Part 2: Environment In TV

Born Risky? More Like Born Timid...

By Nick Ryle, Documentary Producer


The launch of a new, ITB sponsored report into how TV deals with climate change was an interesting, lively but ultimately depressing event.  

Logic would dictate that our 2 public service broadcasters, The BBC and Channel 4 would take on some responsibility for communicating basic messages around climate change and the threat that the overwhelming majority of scientists agree is coming our way. But they don’t.

Climate change on TV is still seen through the same filter as any other genre. In this case, it’s a bit tricky to explain, there isn’t anything sexy to shoot, it’s scary, and it’s a turn off for viewers. Therefore, they don’t want to touch it. Yes, lip service is paid by “smuggling” the message in via other formats. Yes, Countryfile will include serious environment stories, but it is a staggering fact that no hour long documentary dealing with climate change ran on any main channel in the 12 months surveyed by the ITB report.

This is just not good enough. This is not just another genre. It is the subject that should be at the top of everyone’s agenda, from politicians through business to the man on the street. Surely, the challenge is clear. The real actions needed to combat climate change and to give us a chance won’t happen until they are perceived as vote winners. Those actions won’t be vote winners until people, particularly young people are convinced that something has to be done and that something will involve sacrifice and change. They’ll be convinced when they know the story and developing narrative.

The position of Channel 4 is particularly feeble. This is a channel with a clear public service remit.  A channel whose current slogan is “Born Risky”. Cue sound of multiple jaws hitting the floor, because Channel 4 is probably as risk averse now as its ever been. Maybe it’s about to change, but from what Ralph Lee said last night, not so much so that it will take a risk to find an innovative way to put across the most important message of our time to a mass audience.   

I’m in the production world and I’ve tried pitching climate change ideas to C4. At the moment, there is simply no appetite. Maybe the Global Warming Swindle farrago has left scars that haven’t healed, but saying it’s a difficult subject that will put viewers off is pathetic. Find a way. Make it a creative priority. Put out a brief to the brilliant pool of UK independent production companies to come up with the stunning film that will create headlines, stimulate debate, set the agenda and re-establish C4 as the campaigning, risk taking, upstream broadcaster it is currently pretending to be. They did it with the excellent Fish Fight. With the right will they can do it with climate change.  Personally, I believe the story of the deniers and the culture of deniability is a fascinating one and offers a neat narrative to which the key messages can be justifiably attached. And if it doesn’t pull in the largest audience, so what? Done right, it will definitely attract noise and get C4 onto their beloved front pages. And C4 will have taken a risk on behalf of all of us.

The BBC have an issue with their editorial guidelines and their demand for balance and fairness. They can’t campaign or editorialise like other channels and that has to be accepted. However, when the scientific community is so united behind the overall evidence for climate change, what sort of balance is really required? Balancing the views of the Deniers against the science is comparing apples and pears – they aren’t the same thing. Yes, its complicated, but it would be wonderful to see some commitment from the BBC to finding a way through this issue.

To summarise, the current report card for UK broadcasters is a B- at best. This needs to change. Its just too important.


By Nick Ryle, Documentary Producer

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