Q. To what extent do BBC ‘Planet Earth’ documentaries encourage ecological responsibility in higher socio-economic demographics?
As an enthusiastic conservationist, I have always been involved in initiatives that help save our planet. From keep cups and reusable bags to donations to Greenpeace, animals and nature are my world! Offering the world-renowned Attenborough-style flair and vivid, high resolution imagery to instil fascination, BBC’s 11 episode ‘Planet Earth’ series invites its audience into a fascinating world of natural wonders with the ultimate goal of achieving a higher level of ecological responsibility in higher socio-economic demographics.
Nature documentaries in first world societies, such as the one in which we live, are often intertwined with a mixture of narrative and fact to provide entertainment value, and are often also deconstructed further to adhere to local and cultural normalities (Fiscarelli, 2011). Having said this, it is even more likely that nature documentaries produced in low socio-economic societies will possess this blend of information as “funds have not been available in many countries” (Maclean, 2010). An article published by Morgan Richards in 2013 states that the ‘Planet Earth’ episodes are intended to be viewed as “unquestioned embodiments of its public service values… even in their most popular forms”. Thus, the focus of ‘Planet Earth’ was to utilise its “large budget” to target first world societies with the potential to impose ecological change, stimulating “a great obligation to make [the facts] as accurate as we possibly can” (Attenborough, 2007).
In the early stages of introducing the documentary film style to higher socio-economic demographics, images captured of the natural environment were intended to invite us into a world previously unexplored by our minds; an expansion of human vision (Horak, 2006). This remains true to some extent today, however documentaries alike are more frequently following in BBC’s footsteps – governing their content with underlying intentions of further encouraging a higher level of appreciation, care and environmental responsibility (brought about by the ever-growing issue of the effects of climate change on the world’s ecology). In this way, such publications are able to foster a sense of reduction in human supremacy, and amplify the voice of the natural world through audio-visuals and voiceover recording (Molloy, 2011).
So this is the intention, but to what extent have these efforts actually been successful? It’s a difficult question to answer conclusively, and I was unable to narrow down the impact that ‘Planet Earth’ had on specific first world societies such as Australia. This is due to the program’s overarching approach of appealing to local societies on a global level. However, a book entitled ‘Silent Summer: The State of Wildlife in Britain and Ireland’, may assist me in starting to unpack it.
‘Silent Summer’ claims that “[The BBC] are well known for their carefully crafted films on the environment and natural history”, and have managed to strike a “careful balance between entertaining a large audience and raising awareness of the conservation issues”.’ After the release of the ‘Planet Earth’ series in 2006, government funding in the UK for global biodiversity has increased by almost half, however this impact is not attributed to the series alone (Maclean, 2010). In addition, an affiliate none other than Sir David Attenborough himself has an outstanding following and influence on higher socio-economic demographics, and “‘Planet Earth’ is now used to brand wildlife content outside the United Kingdom across all platforms, including DVDs, Blu-Ray, licensed consumer products, feature films, live events, a website, YouTube channel, Twitter feed, Facebook page and programming blocs on international satellite channels” (Richards, 2013).
As the former Director of Programmes for the BBC and environmental protection enthusiast, Attenborough understands the importance of educating the public about preserving the natural world through depictions of its beauty. As a recognisable human spokesperson, Attenborough warns that “mankind is wrecking the environment that I have been showing… my job as a natural history film maker is to convey the reality of the environment so that people will recognise its value, its interest, its intrinsic merit and feel some responsibility for it” (Burgess & Unwin, 2007). Going far beyond entertainment value, ‘Planet Earth’ strives to achieve not only a change in attitudes towards the natural environment, but a change in behaviour. After watching the series, “the various pressure groups can get at [the audience] through their own channels and ask them to send a donation to, let us say, the World Wildlife Fund” (Attenborough, 2007). So Attenborough details a clear call to action here – one that requires attention on all social, moral, intellectual and political fronts. A clear depiction of how he encourages us to define ecological responsibility.
“We can create a world with clean air and water, unlimited energy and fish stocks that will sustain us well into the future. But to do that, we need a plan” – David Attenborough.
Well, this is his plan.
The BBC’s attempts to strengthen our involvement in ecological responsibility continue to be replicated throughout popular culture in the media, not only confined to the documentary film style. We see it in campaigns, we see it in TV advertisements and we read about it in the news – but never have we, as a privileged society, been personally invited into an intriguing world under stress that we have so much power to counteract. So, has ‘Planet Earth’ encouraged you to take better care of the unique environment we live in? I know it has for me.
- Burgess, J & Unwin, D 1984, ‘Exploring the living planet with David Attenborough’, Journal of Geography in Higher Education, vol. 8, no. 2, viewed 11 March 2019, < https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/03098268408708907?casa_token=bxoxlBmoipYAAAAA:fsXCEBG6R8SO8ODH2dO3K-Xi2STBiKbJrfCqK5tixeI8f4paKdtlXuxnm8bLOnj9St5MuDEN1cfAdQ>
- Fiscarelli, S.H, Bizelli, M.H & Fiscarelli, P.E 2011, ‘Education in technological world: communicating current and emerging research and technological efforts’, University of São Paulo, 11 March 2019, <http://www.formatex.info/ict/book/313-320.pdf>
- Horak, J.C 2007, ‘Wildlife Documentaries: From Classical Forms to Reality TV’, Indiana University Press, vol. 18, no. 4, viewed 11 March 2019, <https://muse.jhu.edu/article/209758/summary>
- Maclean, N 2010, ‘Silent Summer: The State of Wildlife in Britain and Ireland’, Cambridge University Press, viewed 11 March 2019, < https://books.google.com.au/books?hl=en&lr=&id=o_UPUCbekugC&oi=fnd&pg=PR8&dq=Attenborough+environmental+change&ots=mmZxnvIBnS&sig=82xoScwo7OaXe7FxIjkRAxaZ0r8#v=snippet&q=Attenborough&f=false>
- Molloy, C 2011, ‘Popular Media and Animals’, University of Brighton, viewed 12 March 2019, < https://books.google.com.au/books?hl=en&lr=&id=TCR-DAAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PP1&dq=animals+media&ots=7we-zBcHCM&sig=mTCbIEp08B7NpVA-sdj7zfbNdqo#v=onepage&q=animals%20media&f=false>
- Richards, M 2013, ‘Global Nature, Global Brand: BBC Earth and David Attenborough’s Landmark Wildlife Series’, Media International Australia, no. 146, viewed 12 March 2019, <https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/1329878X1314600118>