For most of the new millennium, audience fatigue with preachy eco programs meant the topic virtually disappeared from the air. However, viewers are once again showing interest in enviro programming. Current events such as Hurricane Katrina, rising oil prices and the Asian tsunami have helped create a thirst for eco info, and global warming is shaping up to be the hot topic this spring. Major event docs tackling the topic are upcoming from Discovery, HBO, PBS and the BBC. But even well-trod environmental topics like the destruction of rainforests are performing well with audiences again.
BBC NHU head Neil Nightingale credits the comeback to more sophisticated scheduling tactics. In March, BBC1 premieres part one of the highly anticipated Planet Earth series. The 11 x 50-minute HD event looks at the diversity of the planet, offering groundbreaking images of wildlife and habitats around the world. What viewers won’t see, however, is the uglier side of the picture.
‘That’s where we went wrong in the ’90s,’ says Nightingale. ‘Every program had at the end of it, ‘You’ve seen this most beautiful thing, but it’s going to disappear tomorrow and you should all feel really guilty about it.’ That doesn’t work, it just turns people off.’ Instead, Saving Planet Earth, a three-part series tackling some of the thorny issues raised by Planet Earth – will this wilderness still exist in 10 years? Why should we care if species go extinct? – will air on BBC4 with a throw from BBC1. ‘You want a portfolio approach,’ he furthers. ‘That’s been the key to why we’re now drawing big audiences to some of these programs.’
One such hit was last April’s Battle for the Amazon. The BBC2 special followed BBC1′s Amazon Abyss, an expedition series that lowers viewers to the river’s 300-foot depths for a glimpse of some truly weird fish. Abyss aired at 7 p.m. to an average audience of 5.6 million, making it one of the highest-rated wildlife series on UK television in 2005. Those viewers were then invited to tune into Battle for the Amazon for an update on the destruction of the rainforest. ‘We dragged in three million people, which for a BBC2 audience is very big,’ says Nightingale. ‘That represents maybe 12% audience share for an environmental program. If you put those programs out just by themselves, they probably wouldn’t have attracted anything like that audience.’
Discovery Channel US is taking a similar approach. Global Warming: Are We Melting the Planet? will air in May as a two-hour special hosted by Tom Brokaw. Coproduced by NBC News Productions and the BBC (Discovery is also a coproducer on Planet Earth), it will focus on the latest research about climate change. Scheduled alongside it will be Perfect Disaster, a 6 x 1-hour HD series from Impossible Pictures that looks at the planned disaster response scenarios for different cities should a tornado touch down in Dallas, say, or an ice storm cripple Montreal. ‘Some of our biggest successes last year were about the potential for disasters in the world,’ says Jane Root, Discovery Channel US’ EVP and GM. ‘Our rating for America’s Tsunami: Are We Next? was 1.8, which is a really great figure for a really serious program. This was a show that was not just appealing to older audiences.’
With audiences going online for information and tuning into TV for entertainment, Root and Nightingale agree that eco shows today need new media as well as smart scheduling. Root further contends that fresh information is essential: ‘The kinds of questions I’m asking in a meeting are: What’s new? What are we hearing for the first time? That’s very important.’