From ‘The Green Planet’ to ‘The Mating Game,’ Climate Change Affects Tone of Nature Docs

Green Planet Water Guardians
Green Planet: Sam Barker; Water Guardians: About Premium Content

From raging fires in North America to fatal floods in Germany and famine in Madagascar, the terrifying impact of man-made climate change is clear.

Natural history films are big sellers in global TV markets. But now there appears to be a new willingness from TV types to put uncomfortable truths regarding environmental damage alongside feel-good shots of beautiful beasts and pristine landscapes.

“Big-scale natural history shows have evolved radically in the past decade,” says BBC Studios Productions’ factual chief Tom McDonald. “Ten years ago, any environmental messages tended to be annexed in ‘the making of…’ section hived off at the end of the program.”

However, now, he says, natural history TV has become more sophisticated and routinely “bakes in” environmental stories.

One of the highlights of BBC Studios’ Mipcom slate is “The Green Planet,” a five-parter co-produced with PBS, fronted by David Attenborough and made by the Corp’s Natural History Unit (NHU). Due to bow in early 2022, McDonald says the series contains a strong environmental story alongside state-of-the-art filming depicting the wonders of plant life. The series is shot in the U.S., Costa Rica, Croatia and northern Europe.

“Television is now making programs on climate change that have high impact,” he says. “I think there is a younger audience that is engaged with big, environmental stories.”

But, he notes, producing popular films that have a strong environmental message is challenging.

“No audience likes to feel they’re being told off,” he says. “It’s important to avoid hectoring. Also, finding voices that audiences trust is important. David Attenborough is an unbelievable guide through these issues. Instinctively viewers trust him.”

Audiences are more likely to watch if there is what McDonald calls “a narrative of hope,” and people are shown what they can do to make things better.

Cyril Danvers, co-producer, “The Water Guardians,” which is a four-part series for Canal Plus by About Premium Content, agrees. This series examines global water scarcity via several heartening personal stories.

“I believe that audiences need to see solutions beyond the chaos of climate change,” says Danvers. “Worldwide there are 2 billion people without access to safe drinking water. From Polynesia to the Sahel desert, via Las Vegas and Honduras, we see a doctor, a diver, a mayor, entrepreneurs and members of NGOs acting to improve water supply.”

Specialist U.K. natural history label, Silverback, made the ambitious 2019 “Our Planet” series for Netflix, also fronted by Attenborough. It didn’t pull its punches on how climate change is affecting wildlife but still generated an audience of more than 200 million.

Says Keith Scholey, co-CEO and director of Silverback: “The biggest issue with climate change is not how it’s covered in natural history programs. It needs to be more prevalent in all types of programming. That’s where the big gap is. There’s [almost] never been a blockbuster feature film or a rock song about climate change.”

He thinks it’s important that natural history film makers also continue to produce pure animal behavior programs. At Mipcom, Silverback’s “The Mating Game” is being distributed by BBC Studios.

“It’s probably wrong to have every single wildlife show talking about climate change or the environmental crisis. That can be counter-productive. We still have to celebrate the natural world.”