Sunny Side ’15: Helping viewers warm up to climate change docs

Despite poor ratings, well-financed lobbyists and wary viewers, documentarians and journalists gathered at Sunny Side of the Doc are finding creative strategies for covering climate change ahead of the UN's Paris conference this fall.
June 24, 2015

The consensus in the scientific community is that climate change is a serious global problem, but TV executives gathered at Sunny Side of the Doc in La Rochelle, France on Tuesday (June 23) believe the issue is also a serious ratings problem.

Come November, government representatives of 196 countries from around the world will meet in Paris at the UN Climate Change Conference and attempt to hammer out a deal that will keep global warming below two degrees Celsius. In the months leading up to the summit, networks have been airing documentaries such as The Tipping Points designed to galvanize viewers into taking action.

However, during the panel “Climates: Is There Anything New To Say?”, which was moderated by World Congress of Science and Factual Producers editorial director Alison Leigh, producers said viewers are fatigued with the issue. Despite public opinion polling that shows people increasingly believe climate change to be a pressing concern, it is still regarded with some skepticism.

For example, a recent Pew Research Poll found that 68% of Americans think global warming is a serious problem. However, attitudes were split along political lines over its causes and its seriousness.

That kind of disparity between public and scientific opinion on the gravity of climate change is forcing networks and filmmakers to find creative ways to cover the topic.

“We know that these programs don’t rate,” said Hélène Coldefy, the head of specialist factual at ARTE France. “In general, environmental programs get good ratings but there’s been little deviation in climate change programs.”

Coldefy believes it is ARTE’s duty to air documentaries about climate change but she focuses on films that propose “concrete solutions” and empower viewers to act, rather than purely informational films.

In the run up to Paris, the network will air For A Few Degrees Less, a doc about climate change negotiator Jeffrey Sachs, and Climate Ops, a doc based on a multi-platform campaign running through the summer that asks viewers to submit video messages to UN negotiators.

So far, only 100 viewers from across Europe have submitted one-to-three minute videos about how global warming is impacting specific places in the world that they love, but Coldefy says half of those are worth airing and she hopes the numbers will increase when people start summer vacations.

The panelists agreed that focusing on solutions in the face of political uncertainty is the way to go. As one audience member pointed out, uncertainty is generally a hard sell on TV. “[Viewers] want the answer, not the question,” he said. “And therein lies the problem and in this field that’s a big, big problem.”

German producer Jeorg Altekruse is working on an upcoming climate change series with Australia’s Unboxed Media (producers of The Tipping Points). Like Climate Ops, Youth4Planet is also using a multi-platform approach. The series, set to be shot in September and airing in December, is taking a group of young people, aged 16 to 21, with big social media followings and sent them to the Arctic to witness the effects of climate change first-hand.

Describing it as “The Apprentice meets Man vs Wild,” Altekruse said the cast members will post videos and photos on social media throughout their journeys to create a built-in audience for the show.

“It’s about tapping into people’s passions,” added Lucinda Axelsson, a science and natural history commissioning executive at the BBC. “That’s how you get the message across. Talk about things they love.”

Axelsson called the BBC’s approach “climate change by stealth.” Rather than create programs expressly about climate change – which she agreed do not rate well – the pubcaster has covered the issue through blue-chip wildlife series such as Frozen Planet and Africa.

“Climate change is not something we do in isolation in my opinion. We’re finding different ways of tackling it,” she explained, adding that shows labeled as climate change docs tend to attract those who already believe it is a problem. “It’s got to read differently.”

Programs about global warming also tend to attract a backlash in the UK among well-funded interests intent on denying that there is a problem. As a result, the BBC must find “left-field” ways of presenting the facts.

One such example is BBC4′s Climate Change By Numbers, a series in which three mathematicians who have nothing to do with the issue look at the math behind three figures from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

That British and American news outlets must be mindful of climate change skeptics at all was a point of contention for French journalist Denis Delbecq. He told the panel that reporters from France and other non-English-speaking territories do not feel a duty to present counterpoints to climate change in the name of journalistic balance.

“For the science, it’s settled,” he said. “As for the ways of talking to people about it, there are many possibilities. It’s very important to speak about solutions.”

One news outlet that has taken up the challenge is British newspaper The Guardian. On a separate panel about measuring social impact for interactive projects, the paper’s head of documentaries, Charlie Phillips, outlined strategies to get readers involved in the issue.

In March, outgoing editor Alan Rusbridger intensified The Guardian‘s coverage of climate change to reframe it from a purely environmental issue to a political and economic one.

The paper’s Keep It In The Ground campaign, which is supported by the Wellcome Trust and the Gates Foundation, is trying to convince readers and companies to divest from fossil fuels. Phillips said around three million people have signed up and to keep them engaged, his team gives readers tasks such as calling their politicians or asking friends and family to divest.

Overall, he said the campaign has reached 100 million people through shares and site visits.

“This is quite unusual for the Guardian. We don’t think of ourselves as a campaigning organization,” he said, adding that the paper will continue the campaign for as long as it takes. “We will keep going until we solve climate change.”

About The Author
Jillian Morgan is the Associate Editor at Realscreen with a background in journalism and digital marketing. She joined the publication in 2019 after serving as the assistant editor to trade publications HPAC and On-Site. With a bachelor of journalism from the University of King's College in Halifax, she also works as a freelance writer and fact-checker.