Environmental alarmism a 'turn-off' for viewers

Photos: via BBC
Photos: via BBC
SIr David Attenborough says Dynasties, his new wildlife series, will be gripping, truthful and entertaining, but not overtly campaigning. Jonathan Watts caught up with the veteran broadcaster. 

Sir David Attenborough. Photo: Reuters
Sir David Attenborough. Photo: Reuters

Sir David Attenborough, the world's best-known wildlife storyteller, believes repeated warnings about human destruction of the natural world can be a "turn-off" for viewers - a comment that is likely to reignite the debate about whether the veteran broadcaster's primary duty is to entertain or educate.

The presenter of Blue Planet II and Planet Earth II said the impact of habitat loss, climate change and pollution were evident everywhere, but sounding the alarm too often could be counterproductive.

"We do have a problem. Every time the bell rings, every time that image [of a threatened animal] comes up, do you say `remember, they are in danger'? How often do you say this without becoming a real turn-off? It would be irresponsible to ignore it, but equally I believe we have a responsibility to make programmes that look at all the rest of the aspects and not just this one," Attenborough (92) said recently.

Four of the five episodes of Dynasties focus on a "ruler" - lion, chimpanzee, wolf and tiger - following their power struggles, fight for survival and attempts to extend their family into the next generation. The other - about an emperor penguin - will look at how co-operation rather than competition is the only way to survive in the harsh Antarctic environment.

The series addresses the terrifyingly high level of wildlife extinction (for example, 95% of tigers have disappeared in the last century) and mentions drought and conflict along with encroaching human communities, but it steers clear of putting any blame on viewers themselves, most of whom will be first-world consumers whose lifestyles are one of the main driving forces behind habitat loss and climate change.

Attenborough said his aim was not to be overtly campaigning. "We all have responsibilities as citizens but our primary job is to make a series that is gripping and truthful, and talks about something important - and to tell it in its round fullness," he said. "These are not ecological programmes. They are not proselytising programmes. They are not alarmist programmes. What they are is a new form of wildlife film-making."

Dynasties was filmed over two years in five locations. While previous wildlife documentaries have been criticised for simulating or recreating scenes in studios, Attenborough - who wrote and narrated the script after seeing the tapes in London - said Dynasties was a warts-and-all record of what happened during that time.

When this approach was originally proposed by executive producer Mike Gunton it evoked astonishment, Attenborough said. "Their solution is extraordinarily brave. They said, `We won't fabricate anything. We will take a situation that what we know from researchers in the field is likely to develop into something interesting' and then they followed it for two years," he said.

"When Mike first talked to me about it I said, `You're mad. In two years you can't know for sure that something will happen. You have got to be there when it does. At the end of it, what if nothing happens? That's a huge financial investment.' But it happened. Extraordinarily interesting things happened in all five locations that they chose."

Gunton said the team went through a casting process to identify which animals would have "box-office appeal", but they were also chosen because they were endangered and because human pressures, especially intrusion into their territory, were adding to an already tough struggle for survival.

The goal, he said, was to provide viewers with insights into wildlife that would then motivate them to get more involved. "You want people to understand the wonder of nature. Some spin-off is that if they appreciate the wonder, then they care about it, and that's when it brings you to your other mission - which is to make people interested, then more likely to care and conserve, and become active in saving the planet," he said.

- Guardian News and Media

• Dynasties premieres Sunday, January 20, at 7pm on TVNZ1.


Lots of things are turn offs, but when the issue is species' survival, media caution won't cut it. Besides, you can never play to the audience. Run the unvarnished truth and let the viewers reach their own conclusions.