How short is short today? Packaging Nature for today’s television viewers

On 15 July 2007, I wrote about the award-winning natural history film-maker Neil Curry, based in South Africa, whom I last met during the Japan Wildlife Film Festival in Toyama in the summer of 2005.

Most recently, Neil made The Elephant, the Emperor and the Butterfly Tree, which has won several of the industry’s top awards.

I’ve since heard from him, and want to share some of his views on how best to package Nature and wildlife for today’s easily-distracted, attention-challenged audiences. He is responding to my post on 13 July 2007 titled Mine is shorter than yours, yipee!

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He says:

‘Mine is shorter than yours….’ is one of the issues I’ve been going on about for years and I’m delighted that Friends of the Earth has now come up with a competition for one-minute films. This ridiculous thing of the ‘standard’ broadcast slot for bluechip wildlife programmes being 52-minute is, in my opinion, one of the main reasons why the public’s view of Nature has become so ‘warped’.

You can’t sustain a 52-minute wildlife film without drama – so we end up with this on-going emphasis on killing, sex, things that are supposedly deadly to humans (everything from snakes and great white sharks to mosquitoes), and dramatic confrontations between macho men – and women – and animals. By insisting on these long films, television itself has actually ‘created’ the audience for wildlife violence – and I’ve been told by more than one commissioning editor that audiences aren’t interested in “place” and “habitat” films any more, they want to see big animals doing exciting things.

In short, Dallas with animals – wildlife “reality-TV”.

Based on my own experience, that’s rubbish. Yes, audiences want a well-told story but they can be equally fascinated by quite prosaic things in the complex inter-relationships of nature, provided the story is told properly. They don’t need all this ‘red in tooth and claw’ stuff. The superb, The Queen of Trees that is currently doing the rounds is a good example – as is the on-going popularity of Attenborough and some of the BBC’s mega-series.

In fact, the over-dramatised programmes often give a quite distorted view of what wildlife is really like. Most creatures don’t spend all their time fighting and killing one another, or looking for human beings to threaten and attack. But if film makers, no matter how serious they are about telling the truth, want to eat, have somewhere to live, educate their kids and so on, they simply have to comply with what the programmers want – and thus, the cycle continues. Of course, it sometimes backfires. Some years ago – unfortunately I can’t remember the exact details now – research in the UK found that school children on field trips into the countryside were bored, because “nothing was happening”. Wildlife programmes on television had led them to expect nature to be full of continuous action and excitement. If children find real nature and the countryside “boring”, imagine how that will influence them when they grow up and find themselves in positions of authority where they may have to make decisions about siting roads, factories, quarries and so on in otherwise unspoilt but “boring” countryside.

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If television would just take some of their hour-long wildlife slots and break of them into shorter segments of 30 or even 15 minutes, they would open up the screens to hundreds, perhaps even thousands of fascinating stories about some of the wonders of nature that are astonishing and intriguing, and that would grab audience attention – without any of the drama that is needed to sustain 52 minutes. In my own files I have dozens of stories like that – and so probably, do most other wildlife film makers – but we just never get the chance to tell them because there’s almost no market for short wildlife films on television.

Lord Reith, father of the BBC, said the job of broadcasting was to inform, educate and entertain – but nowadays unfortunately, much of wildlife programming seems to have got itself stuck solely in the entertainment category. It’s a pity because it means a lot of stuff that could give audiences a better understanding of the other life we share this planet with, is largely kept off our screens.

In the circumstances, it’s a miracle that The Elephant, the Emperor and the Butterfly Tree ever got made. It says a lot for the courage and acumen of Mike Gunton, who was commissioning editor on The Natural World at the time, that he was prepared to buck the trend and take it on. There’s no sex, no killing, no violent confrontations – just a boring old tree and a lot of small-scale interactions going on around it, plus a few examples of the dreaded Homo sapiens (who doesn’t even exist in Nature if lots of the wildlife TV programmes are to be believed).