range of programs. Our ‘Men on the Edge’ – Jeff Corwin, Steve Irwin and Mark O’Shea – are very much the mainstays of our channel. They engage with the public and have great personalities, but are also very serious about conservation issues.

RealScreen: Do you think Animal Planet is obligated to do conservation programming?

Weil: Obviously we have a social responsibility. Fox did a show called Man vs. Beast. It was very entertaining and worked very well on Fox, but it wouldn’t be appropriate for Animal Planet, because they didn’t treat the animals with dignity – or the humans. It was purely entertainment for its own sake, and that’s not the role of Animal Planet.

RealScreen: Do you think Animal Planet has an obligation to give back to the environment?

Weil: The channel’s prime obligation is to make compelling content that will help the audience connect with the world around it. That has to be our focus and our goal. Wildlife programming isn’t cheap. If you look at our programs, it’s obvious that a lot of money has been spent on them, so my main obligation is to get the channel right.

RealScreen: Do you think the balance between conservation-driven programs and ones that focus on entertainment could be better?

Weil: If you put a conservation message with Jeff Corwin or Steve Irwin, you’re going to get a bigger audience for that message than if it was simply a show labeled ‘conservation’. The truth is, we’re constantly evaluating the balance between a range of different and competing interests. Do I have things 100% right? No. But, broadly speaking, we have it right – we’ve got a good mix of programs.

A major investment for both us and our partners in the U.S. is the signing of Jane Goodall [in March]. She’ll be doing a couple of documentaries with us a year. Jane Goodall’s whole theme is one of conservation, and we’re putting quite significant dollars, marketing and production effort behind her.

RealScreen: Do you schedule conservation-minded films in primetime?

Weil: Our documentaries go out at 10 P.M. and they go out globally. If you do a whole schedule of things like The Last Dolphin [a 60-minute film from Dunedin, New Zealand-based NHNZ about the Chinese government's attempt to rescue the 100 remaining Yangtze River dolphins, set to air in late 2003/early 2004], it wouldn’t work. But, by promoting them properly, by marketing them properly and by making sure that we get the highest quality story and don’t preach at people, I believe they will do well.

RealScreen: Do you think TV is a good medium for conservation messages?

Weil: The whole Discovery premise is predicated on the thought that there is an audience that doesn’t just want escapism. But, it’s important to have balance. People parading their own liberal consciousness doesn’t work on television. But, there are all kinds of ways you can make it work. The challenge, whether you’re a public broadcaster or in the commercial sector, is to find those ways.

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.