It isn’t easy being a wildlife filmmaker these days, particularly if you want to see your films broadcast. I’m not talking about blue chip films that show unspoiled wilderness and charismatic species. I’m referring to wildlife documentaries that deal with controversial issues such as habitat loss, climate change and overfishing.
If you want to make films dealing with such issues and hope to get them broadcast, you have your work cut out for you. Broadcasters are interested in ratings, not causes, no matter how important or noble they might be. To get such films aired, we need to change the way we think about conservation films and how we make them. The problem is not the subject of conservation, but rather how conservation is presented.
Viewers have heard the same depressing, preachy messages again and again, and are bored with them. The ‘bulldozer moment’ in the film – when the resource in question is seen to be threatened – is utterly predictable, and the experts are often bland and uninspiring. Reality shows are much more fun to watch.
To succeed in the ratings game, natural history filmmakers need to make programs that will grab and keep an audience of more than just conservationists. To reach these new viewers, the focus must be on satisfying the customer. The immediate customer is the broadcaster, and its objective is to reach the largest audience in key demographics. Thus, filmmakers have to focus on ratings and demographics – and that means entertainment.
There are many ways to make conservation more engaging. One is by using dynamic hosts with sparkling personalities, like Jeff Corwin on Animal Planet, who is immersed in the program, and who uses wacky humor to engage the audience. Other methods are interactivity, computer graphics, comedy, compelling characters, character-driven narratives, investigative journalism, new scientific findings, enthralling visual images, dramatic suspense, linked websites, and so on. None of these require sacrificing the conservation message.
Storytelling is also essential to enhancing entertainment value. I used to think that a story was something with a beginning, middle and end; now I view it as something uniquely capable of conveying meaning and purpose. The audience connects to a protagonist’s transformation, and that brings clarity and coherence to the conservation issue. The best way to reach people (and get high ratings) is through emotion rather than reason. People want passion after a long day’s work, not complex arguments.
Programs that discuss vital conservation issues are now more important than ever. Conservation films can play an important role in producing an informed and active citizenry, which is what keeps democracy thriving.
Of course, commissioning editors are citizens too. They want clean air and robust wildlife populations for themselves and their kids. But like the rest of us, they also want to hold on to their jobs. Their performance is assessed on the ratings they achieve, not on the
contribution they make to conservation. Producers must remember that making and selling programs is a business.
We need a new generation of natural history films that attract large audiences and high ratings, while inspiring viewers to become active in conservation. This is a noble cause worthy of storytelling techniques and audience-grabbing approaches. Conservation is too important not to be made entertaining.
Chris Palmer is president and CEO of National Wildlife Productions at the Reston, U.S.-based National Wildlife Federation. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.