Shilpa Ganatra investigates how the appeal of natural history TV is growing in eco-conscious times
Just three days into 2021, the BBC secured its first big hitter of the year: A Perfect Planet, narrated by Sir David Attenborough, drew in 6.2 million viewers. That’s on a par with previous series premieres such as Seven Worlds, One Planet (6.8 million), Dynasties (5.7 million viewers) and Blue Planet II (10.4 million).
It’s a sign that the natural history genre continues to thrive. Netflix, Disney+ and Apple TV+ are all commissioning high-end, original, nature programming; Discovery has recently announced a new nature-heavy streaming service, while Sky has a dedicated nature channel, spearheaded by three or four landmark series a year.
At the same time, the traditional beating heart of the genre, the BBC’s Natural History Unit (NHU), has announced an expansion of its Bristol HQ and a new outpost in Los Angeles, as the global demand for nature programmes surges.
The gold rush was already in full flow when the pandemic hit. As Tom McDonald, director of BBC Studios Factual, explains, natural history ticks all the boxes for lockdown audiences.
“The trends in the pandemic are clear: audiences want escapism – things with bright colours or the cosiness of shows such as The Repair Shop,” he says. “Or they want escapism in the form of a complex narrative, such as twisty-turny crime with heroes and villains. Natural history speaks to both those needs at the same time. It’s a comfort, but it’s also thrilling and distracting.
“Another aspect is the interest in the environment. The BBC’s Science Unit, which collaborates closely with the NHU, made Extinction: The Facts, which [attracted an audience of] 4 million in its opening week. That was incredible for a hard-hitting film in the middle of a pandemic.”
We saw the tangible effect that filmmaking can have with An Inconvenient Truth in 2006 and Blue Planet II in 2017, both of which delivered persuasive environmental messages.
Keith Scholey, co-founder and co-CEO of Silverback Films, the production company behind A Perfect Planet and A Life on Our Planet among others (and recently bought by All3Media), explains that “scientists know what needs to be done, but the world is not going that way because most people don’t understand the seriousness of what’s playing out.
“So natural history film-makers have a responsibility to urgently get that out. As David Attenborough says, in one way, the environmental crisis is a communication crisis.”
But meeting the increased demand – even with higher commissioning budgets – is far from straightforward. For starters, the pandemic has halted production in key countries. And even when filming returns, there’s no hurrying up giant tortoises so the crew can begin their next project.
Moreover, only a limited number of production staff have the specialist experience to deliver a premium show. “A landmark series can take four years to deliver, and you’ve got to work on three or four of those to become a producer,” says Scholey.
“The danger is that people will get overpromoted and the quality will fall. And if buyers come in to a new genre expecting a certain standard because of what they’ve seen before, and that doesn’t happen, they will think it doesn’t work and move on.”
BBC Studios NHU’s expansion to Los Angeles is both a symptom and a solution, as it addresses interest in natural history globally, while creating an opportunity to recruit and train to a best-in-class standard. Says McDonald: “If we weren’t setting up in LA, we would still be winning commissions from US broadcasters. The expansion is about the depth of the relationship we have, and the opportunity to tap into the brilliant emerging US film-makers out there.”
As the need for engaging natural history programmes increases, it is evident that there’s only one David Attenborough to go around. Has his dominance as a presenter of blue-chip shows stifled the search for new talent?
“Possibly,” concedes Scholey. “He’s an immense figure so, naturally, things have gravitated towards him. There are great presenters who have come through and we work with many of them. But they wouldn’t be asked to be Director-General of the BBC or present at the World Economic Forum.”
There’s a strong list of well-known wildlife presenters – such as Chris Packham, Liz Bonnin and Steve Backshall – but newcomers would be forgiven for feeling that it’s a particularly tricky genre in which to make headway.
It’s a situation that’s familiar to Lizzie Daly, a Welsh wildlife biologist who has presented for Animal Planet, National Geographic and BBC Two, and is due to front a three-part series on the online platform BBC Earth.
“It’s a difficult industry to get into because there’s so much competition – there’s only a handful of landmark productions and they only want one presenter,” she says. “But now, if you’re passionate about the natural world, you’ll find ways to tell stories, even if it’s via YouTube.”
Natural history presenting is susceptible to becoming celebrity-led, like travel and entertainment shows. For example, Hollywood star Paul Rudd narrates the Apple TV+ series Tiny World.
But Daly hopes that the move towards a global approach will allow the reporting of local conservationists to come to the fore. “That trend’s become a lot more noticeable recently,” she says, citing Our Gorongosa, a film about the national park fronted by Dominique Gonçalves, who runs the Gorongosa Elephant Ecology Project.
“Audiences want the authenticity of someone who knows that topic well. That’s how David Attenborough became so respected. Plus, when it comes to on-screen presenting, we have a responsibility to not travel across the world all the time.”
"Scientists know what needs to be done, but… the environmental crisis is a communication crisis"
Emerging cameraman/presenter Hamza Yassin (host of CBeebies’ Let’s Go for a Walk as Ranger Hamza) believes that an inclusive approach to presenting helps to tell natural history stories through a new lens. “It’s about reflecting the audience,” he says. “Also, finding new talent will bring in younger film-makers. As the older generation, we need to make sure that we’re including the younger generation, otherwise they’ll feel disconnected.”
The shift is not only in the “who” of the storytelling, but also the “how”. We have already seen a growing emphasis on narrative, “and, with super-saturation of the genre, it’s going to become even more key,” warns Scholey.
Technological innovation will continue to help inject new life to stories. Attenborough’s forthcoming series with the BBC, The Green Planet, will be accompanied by a 5G-friendly app that uses augmented reality to bring the show’s exotic plants into viewers’ homes.
“I think the golden ticket is always about the next visual perspective, in the way that Seven Worlds used drones so effectively,” says McDonald. “If you look back 10 years ago, it was all quite far away – you couldn’t get that close to animals. Audiences have an unbelievable proximity now, and they desire to be in the thick of the action. And I think we’ll see more CGI. That hybrid between fact and fiction is an interesting area.”
With these developments on the horizon, the slate for the months ahead already looks crammed with natural history. Frozen Planet II is due later this year, Greta Thunberg will be airing her debut series for the BBC, and Planet Defenders will be introduced to CBBC. Meanwhile, ITV re-enters the landmark natural history arena with A Year on Planet Earth.
While the genre is clearly in the middle of a purple patch, Scholey warns that, akin to its subject matter, balancing forces are at work.
“I’ve seen a few of these cycles before, so there’s a slight sense of déjà vu,” he says. “To me, the interesting thing is how long this boom will last for – and what happens afterwards.”