Please Don’t Feed the Animals…

Ethics in television?...
August 1, 2000

Ethics in television?

It sounds ludicrous enough. Viewers don’t honestly expect ethics from the people who brought you Chico and the Man, Hogan’s Heroes and Survivor do they? I thought entertainment is what drove the big machine.

But how many times have you heard the word ‘ethics’ used in reference to wildlife programming? And I’m not talking about conservation or the ethical treatment of animals – that’s a no-brainer. I’m talking about the outrage expressed by viewers and mainstream media each time it is discovered that a filmmaker has staged a shot or manipulated images to make viewers think they’ve seen something they haven’t.

There is a notion of purity applied to natural history television – an ideal that isn’t expected of other forms of television. When you point a camera at an animal a different set of rules apply. Whether that has something to do with the educational origins of the genre (or latent guilt over the Garden of Eden thing) is hard to say, but nevertheless there’s always someone there to yell ‘gotcha’ each time this notion of ethics has been breached.

So, it seems like we’re headed to an awkward stage in NH evolution: many more hours, much less money. With budgets shrinking (effectively putting blue-chip on the semi-endangered list), field work will be much shorter in the future, and more frequently limited to controlled environments: zoos, nature parks… With less time out, more work will have to be done in basements and on sets, where the environment is completely predictable.

And then there’s the evolution of computer animation. Right now it’s expensive (Walking With Dinosaurs expensive…), but in a generation it will be commonplace and probably more affordable than keeping a crew in the field for extended periods. cg will be able to fill holes that couldn’t be filmed, or animate animals that have become extinct, or capture sequences that were just to expensive to get any other way.

But how will the audience – which appears to be extra-sensitive to anything that smacks of contrivance – react to this evolution brought on by the realities of the bottom line? What happens if NH strays too far from science and education and tries to compete head-to-head with entertainment fare around the clock?

Audiences come back to NH because it’s real. It’s not prefab – not mass-produced television fare. The more alienated the programming becomes from the real world, the less audiences will react to it.

It would be a dreadful irony if we killed the golden goose because we were trying to evolve it for mass consumption.

About The Author
Barry Walsh is editor and content director for realscreen, and has served as editor of the publication since 2009. With a career in entertainment media that spans two decades, prior to realscreen, he held the associate editor post for now defunct sister publication Boards, which focused on the advertising and commercial production industries. Before Boards, he served as editor of Canadian Music Network, a weekly music industry trade, and as music editor for As content director, he also oversees the development of content for the brand's market-leading events, the Realscreen Summit and Realscreen West, as well as new content initiatives.