laments the disappearance of the environmental documentary on television, but finds there are new ways of covering the issues
It is ironic that the15th anniversary of the Television Trust for the Environment (TVE) should coincide with the first broadcast on a main channel in the United Kingdom of the TVE co-production, The Last of the Hiding Tribes. Ironic because it is the kind of film-making that TVE made its
mark with in the 1980s, and which is now all but impossible to find money and slots for on the big television networks.
Four years ago TVE took the risk of investing in a two-month shoot by a Brazilian cameraman on the Indian Agency's expedition to find the scattered survivors of the once numerous Avocaneiro tribe. They were never found. However, the drama of the search and the quality of the 16 mm library footage were good enough to persuade television to commission three programmes.
The funds directed to the Brazilian partner exemplify what the Trust was set up by Carlton TV and UNEP to do: find some money outside the broadcasting world, take a risk, kick-start television commitments and weave in the environmental message without boring the viewer. Above all, try to involve talented producers in the developing world.
The founding fathers at Carlton (formerly Central TV) and UNEP set up the Trust to be a broker between the public service programmers and enlightened donor agencies that still believe the issues are more important than public relations. TVE's job was to help UNEP fulfil its Stockholm mandate to raise global public awareness via the increasingly influential medium of television. And the added advantage to UNEP was that TVE could cover controversial areas that an intergovernmental agency could not. Making sure that the facts are correct, TVE has been able to support programmes that name 'names'. It is how we established our credibility.
In the mid-1980s barely anyone had heard about the ozone layer or global warming. Natural history programming brought the wonders of plant and animal diversity into our living rooms but glossed over the complex causes of extinction.
This may be difficult to believe, but at the time these were all new issues to the watching public. Then, by presenting a new scientific finding (preferably accompanied by a good human story), finding an able director and some start-up funding, we could not go wrong. Seeds of Despair - started with a tiny UNEP grant - raised $7.5 million for famine relief in Ethiopia. TVE's first European co-production, The Acid Test (again kick-started by UNEP) added to the public pressure in Europe to agree on measures to combat acid rain. Inside the Poison Trade galvanized the delegates from Africa at the Berne meeting to insist on a much stronger agreement than the exporters of hazardous chemicals wanted.
Since the environment is no respecter of national boundaries, coverage of international issues also sparked global interest. Under a blueprint contract developed by TVE with leading donors, rights are reserved for a share of programme sales to help the costs of meeting an escalating demand from the less well-off countries of the world. To date we have met some 40,000 video orders. And as more programmes were made TVE built up one of the world's largest back catalogues with some 700 hours covering the key issues. Very few of those programmes would have been made if UNEP - exercising its catalytic mandate - had not taken the lead.
But much has changed since the beginning of the 1990s. Viewers are bored with doom and gloom; 'environmental' programmes of this genre are considered a ratings liability. And in programmes such as Against Nature some hard-line members of the movement came in for some criticism for idealizing the poverty of the developing world.
The simple fact of the matter is that the pressure groups and their allies in the media have been very effective communicators. And you do not always need big ratings. Last Show on Earth, our most popular co-production of all time, left no imprint, while some of the lowest rating programmes have had the most impact on decision-makers.
The science changes. There are always new reports. Some with level-headed, science-based projections that are more than a little scary. The problem is how do you interest a broadcast commissioner? More problematical still is how do you deal with complexity? Television does not cope well with explaining the grey areas. Or rather it could, but the received wisdom is that it makes the viewer reach for the remote channel changer. Television prefers the black and white; the good guys versus the bad
Finding the story
Take just one issue - the ozone layer. In the mid-1980s we had a great story that enabled UNEP to communicate to the public what scientists had been aware of since the early 1970s: the existence of a 'hole' in the ozone layer over Antarctica; increasing quantities of UV light linked to more cases of skin cancer and eye cataracts; that the culprits are the chemicals in our fridges, aerosols, fire equipment and air-conditioners. The world has made remarkably good progress in phasing out CFCs after public alarm - responsibly raised, for the most part, by the media - forced the hand of governments. But the ozone layer in the upper atmosphere is still at grave risk from the old hardware, both dumped and still in use. Hydrocarbons - the fuel used in cigarette lighters - are the only effective replacement for HCFCs because scientists have found this first generation of alternatives to be powerful global warming agents. Where is the story here for television?
How as a producer would you convince a commissioner
to give you money or a slot?
The only course is to keep experimenting; to keep innovating - and not to be discouraged by rejection. The money and the slots simply are not there anymore - Hiding Tribes is very much the exception. In the early 1990s we gave free rein to outstanding producers from the developing world. The three Developing Stories series that resulted won a bagful of awards and were broadcast just about everywhere. But as the public service broadcasters slipped into crisis, our funding disappeared.
It is no good wringing your hands or talking of the 'duty' of the media. You have to catch the next wave. So we put handycams in the possession of local groups such as the Bougainville people who have been battling against a mining conglomerate. We invested funds to employ African producers
on a high-rating series called Africa Express and are currently overseeing Beyond Red, a series shot by film-makers in the former Soviet Union to give them a chance to portray what life is like 10 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall as they see it.
We rely less and less on the hard-pressed commissioners in the few terrestrial stations that have preserved elements of their public service remit. The new digital and satellite channels are all nibbling away at their audience figures.
And increasingly we have been looking to them to carry
the stories terrestrial executives cannot commission.
Our main vehicle is the weekly Earth Report series on BBC World TV reaching 65 million homes. It is a genuinely multi-media attempt to reach the share of viewers we achieved in the 1980s through the satellite broadcasts, secondary carriage on 10 cable buyers, radio programmes to over 200 stations, actuality and quick time video on the web and a complete programme back-up service via the web, e-mail and fax. Earth Report even has its own prime-time slot on China Central TV to 300 million homes.
Nowadays the mouse can deliver the same imagery, sound and information as the TV remote control. Included in every Earth Report programme is a Hands On 'what you can do' section. With 3,000 communications and 'hits' on the Hands On section of our web-site per week we have stumbled on a tremendous unmet global demand for enabling information. TVE would not start a new project unless it was a cross-media undertaking.
What is the next wave? I am not sure. But given half a chance, TVE will be out there with our metaphorical surfboard waiting to catch it.
Robert Lamb is Director of the Television Trust for the Environment, set up by UNEP in 1984.