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Earth Day Special Report: Where ‘Planet Earth’ Meets Jaws-N-Claws TV
April 20, 2016  | By Alex Strachan

It was a moment of breathtaking beauty, a reminder of the best television can be when it strives for greatness in an age of rampant consumerism, ratings at all costs and corporate avarice in the name of meeting unrealistic quarterly-profit targets. A polar bear gave birth to a pair of cubs in an ice cavern, and viewers lucky enough to see it were witnessing something that had never been seen before by human eyes.

It was just one striking moment among many in David Attenborough’s landmark series Frozen Planet, from the BBC’s vaunted Natural History Unit, producers of the Emmy, BAFTA and Peabody winning Blue Planet and Planet Earth, among countless others.

There was just one catch. Viewers were misled into thinking they were seeing something that was filmed in the wild, in the high Arctic, when in fact what they were watching was filmed in an animal park in Germany, under controlled conditions, in a man-made, “frozen” den.

The resulting controversy — fairly or not — cast a shadow over the entire Planet series and, more importantly, shed new light on nature filmmaking in general: what it does well, what it does less well, and what it’s supposed to do when it’s aiming for something greater than high ratings.

Attenborough himself defended the decision saying the footage would have been near impossible to capture in the wild, and would have resulted in unnecessary trauma and possibly even death for the animals involved. As it was, according to figures provided by BBC and reported in the UK’s Daily Mail, more than eight million viewers saw the episode in question. (see video here)

The controversy was not a real controversy, as TV controversies go, not when journalists are being killed at an unprecedented rate in conflict zones around the world, and presidential election campaigns are becoming virtually indistinguishable from reality TV.

Still, it was a reminder that, even in high-end “blue chip” nature programming, what you’re seeing is not always what you’re getting.

That’s worth remembering during Earth Week, when much of the nature programming you see on Animal Planet, Discovery and the National Geographic Channel is aimed at a thinking audience that expects more than the jaws-and-claws, jocks-in-the-rocks and boys-and-their-toys programming de rigueur at other times of the year.

Thanks to advances in lightweight digital cameras, satellite technology and a wired world where instant communication has become the norm, we’re living in — in a term coined by this site’s founder, media critic David Bianculli — a platinum age for documentary filmmaking, and television in general.

There have never been more nature films of such high caliber. In the past few years alone, the world has borne witness to Racing Extinction, from Louie Psihoyos (the Oscar winner filmmaker of The Cove); husband-and-wife filmmakers Dereck and Beverly Joubert’s Soul of the Elephant, a stirring look at elephants’ waking memories and ability to grieve, made for PBS’s Nature showcase (right); Canadian-based filmmaker Sturla Gunnarsson’s Monsoon, a year-in-the-making examination of the weather system that ravages the Indian subcontinent every year; and Oscar-nominated filmmaker Sandy McLeod’s Seeds of Time, about the need to protect food crops in a world beset by climate change and the growing threat of food insecurity.

TV is all about entertainment, ratings and making money, though, so for every Nature or Human Planet, there are low-end bottom feeders that give away their intentions in the title: Animal Fight Night, Animals Gone Wild, Dangerous Encounters and the (now cancelled) Wild and Uncut.

In a groundbreaking book — and subsequent PBS series — Shooting in the Wild, veteran nature-film producer and educator Chris Palmer examined all aspects of nature filmmaking, good and bad, from the money chase to the cult of celebrity, from the need to satisfy advertisers to the larger-than-life role played by vibrant, charismatic personalities like the late Steve Irwin of Crocodile Hunter fame.

Earth Day is as good a day as any to weigh the responsibilities, if there are any, of nature filmmaking. Palmer notes, for example, that there’s an argument to be made for including a message about conservation in any program that touches on a wilderness area threatened by environmental degradation — just about anywhere, in other words — or an animal species that faces extinction. Some environmentalists criticized the Oscar-winning March of the Penguins, for example, for not conveying the threat facing Antarctica posed by climate change and an ice melt that’s increasing more rapidly than anyone, not even the most pessimistic scientist, could have predicted.

Not everyone agrees. In a profile on 60 Minutes, Attenborough defended his landmark series Planet Earth, Blue Planet, Frozen Planet and others for not including an environmental message.

Attenborough decided, early in his career, that his duty was to inspire ordinary, everyday viewers, and move them by showing the natural world as it is, in its most pristine form, untrammelled by human intervention.

Attenborough chose to let viewers make up their own minds about the need for environmental conservation, without haranguing them with strident narration. Attenborough believes that’s one reason his programs appeal to as wide an audience as they do.

“Nobody wants to be told that the world is going to hell and it’s all your fault,” Attenborough explained.

The biggest threat facing wildlife in the cameras’ glare is not the sins of omission committed by blue-chip programs like March of the Penguins or Frozen Planet, though, but rather Jackass-style so-called “fang porn,” in which clips of animals fighting, copulating and behaving badly in general are cobbled together and served up to the viewing public as Faces of Death-like entertainment — delivered for kicks and cheap thrills. 

Irwin was accused of baiting and teasing snakes, crocodiles and other reptiles in Crocodile Hunter, but the fact is that, through his almost childlike enthusiasm and sense of wonder, he created widespread interest in animals ordinary viewers otherwise feared or knew little about, and he left a lasting legacy in the process.

Animal Planet and Sea Shepherd Society founder Paul Watson have been accused of creating a thinly disguised western — a revenge epic masquerading as nature TV, in Whale Wars — but the truth is that a worldwide TV audience has been exposed to the controversial practice of whaling off Antarctica.

There can be little justification — other than ratings, and the desire to make money — for programs like When Animals Attack or Lion vs. Cheetah, for example. (Spoiler warning: a fight to the death between a lion and a cheetah is a little like a fight between Manny Pacquiao and Pee Wee Herman: It’s not a fight at all. Sorry about that, but that is not something anyone wants or needs to see.)

Nature programming is a powerful force for shaping popular opinion, even if unintended consequences can be hard to predict at times. In an ideal world, nature programs would be uniformly high-minded, with positive ideals, breathtaking visuals and a message of inspirational and hope. They would be ethical and spiritually sound, made with integrity and with no need to deceive the audience. They would faithfully reflect nature as it is, while warning us what we might lose if it is not protected and defended.

Of course, in a perfect world the Peabody Awards would be synonymous with the Emmys, and Predators at War would never have made it onto the air. 

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