From the ABC 7 Weather team

The climate-change show that's too hot for American TV?

November 17, 2011 - 05:00 AM
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Americans will not see the last episode of the BBC and Discovery Channel's nature documentary Frozen Planet. Is that because it deals with climate change?

Melty icebergs in Greenland. (Photo: Associated Press)

If you enjoyed the award-snatching nature documentaries Planet Earth and Blue Planet, the equivalent of nine-course banquets for the retinas (especially in HD!), then chances are you've been watching Frozen Planet on the Discovery Channel. Produced by Discovery, the BBC and the Open University, the documentary provides the "ultimate polar expedition," says the BBC, and shows the Arctic and Antarctic "as you have never seen them before."

Or will never see, period, as it happens in this case. The BBC has packaged Frozen Planet so that international networks can purchase the first six episodes in one block. These episodes deal with stuff like the buffoonery of Adelie penguins and killer-whale hunting behavior. Then, if the networks so choose, they can buy the seventh and final episode. It just so happens this one covers climate change, a sensitive topic for many networks. You won't be seeing this episode in the United States, due to a "scheduling conflict" by the Discovery Channel, although parts of it will be edited into the sixth episode for American consumption.

It seems weird to divide the series this way. After all, the final episode, "On Thin Ice," is the coda for the series; without it, viewers might not understand the reason for making the documentary. Consider this quote from Alastair Fothergill, executive producer: “This ultimate polar expedition will show many filming firsts and reveal the frozen wildernesses of the Arctic and Antarctica as never seen before – and which may never be seen again." (My emphasis.) Or this one from academic consultant Mark Brandon: “Having carried out scientific research in the polar regions for many years and been on location with the Frozen Planet team, I know firsthand just how unique this frozen wilderness is – and how fragile."

Drama dashes can be forgiven, as these guys are trying to make a point. That is that the polar regions and all their wonderful wildlife might not be around for much longer if the climate keeps warming up. Isn't that important enough to warrant airing the full episode? Doing it the current way seems like running a documentary on the wonders of a lush, mountaintop ecosystem without noting that bulldozers are coming through the next day to clear the land for strip mining. Or as Greenpeace's flack put it, "It’s a bit like pressing the stop button on Titanic just as the iceberg appears."

The BBC has issued a statement on its packaging strategy. Turns out that this is the most boring episode of Frozen Planet, so it's a good thing that broadcasters don't have to use it. Or at least that's what I'm reading into the explanation. "On Thin Ice" has a different visual format than the previous episodes, eschewing nature footage for sequences of show narrator and world treasure David Attenborough talking straight into the camera about climate change. For that reason, according to the BBC, it doesn't really belong with the others.

To which I would say, "On Thin Ice" may be a misshapen piece, but one without which the entire puzzle would not be complete.

Here's the full BBC statement. Skip over it if you like for a video of thieving penguins from Frozen Planet:

There have been some assumptions in the press today about Frozen Planet, that I don’t feel are a true reflection of how the show has been sold and marketed around the world, so I wanted to provide some clarity.

The first six episodes of Frozen Planet have a clear story arc charting a year in our polar regions and are narrated by David Attenborough, who appears briefly on camera in the opening episode. In non-English speaking countries, this out-of-shot narration is the preferred way of buying documentaries as it gives broadcasters the opportunity to voice-over in the relevant local language, without having to re-edit the programme.

The seventh and final episode of the series “Frozen Planet: On Thin Ice” is presenter-led with David Attenborough in shot. Although it is filmed by the same team and to the same production standard, this programme is necessarily different in style. Having a presenter in vision requires many broadcasters to have the programme dubbed, ultimately giving some audiences a very different experience. It is for this reason and not the content – that we market the episode separately, giving broadcasters the flexibility in how they schedule the programme.

The fact that the vast majority of broadcasters have licensed the Frozen Planet:On Thin Ice episode is testament to the appeal of David Attenborough.

Frozen Planet: On Thin Ice will be broadcast as with all the other programmes at 9pm primetime on BBC ONE. This episode will be available on all BBC Worldwide’s international DVD’s.

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