Natural History vs. the Environment

On April 22, 1999, the world celebrated the last Earth Day of the millennium - an event originated in San Francisco to raise environmental awareness around the globe. By all accounts, issues such as global warming, bio diversity and genetically engineered...
August 1, 1999

On April 22, 1999, the world celebrated the last Earth Day of the millennium – an event originated in San Francisco to raise environmental awareness around the globe. By all accounts, issues such as global warming, bio diversity and genetically engineered food are much more recognized today than in 1969, the year that Earth Day began. This is due, in large part, to increasing media awareness regarding the issues – awareness that reached its heyday in the mid to late ’80s as a result of events such as the 1986 Chernobyl disaster and the increasing visibility of environmental organizations, such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth.

Thanks to the creation of channels that specialize in natural history programming (such as Discovery’s Animal Planet and National Geographic), some believe environmental messages are getting lost in the rush for audiences. This broadcast environment has left people, such as Robert Lamb, founder of London-based Television Trust for the Environment (TVE), questioning the present-day effectiveness of programs that take a harder hitting approach towards the issues. Says Lamb, whose TVE is a non-profit producer and distributor of environmental, human rights and development programming: ‘If you’ve got the choice of going home in the evening and there’s David Attenborough [going] on about amazing wildlife behavior or [watching] somebody droning on about how all the salmon are disappearing due to global warming off the coast of Canada, what are you going to watch?’

Lamb’s sentiments are echoed by broadcasters and producers alike, who feel that the market for environmental and conservation programs is far from thriving compared to the vast appeal and booming marketplace for natural history. Says Ann Julienne, head of programming and international coproductions at France’s La Cinquième: ‘Wildlife appeals to a really broad audience. We’re a daytime channel which stops broadcasting at 7:00 p.m. We have our wildlife programs Monday through Friday at 6:30 p.m., so that’s what we sign off with. We know that lots of families watch tv together at that time and we know that the children are going to be interested [in the NH programming], but so are the grown-ups.’

Christopher Palmer, president and CEO of Virginia-based National Wildlife Productions, the film, video, large format and multimedia arm of the National Wildlife Federation, agrees and points to the serious topics covered by some environmental programs as a key deterrent: ‘My experience has been that the focus that broadcasters have on revenues and on ratings and the intense competition out there means that, unlike the early ’80s when I first got into television, it’s very hard to produce a show on conservation issues unless it is hugely entertaining. This means that issues like toxic waste, population, loss of wetlands, the reduction of biological diversity – these absolutely critically important issues are being neglected.’

One reason for this perceived neglect is given by Horst Mueller, senior VP North American operations at ZDF Enterprises, the distribution arm of German broadcaster zdf. ‘Because environmental issues usually deal with very specific issues in each market, the shows don’t travel as well. For instance, what do Germans care about water irrigation programs in the Midwest?’ As a result, Mueller admits that ZDF would either produce projects dealing with environmental issues in-house or commission them from local prodcos. He adds, ‘From what I can tell from watching the market in Europe, [the situation] seems to be pretty much the same, unless [projects are on] topics which deal with global environmental issues.’


As Palmer alludes, one key ingredient to success in the marketplace appears to be the ability of producers to tell in-depth stories in a unique and entertaining way. ‘It’s a highly competitive market and it’s forcing all of us to think deeply of new, creative ways in which to reach people,’ he says. ‘The show has to have a compelling narrative, riveting visual images, a striking and memorable storyline, and engaging characters. This is what the broadcasters are after.. . . Broadcasters’ concerns are not population or biological diversity, that’s our concern. But in order for us to sell our programs, we have to understand their concerns and what they want.’

Sara Ramsden, commissioning editor at Channel 4′s science department and of the 1997 anti-environmental series, Against Nature, produced by London’s RDF Television (See Sidebar), agrees: ‘There are companies out there who specialize in environmental messages who feel it is our duty to transmit these programs,’ Ramsden says. ‘Well, we haven’t got a duty to transmit anything. We’ve got a duty to stimulate debate and transmit interesting stories, not stuff that we’ve seen before.’

And most environment projects these days, according to Ramsden, are all things she has seen before. ‘They [independent producers] are telling exactly the same story that we have heard over and over and over again.’ Ramsden cites a recent Channel 4 film called The Iceberg Cometh (produced by RDF) about the environmental impact of global warming on iceberg levels in the North Sea as an example of what she’s after as a commissioning editor. ‘I’m after great stories,’ she says. ‘Great stories that will make people think.’


For his part, Palmer relies heavily on forming strategic alliances with key broadcasters in order to keep NWP’s conservation programming alive. NWP currently has a production agreement with Ted Turner and the TBS Superstation, for example, for which they will produce three to four shows a year. They also have a long-term partnership with Animal Planet, which is currently running the second season of the NWP series Wildlife Emergency (produced by the National Wildlife Federation), which follows a day in the life of a veterinary hospital. Other shows for the producer include Wildlife Legacy, Wild City and Return of the Eagle – conservation programs which all debuted on TBS Superstation earlier this year and which were all produced by NWP and Turner Original Pictures. Says Palmer, who also counts PBS and the Outdoor Life Network among NWP’s list of broadcasters: ‘The strategy we’ve taken is to look at our mission, i.e. conservation, look at the missions of our strategic partners like Animal Planet and TBS Superstation, and look creatively for ways that those two intersect.’

NWP also isn’t adverse to forming alliances with corporations such as Toyota – an unlikely affiliation for a conservation producer. Says Palmer: ‘There are purists who think one should never work with [corporations like Toyota], and then there is the other camp, which we are in, which believes that as long as you retain control over the content, then it’s fine to form strategic alliances with corporations. It’s a win-win. They want to be associated with conservation programs and we want their money in order to get our message out.’

Lamb is also an advocate for forming relationships with outside partners – a strategy which has kept TVE afloat since its beginnings in 1984. In contrast to NWP, however, which is directly linked to its parent organization, the National Wildlife Federation, Lamb must garner support from other well-known environmental organizations. ‘I’d say half our money comes from television and the other half has to come from people outside of the world of broadcasting,’ he says. ‘We couldn’t make [programs] even for the slender budgets that we do if it wasn’t for the United Nations and World Wildlife Federation and all of the organizations that have the brief to cover these kinds of issues.’ He adds, ‘I don’t know of anybody who makes an environmental film these days that isn’t lots of pieces of the pie put together. The days of commissioning editors saying, `Oh, I really want to go for that story, here’s $5,000 a minute to go and make it’ don’t exist anymore.’

TVE’s most noted success in the marketplace, according to Lamb, is a 30-minute weekly series of doc shorts for BBC Worldwide called Earth Report, which deals with ‘topical stories from all corners of the world which break the mold of doom and gloom coverage of the environment, and show how people are rising to the challenge of sustainable development.’ Says Lamb: ‘[BBC Worldwide] is a very important audience for us because it gets through to the same audience as CNN [and its similar series Earth Matters, produced by CNN's environment unit and its worldwide bureaus]. We get a very good reaction to that program. It’s been going continuously for 30 months.’ TVE, which owns all rights to Earth Report and can sell it to other stations after first airing on BBC Worldwide, commissions prodcos to develop each segment. Additional broadcasters for the show include Carlton Digital, Odyssée in France, TV3 in Ireland, XYZ Cable in Australia and CCTV in China.


As for the climate in the rest of Europe and North America, opportunities do exist, but may take some ingenuity to find. According to Julienne, La Cinquième is ‘the channel that airs the most straight wildlife programs and, I would think, environmental programs’ out of all the terrestrial broadcasters in France. She admits La Cinq is a bit different, however, in that while some broadcasters choose to put environmental messages across to viewers through their wildlife programming, ‘we make a distinct difference between environmental programs and natural history programs. . . ‘ Three weekly ongoing environmental series for the broadcaster include the half-hours Gaia and Forum Terre, and the 15-minute Jangal. La Cinq also has an afternoon slot for one-off, one-hour programs, in which, according to Julienne, ‘very often the subject will be the environment.’ A key requirement for environment programming on the channel is not only showing problems but their prevention.

While La Cinquième’s weekly series are wholly commissioned to independent producers in blocks of programming (currently Paris’ aed for Gaia, System TV for Forum Terre and Strawberry Films for Jangal), Julienne stresses that she is open to new pitches. ‘We do have certain programs that have their specific slots, but we do change them. We might order a 26-part series from Strawberry Films [in Paris] and then when that’s finished it might be another producer who has pitched an interesting idea. We work a lot with all these different producers but we also give other people their chance.’ Julienne admits, however, that subjects for some of the series are limited, given that they touch on environmental topics within ‘regions of France that [French audiences] can all relate to.’

As for C4, would Ramsden be open to commissioning an environmental program for the science department? ‘If it was intelligent, stimulating and was saying something fresh, then I’d be very open,’ she replies, citing the 12-part C4 strand To the Ends of the Earth as a prime example of a science show for which some stories have an environmental slant. Of the 100 hours a year Ramsden commissions from indies, she estimates four or five projects would have an environmental or conservation focus.

And, according to Ramsden, the science market in Britain has never been better. ‘I think there’s a huge hunger from people who want to find out more about the world they live in,’ she says. ‘If you look at the success of the BBC’s recent [in-house] series, The Planets – eight hours on the solar system. . . [this has] been getting fantastic audiences. What are they? Are they science? Are they natural history? They are about the world that we live in and help us to understand how the world that we live in works.’

Keenan Smart, head of National Geographic’s natural history department, agrees. ‘Obviously the important thing is to find the right kind of way to tell these stories that combines the information with entertainment and content that really hooks the viewers.’ Although most well known for its straight natural history programming, National Geographic is looking to expand into conservation issues in particular. ‘Conservation, as we move into the new millennium, is going to become a very major element in our production for the channels and terrestrially and right across the whole activities for the National Geographic Society,’ Smart says. ‘There’s a real seismic shift in terms of Geographic’s placing of emphasis and importance on conservation programming.’ Smart cites the Nat Geo-produced project, America’s Endangered Species: Don’t Say Good-bye, as a recent conservation program which ‘had a lot of impact and was quite an award-winner’ for the channel when it aired last year.

As for the future of programs on the environment and conservation given the expanding cable and satellite industry, John Hoskyns-Abrahall, president of Pennsylvania-based environmental film distributor Bullfrog Films, remains cautious: ‘The problem for distributors and for filmmakers is how they are going to get into the marketplace, which I think is always going to be difficult, regardless of whether there are 500 channels or 50.’



A bold media move for Channel 4

When Sara Ramsden, commissioning editor at Channel 4′s science department came across Gregg Easterbrook’s book A Moment on the Earth, which critiqued the environmental movement, little did she know the resulting C4 program would not only incite a series of vicious attacks on her character by the British press but also the condemnation of the U.K.’s regulatory body, the Independent Television Commission (ITC). And yet that is exactly what happened when Ramsden commissioned indie prodco RDF to produce what would become Against Nature, a now infamous three part series, which took a critical look at the green movement and its supporters. In the episode titled ‘The Battle For Progress,’ for example, the series argues that ‘environmentalism is a deeply conservative movement and that environmentalists are the enemies of progress and social equality.’ Although the series did not garner huge ratings in the U.K. when it first aired, statements such as these led to angry protests from some interviewees who felt that their remarks were taken out of context and that they were misled as to the content and purpose of the program. The U.K.’s Broadcasting Standards Commission also received complaints from viewers who said the show offended standards of taste and decency. The ITC later ordered C4 to broadcast an on-screen apology to four of the environmentalists interviewed.

For her part, Ramsden received her share of negative feedback as well. ‘There was a huge amount of press, particularly from The Guardian…which wrote a series of very vicious articles vilifying me and personalizing the whole debate,’ she says. ‘I was accused of being in the pay of big business. I was accused of being in the pay of the industrial military complex. Then I was accused of being a Marxist, so I think I may have got something right.’

Ramsden admits the series ’caused a lot of upset because it was questioning some beliefs that were held very deeply by people,’ but still stands by her original intention. ‘We stand by the actual facts in the series and what the series was trying to do, which was just get the debate moving and get people to question things,’ she says. ‘Coming as I do from a specialist science background and running a specialist science department, I think it’s absolutely critical that we should question all sorts of things. . . ‘

About The Author
Andrew Jeffrey joined Realscreen in 2021 as its news editor. Here, he helps to oversee assignment, reporting and editing for Realscreen's daily newsletter. Prior to his work covering documentary and non-fiction film and TV, he worked as a reporter and associate producer for CBC Edmonton, and as a reporter for The Star Calgary, where he covered daily news on beats such as local and provincial politics, health care and harm reduction, sports and education. His work has appeared in other Canadian news outlets such as TVO, the Edmonton Journal and Avenue Magazine.