Frozen Planet Freezes Out Climate

BBC’s polar series unwisely sets apart episode about global warming

The BBC is taking a mild pummeling for giving foreign television networks the option not to buy an episode about climate change when purchasing rights to air a nature and wildlife series about Earth’s polar regions.

British viewers will see all seven episodes of Frozen Planet, but viewers in other countries, including the US, will see only six, The Telegraph reported on Tuesday. “Over thirty networks across the world have bought the series, but a third of them” have opted out the final episode, “On Thin Ice,” as well as a behind-the-scenes documentary also being offered as an “extra.”

The Telegraph quoted a variety of environmentalists calling the BBC irresponsible and accusing it of censorship. A spokeswoman for the Corporation said that “In international sales it is normal practice to offer broadcasters the option to take which parts they want, as well as add-ons, such as the one-hour Making Of episode.” According to the paper, the spokeswoman “said it was not be feasible to force networks to buy the climate change episode as it features Sir David [Attenborough] talking extensively to the camera and there are many countries where he is not famous.”

The BBC’s blog elaborated, stressing that “the majority of international broadcasters will show all Frozen Planet episodes”:

The first six episodes of Frozen Planet have a clear story arc charting a year in our polar regions and are narrated by David Attenborough, who appears briefly on camera in the opening episode. In non-English speaking countries, this out-of-shot narration is the preferred way of buying documentaries as it gives broadcasters the opportunity to voice-over in the relevant local language, without having to re-edit the programme.

The seventh and final episode of the series “Frozen Planet: On Thin Ice” is presenter-led with David Attenborough in shot. Although it is filmed by the same team and to the same production standard, this programme is necessarily different in style. Having a presenter in vision requires many broadcasters to have the programme dubbed, ultimately giving some audiences a very different experience. It is for this reason and not the content - that we market the episode separately, giving broadcasters the flexibility in how they schedule the programme.

The fact that the vast majority of broadcasters have licensed the Frozen Planet:On Thin Ice episode is testament to the appeal of David Attenborough.

Nonetheless, The Telegraph suggested that broadcasters’ decisions may have had as much to do with their countries’ biases as their appreciation of Attenborough. According to it article, the BBC said that Discovery Channel, which co-produced Frozen Planet and is airing the series in the US, “had a ‘scheduling issue so only had slots for six episodes’, so ‘elements’ of the climate change episode would be incorporated into their final show, with editorial assistance from the Corporation.”

In the paragraph before it presented that explanation, however, the paper stressed that “climate change skeptics are a particularly strong group” in the US. The Daily Mail, a British tabloid that (like The Telegraph) often makes space those skeptics, took it two steps further, suggesting that political calculus was a factor alleging while taking a cheap shot at the BBC. “The timing of a one-sided global warming programme could be particularly sensitive in the U.S., where climate change is an issue in the presidential race,” its article speculated.

While it is true that skepticism and apathy about climate change are problems in the US and that Republican presidential candidates have used climate change as a wedge issue, it’s hard to believe that the BBC and Discovery Channel, which have both produced mounds of climate coverage over the years, were afraid of offending skeptics. But this isn’t the first time in recent months that critics have charged that the Corporation has gone soft on climate coverage.

At the beginning of 2010, the BBC Trust—the governing body of the BBC—announced that it would review the accuracy and impartiality of the outlet’s coverage of science, citing controversial stories such as climate change as its motivation. The Trust regularly conducts such reviews, but members of the BBC’s science staff as well as outside critics worried at the time that it risked sending the wrong message.

“I dare say [the review] might be useful, but I’m concerned about the way it has been framed,” Guardian columnist and science media critic Ben Goldacre told CJR. “‘Impartial’ is a word you use to describe political disputes. We don’t want media coverage of science to be obsessed with representing all political constituencies and extreme interest groups, confusing ‘balance’ with ‘accuracy.’”

When the results of the review finally arrived in July, however, they actually recognized and criticized such confusion. Steve Jones, emeritus professor of genetics at University College London, who carried out part of the review, praised the BBC for “its high quality… clear, accurate and impartial” science coverage. But he added that at times an “over-rigid” application of editorial guidelines blinded the BBC to the “non-contentious” nature of some stories and led it give “undue attention to marginal opinion.”

That view of the BBC’s coverage echoed a more forceful reproach that former BBC correspondent and editor Mark Brayne made in September 2010, when he told CliamteProgress’s Joe Romm that:

On climate change, that BBC journalistic urgency to be seen to be fair now means, after a period between Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth and the disaster of Copenhagen when global warming was everywhere in the output, that the Corporation has been bending over backwards to reflect the opposite, sceptical view.

That’s going a bit far. Asked about Brayne’s comment at the time, BBC spokeswoman Laura Zetterberg wrote in an e-mail:

We cover a range of environmental and scientific stories and will continue to do so in an impartial and open minded way, examining and weighing up all the material facts. We don’t endorse a specific argument - our job is to help audiences understand the debates around climate change and ensure that our coverage represents a range of views and interpretations.

That’s a perfectly reasonable response, as long as BBC editors and reporters adhere to the impartial review’s strong admonition to avoid “false balance.” They seem to be doing just that.

The decision to offer Frozen Planet’s climate-change episode as an optional extra is, for the most part, an entirely different matter, although it does lend credence to accusations that the BBC’s climate coverage isn’t as vigorous as it used to be. Its marketing strategy may be fairly “standard,” as it claims, but if the last episode’s format was so different that it set it apart from the others, one has to question the episode’s editorial approach.

A complete and comprehensive series about the poles simply must include a discussion of climate change, and it’s up to the journalists involved to make that discussion is cohesive, so that viewers get the full picture, rather than six-sevenths.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard. Tags: , , ,