As Donald Trump looks to engineer the world in his own image and turn the planet orange, Sheffield Doc/Fest hosted the panel “Climate Change: The Greatest Story of Our Time?”. The session explored the challenges of telling the story of climate change on screen. The panel consisted of leading figures from across the factual industry, including Arrow Media’s Ash Potterton (Man Made Planet: Earth From Space, C4), Director Jeff Orlowski (Chasing Coral, Netflix), Director Julia Dahr (Thank You For The Rain), Prof Joe Smith (Open University) and Keo Film’s Will Anderson (Hugh’s War on Waste, BBC) and Sky Entertainment’s Celia Taylor.
The poisoned chalice
TV remains one of the most influential and readily accessible mediums for the public to learn about the world. And climate change represents the most significant threat to the survival of this planet. According to a recent IPSOS Mori poll, 80% of the global population now agree climate change is largely the result of human activity.
Despite the clear importance of the subject, climate change programming was previously regarded as a “poisoned chalice” among producers. Arrow’s Ash Potterton, admitted as much during the panel. But after making Man Made Planet: Earth from Space, Arrow recognised that issues with the genre’s “preachy” tone must be addressed. The challenge is to create a show which avoids the old tropes. It needs to be engaging and entertaining, with a broad appeal.
Putting the story first
This attitude shift is part of a wider trend within the production industry. Producers are beginning to explore innovative ways of making shows which tackle climate change. The UK is home to the most creative talent in the world and they’re making climate change shows people want to watch. The industry has recognised the need to put the story first and the subject second. It’s about encouraging producers to use their brilliant storytelling skills to eschew that “preachy” tone. This doesn’t mean every show is going to get it right. But it does mean key lessons are being learned about what works with an audience and what doesn’t.
Take Arrow’s Man Made Planet: Earth from Space as an example. For a supposedly unpopular genre, the ratings revealed that in the 16-24-year-old bracket viewing figures were up 73%! This was achieved by packaging the documentary as a never-before-seen perspective on how the world has changed over the past 45 years. And not solely about climate change.
Climate change is a subject which struggles with balancing small human elements with the grand central issue. It’s a problem of creating scale. With Man Made Planet: Earth from Space, the solution was bouncing from the macro (satellite time-lapse images images showing the dramatic changes caused by mankind) to the individual (plucking out personal stories about the impact climate change has had on them), in order to make it feel both epic and intimate.
Finding a platform
With SVoD, the opportunities to reach different groups of people has become even easier. Chasing Coral from Emmy Award winning director Jeff Orlowski launches on Netflix in July, and tackles the catastrophic damage of coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef. And whilst an exceptional film, where else would such content have found a home where it could reach so many? Orlowski spoke about how Netflix allowed them to take the film on tour to schools, colleges, universities and community centres. We all know someone with a Netflix account, so by letting Orlowski put it on a big screen, it becomes extra marketing for the platform. It also means that the message about global warming reaches a far wider audience – a win-win situation.
With Trump abandoning the Paris climate agreement, it has never been more important for the global community to tackle the single greatest threat to our existence. We’re on the right path and the TV industry is waking up to the responsibility of using its influence as storytellers to spread the message.
There’s just one last thing I’d like to leave you with; more needs to be done and not just by telling stories. It’s time to practice what is being preached. Production companies need to really think about how they can be greener. A good place to start is the albert sustainability initiative for the visual-arts; a venture set up in conjunction with BAFTA which provides guidelines and a commitment to being an eco-friendly producer. I’ll raise an ethically sourced plastic bottle of water to that!
By Xander Ross, Senior Account Executive at Franklin Rae