Discovery chanel = Nature porn

I used to teach a Freshman Seminar about Skepticism and science, and one of the classes that always blew the kids away was a discussion of how much of what was on TV as nature/science was actually staged BS.

CBC recently ran an expose on this, in which the first half was devoted to showing examples of just how much of that lovely nature photography is fake. (Probably my favorite was the “Man vs Wild” clip in which the wild mustang that was “tamed”….had horse shoes.)

Hopefully, most people realize the lemming scene in the Disney epic was faked. (And the CBC turned up the additional detail of just how they were launched over the cliff by a spinning turntable–ugh.)clearly faked

But did you also know that Marty Stouffer had very dirty hands? Some of those great Wild America shots involved tethered prey animals. Wild Kingdom and Marlin Perkins also did a great deal of fakery. The Discovery program “Living with Tigers” is another example of fraud.

Is this just a cost of doing business? Or is it that we prefer our nature television like we prefer our porn?

Everything is pretty, the narrative is simple, and there are lots of money shots. It’s close up, sped up, and set to music. There is always a climax to the story.

I have students showing up at the university that love the environment…but don’t want to go outside.
It’s hot! There are bugs and mud! And why aren’t any cool big animals doing interesting things? Everything just lies around.

I’m conflicted about this view of nature, just as I’m conflicted about the lack of real body types for women in porn. (Not so much for men–Ron Jeremy doesn’t count.)

On the one hand, good that people are interested, good that it allows those in urban areas to learn about and value the natural environment and other parts of the world.

But.

Being outside is about Calm. Contemplation. Quiet.
Stillness and silence are not what television is about.

Watch the CBC show

17 thoughts on “Discovery chanel = Nature porn

  1. Wow! that video is disturbing. I heard about the fakery of the early filmmakers, but thought things were different now. i grew up on Wild America too! It was those programs I watched sunday nights and on PBS that inspired me to be a biologist. I would have been crushed then if I knew it was hollywooded up.

    But Planet Earth seems to be genuine. Right?

  2. well…..mostly.

    Attenborough seems to be much better than most, but they did catch him in a few little fakes.

    I was really bummed about that, ’cause I’m a total fangirl for him.

  3. Thank you for posting this. I just watched the CBS video, and I’m so sad. I had no idea that this was going on. I assumed that nature documentaries were above being staged like “reality TV.” I love watching Animal Planet, so I’m not sure what I should do with this knowledge. Should we stop watching nature shows altogether? Should we watch but just with a more critical eye?

    Ugh.

  4. The CBC list is a little overblown, if you ask me.

    I remember seeing a behind-the-scenes documentary on “Winged Migration” that showed exactly how they trained the birds to follow the camera plane- it was not at all my impression that the film crew was attempting to hide anything. Wild birds simply don’t follow airplanes at close distances, so it was either trained birds or no film. That should have been obvious to anyone who knows anything about birds. Or planes. And I do prefer the film.

  5. Anyone who has had children (or adults acting like children) will know that sometimes in order to ANY decent photos, one must resort to a bit of staging. That’s why we ask people to say, “Cheese!” or “Fuzzy pickles!” or whatever. It’s one of those familial conundrums that my kids would frequently not want to be photographed, but then be annoyed because there weren’t many pictures of them in the album!

    Remember the Harvard Law of Behavior? It goes something like, “Under carefully controlled conditions, any animal will do as it damn well pleases.”

    When we consider the staging of wildlife photography, we have to consider if it is being done appropriately so the animal will be in photographic range, or to nudge the animal into engaging in its natural behaviors (which to me seem reasonable, given that animals do spend so much time being passive, even beyond sloths and aphids). How many of us have tossed a moth or grasshopper into a spider’s web to allow it to demonstrate the predatory sequence for the benefit of family or students?

    It’s when mechanisms are performed to fake unrealistic behavior or even create totally bogus behavior for the sake of drama (e.g. the stupid lemming sequence) that the filmers cross the boundary.

    I still love Attenborough; not only were the subjects so well-presented and the information up to date, but Life On Earth was one of the first television shows we saw closed-captioned!

    andrea

  6. It’s television, of course it is staged.

    I think TVs have been around long enough for us all to be able to develop a critical eye on what they display: because TV is just a theatre that can be viewed remotely. It’s entertainment, not a faithful reproduction of reality.

    Everything you see on television has to have some level of fakery, otherwise none would watch, and none would buy. Nobody remembers anything of serious 1950s documentaries about lemmings, whilst the image of the little animals jumping to their death has been lingering on since. YouTube is slightly better, in the sense that few people expect to sell their videos over there: but the temptation to “fake it” to become popular has not gone away.

    If anybody wants to know how real life looks like, try staring at the recording of a video taken from a security camera for more than ten minutes…without walking away (or dozing off).

  7. It’s like with the dolphins…they are highly sexualized creatures, but nature programmers edit that out and use scenes of them trying to mate, sometimes quite aggressively, as evidence of their being cute.

    Good post!

  8. Bug Girl writes: “Being outside is about Calm. Contemplation. Quiet.
    Stillness and silence are not what television is about.”
    Um, yes to the second part, but is it quite right to define the outside for all persons as Calm, Contemplation and Quiet? Teaching skepticism, exposing lies sold as truth, understanding that visual entertainment is more or less contrived, is good. But life indoors or out, is not all calm, contemplation and quiet. Ask my orange seedling that the snails ate. Sharon Olds writes, “…Ecstacy is given to the tiger, packed into every cell, for the life of the tiger, so there will always be new tigers…” Sure, I’ll check the CBC show. But I don’t think the darkness and the cold in March of the Penguins was entirely contrived.

  9. But when we watched Wild Kingdom didn’t we kind of know it was BS?

    Weren’t we all kind of waiting for Jim to get attacked by a gator?!

  10. Bill Abbott:–I hardly think one blog post counts as as a definition of nature for all people!

    You have a good point, and I agree with you that the modern definition of “nature” is a contrived one. However, even when in the Rockies, wondering if a Grizzly was going to pop up and eat me, I was still several orders of magnitude calmer than I ever am in my office.

    I’m thinking of internal calm. The Calm of a whole day spent working in the garden or removing invasive plants, and finishing exhausted…and happy.

    Sure, Nature can be noisy. Just visit a bird sanctuary during nesting season–the geese are deafening. But it’s still a different kind of noise than human generated noise.

  11. Oh, and Dave–you would be *amazed* at how many people don’t get that it’s not real. I guess if you grow up in the city, you don’t realize that it’s staged.

  12. I’ve become a dab hand at spotting aquarium/studio shots in wildlife documentaries and often feel slightly disconcerted if they are being presented by implication as field work. That kind of stuff should have a disclaimer.

    Although I know what you mean about wildlife documentaries often being about drama and the money shot (ie snow leopard catches baby animal – baby animal GETS AWAY!) I have some sympathy with the filmakers. People enjoy a narrative, and if you have superb footage of exciting behaviour it would be perverse not to show it. I do hate it though when it looks like the whole setup was contrived, and the recent trend for over excited editing gimmicks is tedious. Why is nature suddenly being pitched to us as if we are all 8 year old hyperactive boys in the midst of a cola binge?

    It’s not all cynical crap though. I recently saw a 5 minute short about woodlice on BBC tv that was educational and fun, aimed at parents and children it packed in plenty of interest and although it had a silly voice over, both content and overall tone were great. I’m sure it encouraged a few kids and adults to go into their back gardens and look at the nature that is there all around us. But undoubtedly the big sexy “nature porn” series are the ones that pull in funding for the quiet, unassuming good stuff the BBC and other filmakers do. Sigh.

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