The Blue Planet Effect

Catherine Kelliher
Catherine Kelliher 18th June 2018

How good is TV coverage of the environment? Blue Planet II showed us the damage plastics are doing to our oceans. Hugh’s War on Waste highlighted waste from coffee cups that could not be recycled, vegetables grown by farmers but rejected by supermarkets and excess packaging from suppliers like Amazon. But how could TV do better? How can it help us as consumers to understand the environmental impact of decisions we take? How can it raise awareness of climate change?

At this year’s Sheffield Documentary Festival, there was much talk of ‘the Blue Planet effect.’ The prominence with which the David Attenborough fronted series featured plastic shocked many viewers into action. One of those shocked viewers was reportedly Michael Gove, the Environment Secretary.

It was interesting to hear in Sheffield from Tom McDonald, the BBC executive who commissioned Blue Planet II. When the series was first commissioned there was no plan to feature plastic. It was only when filming began and the film crews encountered so much plastic in the oceans that the producers decided this had to be a major theme of the series.

The way the audience responded to the programme, Tom McDonald told delegates at Sheffield, has given the BBC the confidence to commission more programmes that look at our impact on the environment. There will be more on plastics and these shows will run in prime time on BBC1. And there will be a new one-off BBC1 programme fronted by Stacey Dooley that looks at the impact on the environment of the clothes we buy.

At IBT, we have a longstanding interest in environmental issues and we welcome these new moves by the BBC. We’d like to see the other principal public service broadcasters, ITV and Channel 4, follow the BBC’s lead.

At ITV this is certainly taking place with the popular soap, Emmerdale, featuring characters who use recyclable cups and bags, drive electric vehicles and talk about environmental issues, according to Philip Holdgate, project lead of ITV’s Production Green Team. As Holdgate rightly says, this is a powerful tool to normalise sustainable behaviour as Emmerdale reaches 7 million viewers every night on ITV.


But more and better TV coverage of the environment is urgent

The major environmental challenge facing us is climate change. And it’s urgent. At Paris in December 2015, global leaders committed themselves to big reductions in carbon emissions with the goal of reducing global warming to a maximum of 2 degrees. If this is to be achieved we need to make huge changes in our behaviour.

But there is little popular understanding in the UK of what changes individuals can make to reduce their own carbon emissions. When we have held events with producers and broadcasters, we’ve found that many of them admit to ignorance on this subject.

Television has the ability to reach mass audiences and to contribute to important changes in behaviour. Blue Planet II is an example of this and so is Hugh’s War On Waste, another BBC1 show. In this series, the chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall focused on three issues: non-recyclable coffee cups; food waste on farms due to supermarkets rejecting perfectly good ‘wonky’ vegetables because they were the wrong size or shape; and excess packaging by companies like Amazon.

War On Waste was a great show because it put itself in the position of the viewer – it didn’t lecture or talk down – and it focused on practical steps that viewers could take.


So how could TV do better?

If we look at climate change and how best to tackle it, there are three priority areas: transport, energy use and agriculture. These are the areas of life responsible for the most greenhouse gas emissions.

We need popular television that looks at the environmental impact of transport, flying, car travel and electric cars.

TV should be doing more on the home – heating, insulation, energy efficient appliances, solar power, thermostats, smart meters. We do have programmes on homes and house building – like Grand Designs – but it’s rare for them to touch on these issues.

The third major contributor is agriculture which accounts for 20% of emissions. We need to look at what we eat, where the food comes from, its carbon footprint and the impact of food waste on the environment.  TV has plenty of very good food shows – like Food Unwrapped on Channel 4 – but they don’t look at the carbon footprint of food.

We need more shows that help us to think about our role as consumers and the impact of the decisions that we take. I recognise that this is challenging. The tone needs to be right – and it’s hard to achieve, but Hugh’s War On Waste demonstrates that it can be done successfully in prime time. We need the creatives and the commissioners to work harder to get these issues into the mainstream.

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