I’ve watched monstrous housewives chasing each other through the streets of a gated community wielding steak knives (The Real Housewives). I’ve witnessed a former Navy Seal crying like a newborn infant when locked in a closet with a legion of cockroaches (Fear Factor). I’ve sat glued to my television screen (iPad actually) watching a hot tub filled with overly tanned adolescent girls beating each other to a drunken pulp to win the affection of an equally bronzed and steroid-enhanced minor felon (Jersey Shore).
And yes, I enjoyed every histrionic minute of it – to a point. While I admit I was intrigued, engaged and mildly titillated at these staged melodramatic moments of human depravity, I also breathed a sigh of annoyance.
Welcome to the world of 21st-century reality TV. Though one could argue its existence is either the cause or effect of a society gone amok, á la Sodom and Gomorrah, it’s entertainment. No real harm done for the most part.
But the reality show paradigm has crept into wildlife programming, and this is where something is going horribly wrong.
Full disclosure: I do not come from the wildlife film world, or even the documentary world. I’m a commercial director and a filmmaker; my background is in branded content and entertainment. I stumbled into the nature filmmaking world after seeing the Academy Award™-winning documentary The Cove directed by Louis Psihoyos (Racing Extinction) which opened my eyes to the brutality of the captive whale and dolphin industry.
Thanks to the magic of social media, I encountered the story of Lolita, a killer whale who’s spent the last four decades in the smallest orca tank in the world. In response to her heartbreaking story, I created the Save Lolita Public Service Announcement which led to producing a documentary short for the Orca Network featuring renowned orca biologist Dr. Ingrid Visser.
Embarking into this world as a nature newcomer, from my industry background and perspective, I expected to see a lot of differences between entertainment and wildlife programming. It turns out there aren’t many.
It’s no secret that broadcast entertainment is a business. The industry machine demands money to fuel its churning, and many if not all programming decisions are made with profitability as the main factor. As frustrating as it is for many creative producers (myself included), this is the hard-edged truth.
Reality television show aren’t going away anytime soon. They’re cheap to shoot, don’t require big stars with their hefty price tags and exacting dressing room demands (six candy dishes filled with M&Ms with all the blue ones removed please) and are basically quick moneymakers for the networks. They usually follow a formula – from the personalities cast, to the episode structure, to the motion graphics, to the music. In fact, an entire reality show shooting and editing style has evolved into standard practice.
On an artistic level, it can be frustrating that this genre is bulldozing all other forms of entertainment into oblivion. But its subjects or “victims” are the wanna-be actors who seek their 15 minutes of fame, to bask in whatever spotlight they can grab, regardless of how it may destroy their personal lives or the lives of those around them. More power to them if they choose to participate and more power to us if we choose to watch.
But threatened elephants did not a sign a release and ask to be exploited for a television show, and endangered sharks do not receive residuals every time their image is used to promote hunting their kind to extinction.
Our wildlife is in mission-critical mode. Animals are going extinct 1,000 times more rapidly than originally thought. Our oceans are acidifying and natural habitats are dwindling. If anything, now more than ever, wildlife programming should be exploding with new shows aiming to protect animals, not exploit and hunt them.
When I first attended network wildlife programming meetings something didn’t sit right. And it wasn’t just me; other filmmakers and conservationists spoke of their discomfort as well. The same topic kept coming up: with each passing television season programming is getting more and more exploitative and staged.
I had an interesting exchange with an executive producer of a major cable network. The executive was clearly intelligent, articulate and well versed in his game. He also appeared to have a genuine concern for wildlife. When I asked about the current trend in reality wildlife programming, he responded in a low but defeatist tone, “Yeah, I don’t like it either, but this is what makes money.”
Most successful reality show producers will tell you that the key ingredient of a successful program is the characters. The scenario, locations and action are secondary. Without a captivating and interesting character, the audience won’t return week after week.
From a narrative standpoint, this makes perfect sense. The audience must relate to and like the main character – this is screenwriting 101. So, in the quest to create a lucrative show, networks apply this same formula to wildlife programming – but something is getting lost in translation.
Reality producers working specifically in wildlife shows will tell you that they are interested in the animal-human connection. At first, to combine these two concepts seems a logical step in creating an engaging program. But, if you break them down – the interesting main character, the human-animal connection – the common denominator is the main character. The “human” main character.
The animals are secondary. They are props used to showcase the over-the-top and dramatic personality of the human protagonist. The intention? To indulge our viewing desires. The subtext? Welcome to the freak show. The social misanthrope who houses 20 alligators in his living room and refers to them as his “children.” Or the jealous mistress who kills her boyfriend by planting a spitting cobra in his bed. Or the self-aggrandizing and arrogant explorer who supposedly puts his life on the line to get that death-defying camera angle. Sure, we despise this rogue’s gallery of sundry individuals, but we keep on watching.
I don’t think exploiting wildlife is the outright goal of the networks, but in the quest for bigger and better ratings, the stakes become higher, the human characters get more insane, and the animals are the ones who suffer as a side effect.
And they suffer in three critical ways.
First, many shows feature wild animals that are baited to react or captive animals disguised as wild. Some are mistreated or killed as a result of the filming.
Second, the messaging of these programs is either misleading or blatantly dishonest. This includes everything from presenting these creatures as monsters (the great white shark is a prime example) to failing to communicate true animal conservation information. Many times, actors are used to portray “scientists” performing a supposedly legitimate “experiment.” In the process, animals may be harassed and many times injured in the name of research for a better understanding of the species, when the entire operation is actually a fancy ruse for ratings.
Third and most nefarious is celebration of hunting for glory. Animals such as the great white shark, the bluefin tuna and the African lion are portrayed as trophies to justify human exploitation.
Wildlife is so precious, with so many species disappearing. For a network with a huge amount of reach, money and influence to intentionally misinform, mislead and lie to the public is a crime that could force us down a path from which there is no return.
True conservation wildlife programming does not have to be dull, and I am not against sensationalism and hype. Quite the contrary. Programmers need to reach an audience with a short attention span, and pizzazz is one way to do it. But how about using pizzazz to convey a true conservation message, with legitimate science to back it up?
Not all shows are guilty as charged. There are, in my opinion, some very good wildlife and documentary programs, many of them running on the same networks that air the guilty shows in question.
Perhaps networks need to hire different programming execs to sit behind the desks of their golden offices. Peter Benchley, the author of Jaws, later regretted portraying sharks as monsters and mindless killers in his novel, and spent his remaining years trying to promote a positive image of sharks.
Ric O’Barry, the original dolphin trainer from the Flipper television show from the ’60s, had a change of heart when the captive dolphin Kathy, who played Flipper, died in his arms. Since that day, he has been pushing to end the inhumane practice of keeping these very intelligent and social mammals in captivity. O’Barry also exposed the brutal yearly dolphin slaughter in Taiji Japan featured in the documentary The Cove.
Both Benchley and O’Barry seek to undo an unethical man-made violation of nature. Networks can have the same epiphany, and come out the winner in all of this.
Novelist Edward Abbey stated, “It’s not enough to understand the natural world, the point is to defend and preserve it.” Do television networks have a responsibility to protect wildlife and promote conservation? I think they do and I earnestly hope they embrace a better relationship with the wild.
From my perspective, networks can spoon out as much foolery as they want in the name of entertainment, and I might even watch some of it. But if they continue to feature wildlife or attempt to promote what they consider to be conservation for the good of the planet, they should leave Honey Boo-Boo and Snooki out of it.