Discovery Channel and unsustainable nature filmmaking

On Tuesday the Daily Mail reported that the Discovery Channel will not broadcast the final episode of the popular Frozen Planet series in the U.S. Why? Because the show deals with climate change, an emerging threat to animals living in the subzero regions of our planet. Apparently, Discovery thinks this topic will offend the political sensibilities of some portion of its U.S. audience. How ridiculous. Climate change is a matter for science, not politics (or at least it should be). And even more ridiculous is that Discovery helped pay for the production of the very episode that they now refuse to air.

This got me thinking about the genre of so-called ‘blue-chip’ nature documentaries like Frozen Planet. These docs are built around charismatic megafauna engaged in life or death struggles. And honestly, some of these films are my favorites.  I mean, who can resist the pull of a full-grown male lion chasing down a hyena in a battle to the death? Who can say they don’t like Discovery’s ‘Shark Week’–just a little bit?

But I think at one time these blue-chip films served an important purpose beyond entertainment. Much like ethnographic films that exposed audiences in industrialized countries to remote cultures, nature films exposed those same audiences to species and worlds that they couldn’t even imagine existed. And when this genre really took off in the 1960s there still were many pristine, untouched pockets of wilderness. Filmmakers, much like the explorers of old, were bringing back a little piece of the world to the masses. What’s more, these films gave the audience an appreciation of wildlife that they might not have otherwise had.

But that era has passed. By all accounts, totally wild, biodiverse spaces face immense pressure from the spread of humanity across the globe. The ultimate pressure facing all species is, of course, human-driven climate change. It has therefore become increasingly disingenuous for filmmakers to portray charismatic megafauna romping about in a pristine, virginal version of nature immune to the effects of human activity. This idea isn’t new.  In fact, there’s an entire book about it by the title of  Wildlife Films.

This doesn’t mean that a for-profit outlet like Discovery is obligated to make every single minute of every show some kind of self-pitying environmental gloom-and-doom fest. But they do have an obligation not to delude people in the name of entertainment; not to seed an image in the viewer’s mind of nature untouched by the far-reaching impacts of our consumer excesses. Therefore, I think that we should begin to brand blue-chip nature documentaries that lack any mention of human environmental impact as unsustainable filmmaking. If documentaries only show us the beautiful animals that we share the planet with but never talk about how we are affecting those  animals they are, in essence, speaking a lie by omission.  If I as the viewer think that wild animals are  “doing just fine” then I have no reason to change my behavior and take action to improve things. And don’t give profit as an excuse, even the consumer behemoth Walmart, a company responsible for a lion’s share of consumerism in this country is getting into the sustainability act.

In this case, the filmmakers at the BBC did their due diligence by creating a companion episode that deals with the greatest threat to our polar ice caps and the creatures that live there. They’ve also created similar fare as part of other series. The groundbreaking Blue Planet series included the eco doc Deep Trouble. The more recent Planet Earth series, had three companion episodes highlighting conservation issues around species featured in the films.  As I understand it,  all of these environmental add-ons, including the final Frozen Planet episode, were broadcast on the BBC.

Isn’t it about time that Discovery did their due diligence, and made a commitment to educate the public about how humanity is affecting the planet’s remaining wild spaces and the creatures that live there? After all, Discovery depends on these animals to star in their films. From my standpoint, to not do everything in their power to protect this natural resource is just bad business.

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