Did the BBC 'drop' Frozen Planet episode because it featured climate change?

  • 16 Nov 2011, 15:24
  • Verity Payne

If you like Killer whales, seals and lingering shots of the polar ice caps you've no doubt been watching Frozen Planet, the latest spectacular from the BBC's Natural History Unit. Created in partnership with the Open University, the series offers previously unseen footage of polar life introduced by Sir David Attenborough.

However, Frozen Planet has come under some scrutiny with press reports suggesting that the BBC has separated the series' final episode, discussing the effects of climate change on the polar climates, in order to help the show sell better abroad. This has been labelled 'unhelpful' by environmental campaigners, who accuse the BBC of ' losing their nerve' and pandering to climate skeptics. Climate skeptic commentators are also none too happy, asking why it is necessary that climate change be covered at all within this sort of programme.

But is there any substance to these accusations? Geoffrey Lean, writing in the Telegraph, reported that the last episode of the Frozen Planet series, entitled 'On thin ice', will cover science showing how polar regions are changing as they warm, allowing narrator David Attenborough to bring together "two largely separate strands of his life - as the father of natural history television, and as a growing voice of environmental concern."

The Frozen Planet website describes this final episode:

"David Attenborough reveals how scientists measure the changes in the polar regions and what they mean for the animals and people who live there, as well as for the whole planet."

In one line of his piece, Lean suggested that separating out the series' climate coverage into a single programme may have had something to do with "the BBC's desire to maximise sales by avoiding controversy", and that "Attenborough's episode on global warming is being marketed separately from the rest of Frozen Planet."

Lean's comments were seized on by the Daily Mail, who reported that the thirty countries to whom the series was sold were offered the seventh episode, which features polar climate change, as a 'companion episode'. The say that ten of those countries will not show the this episode, including the US as:

"It is feared a show that preaches global warming could upset viewers in the U.S., where around half of people do not believe in climate change."

Frozen Planet will be aired in the US by Discovery - one of several international production partners.

But it's not clear that offering the last episode as a companion piece was due to the content. Unsurprisingly, the BBC deny that this was the case - Caroline Torrance, Director of Programme Investment at BBC Worldwide, suggests that it's production issues which are relevant:

"The seventh and final episode of the series "Frozen Planet: On Thin Ice" is presenter-led with David Attenborough in shot... 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."

She suggests that "the vast majority of broadcasters" will show the whole Frozen Planet series but does not clarify which countries will get all seven.

It also appears the US will get material on climate change from the seventh episode - according the the Telegraph parts of the episode featuring climate change will be interspersed through the episodes shown in the US - so it doesn't appear that material about climate change has been excluded. (Although the details are unclear - the series will be shown in the US next year.)

"...The BBC said that Discovery, which shows 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."

Dr Mark Brandon, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Science at The Open University and academic consultant for the series, told us that the decision to put the climate science in one episode was not down to marketing:

"To tell a BBC 1 audience about the poles you have to accept that we live in a world where most people do not recognize that the Arctic is largely ocean with a few metres of sea ice cover, whereas the Antarctic is a continent covered with ice kilometres thick. With this parameter in mind, how do you get across the difference between the largest seasonal change on the planet and the observations of longer term change? It's a confusion that is deliberately made by many commentators. Telling the story in its own episode will help viewers see the difference between climate change and the natural seasonal cycle. Overall it will help viewers to see the importance of the climate driven changes being observed."

Dr Brandon also told us that a series about the Polar regions could not give a full picture of polar science without covering climate change, saying:

"When the series Frozen Planet was first on the table as a BBC / Open University Co-Production there was general agreement that the story the polar world has to include the changes of the near future. The regions themselves are about change whether seasonal or longer term so it should not be a surprise to anyone that climate change is within the main body of the series."

Dr Brandon noted that scientists have worked closely with the BBC team to produce the programmes:

"In the same way that the best cetacean biologists tracked orca for the BBC, some of the best glaciologists have input into program 7. There is no need for hyperbole or extrapolation and the audience deserve to be told what we have measured right now, and how it the regions will change over a human timescales. I believe that the BBC1 audience are crying out for this level of accurate information and, it has been a brilliant experience to work with a BBC team who are interested in working only with robust and solid science."


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