SHOWMANSHIP VS. REALITY ON REALITY TV WILD ANIMAL SHOWS
By William W. Lamar

The abundance of nature oriented television shows is a blessing and a curse. After an auspicious beginning with properly researched and well-filmed documentaries, ratings—largely a function of the preferences of the sofa-set—began to change their direction. One can see the transition from inspired work such as the films by Sir David Attenborough to features that showcase sweating pseudo-Tarzans spewing words like “jungle,” “aggressive,” “survival,” etc. They have devolved into tired depictions of Man vs. Nature that inevitably cast the natural world as something dangerous and in need of conquering…. and, of course, they showcase anything with blood. What was a lofty and necessary pursuit has degenerated into cheap thrills.

Television programs are stories and making them is tedious, unromantic, difficult, and expensive. The teams who actually do the filming are marvelously talented and dedicated to their craft. Not surprisingly, the home office is replete with “suits” who live in fear of irate advertisers, the internet, and who cast a dry and often timid eye on the programming choices. Placing a team in the field is, in fact, so costly that time is at a premium, so naturally most animals are procured in advance and wrangled for the scenes. This is perfectly reasonable as long as it is performed by experts who understand the ecology and natural history of their subjects and as long as the research, writing, and editing is rigorously pursued. While all of this is integral to wonderful films produced by and for BBC, Nature, and Nova, it is increasingly rare among the other networks, big names notwithstanding.

The problem arises owing to the innocence of the viewing public. Networks, ever wary of the bottom line, have realized that many, perhaps most, viewers are ill-equipped to distinguish between films featuring solid science and those that stress hyperbole and exaggeration. Risk analysis, a fine science that we use in nearly all aspects of our daily lives, is woefully lacking when it comes to our concepts of wildlife. In brief, the ceiling above you could fall down. That is a hazard. But what is the risk factor, the likelihood that it will happen? While we have a fairly accurate idea as to how high this is, lay-people inappropriately assign high risk factors to all animal hazards. This silliness remains essentially unchanged since the dawn of civilization. And it permits huge liberties to be taken by showmen who know the risks are usually low.

Thus we are now pained to view competent fishermen gasping for breath and trying to portray powerful but essentially harmless fishes as something to be feared; folks molesting terrified snakes while calling them “aggressive,” and “jungles” depicted as places to be subdued. Ditto that for the hokey survivalists, pest controllers, etc. There have been a few legitimate authorities who have presented programs for television, but the majority is anything but that. Additionally, one has the constant problems of animal management. A short scene will often require considerable preparation time for lighting and equipment, yet wild animals are not built to go five rounds. Their reactions—be they defensive or feeding responses—are sudden and of short duration. So by the time the hero hurls himself on top of the anaconda, the snake has long since grown accustomed to being held in readiness off-camera. For those familiar with wild animals, the machinations (not to mention bad acting!) that accompany such staged scenes are ludicrous. Yet the public does not realize this at all.

The film industry has a strict and frequently unrealistic code of ethics when it comes to handling animals and to their credit they try mightily to adhere to it. Yet paradoxically the new genre of so-called survival shows is routinely allowed to violate these rules. I have seen one situation in which the couple who starred in the show, while “lost” deep in the Amazon forest, “found and captured” a large nonvenomous snake which they then dispatched, cooked and ate. The scene was filmed behind the comfy lodge where everyone was staying and the hapless snake was purchased at a local market. And all of this in contrast to standard wildlife films where one cannot even set up a natural feeding sequence with, say, a mouse and a snake. A strange business, to be sure!

Films about the natural world are crucially important education tools and the public needs them now more than ever. Habitats are imperiled and shrinking. Unless attitudes toward our fellow creatures and the places they inhabit become attuned to modern realities, the future will not be a bright one. We need excellent documentaries; if only we could convince the networks of that.