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WCSFP ’19: Factual producers, broadcasters talk climate change and social responsibility

TOKYO — “What should we do? What should we producers and broadcasters do?” The question, posed yesterday (Dec. 4) at the World Congress of Science and Factual Producers (WCSFP) by ...
December 4, 2019

TOKYO — “What should we do? What should we producers and broadcasters do?”

The question, posed yesterday (Dec. 4) at the World Congress of Science and Factual Producers (WCSFP) by Alison Leigh, senior consultant at WCSFP in Australia, wasn’t in reference to declining linear ratings or rights wrangling. Rather, she was talking about climate change and threats to the global environment. And she immediately established the stakes of the discussion, and the need for factual producers to step up.

“We haven’t been doing very much until recently,” she added. “But it is changing.”

Speakers on the “Can We Save the Planet?” panel were Lee Constable, author and presenter/producer at Network 10 in Australia; Walter Köhler, CEO of Terra Mater Factual Studios GmbH; Catherine Alvaresse, head of documentaries at France Télévisions; Tom Coveney, commissioning editor of specialist factual at BBC; Takahiro Otsuka, producer at Fuji Television Network; Matthew Shribman  scientist/environmentalist/musician; and Bill Gardner, VP of programming and development at PBS.

Of course, the title of the panel was a misnomer, as Köhler pointed out early on. The planet doesn’t need saving. Ecosystems will right themselves over time. The question is whether we will drive the planet to a point where it can no longer sustain humanity.

“We don’t have to protect the climate,” he said. “We have to protect us.”

That certainly isn’t a simple or straightforward task, especially not from a producer or broadcaster’s standpoint, but there have been major steps taken, and the results are tangible.

Köhler’s own The Ivory Game has already changed laws in China in 2018, making the ivory trade illegal outright and eliminating the difficulty of sorting out legal and illegal ivory.

Similarly, BBC’s Blue Planet II is widely regarded as the reason for the UK’s dramatic decrease in plastic use.

That model isn’t just a one off at the UK pubcaster, which now produces all of its natural history content under the ‘Our Planet Matters’ banner, tying these nature programs to the real-world global environmental challenges that we have to face if we are to halt the negative effects of climate change.

“We’re incorporating more and more environmental journalism into our big blue chip natural history shows,” said Coveney.

“We need to make so many changes. We need all of our audience buying into this. We need to reach as many people as possible. These are the shows that are watched by the most people.”

Alvaresse has seen a similar shift in thinking in France, where the urgency of climate change is now more readily factored into productions, which used to shy away from such difficult subject matter.

“It was always a very global scale, and suddenly our challenge was, what kind of action can we do, every day, with our planet?,” she said.

Her programming then shifted to encouraging local action, such as cutting down on daily meat consumption. This had the added benefit of framing the problem positively, as an opportunity to contribute to change, which was new at France Télévisions.

“We realized, in the past, we did quite a lot of shows, documentaries, about the environment, but they were creating anxiety, and also saying ‘You’re guilty,’” she explained. “We are all guilty, but we can do a little action.”

There’s a delicate balance to be achieved, of course, especially in the U.S., where the topic of climate change is fraught, and the political landscape is notoriously polarized.

“You have to reach the ambivalent people who can be convinced to see things differently.” said Gardner, hinting at the delicate nature of his task at PBS, where American viewers aren’t culturally predisposed to accepting instructions on what to think.

Some don’t see the task as possible within a TV production framework, like Constable, who explained her recent decision to leave broadcasting in favor of more direct activism.

“I’m moving on because honestly I think that I can engage more meaningfully with audiences by leaving this full-time, nine-to-fiver, and focusing on my social media presence, building my audience there, and then hopefully working with production companies and on my own YouTube channel, to make content I’m passionate about and reach audiences,” she said. “Millennials and Gen Z are the audiences I’m really passionate about reaching.”

That’s not a hopeful note to end on, but the other panelists reflected a commitment to making a difference, and to treating the topic with the gravity it so clearly merits.

“The time is over to say we are objective,” said Köhler. “We have to listen to our responsibility as human beings. This is a fight for survival, and therefore activism has to be far far stronger in television.”

The 2019 World Congress of Science and Factual Producers in Tokyo, Japan, wraps up Dec. 5.

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