Wildlife documentaries are eye-opening and inspirational, but according to a new confessional from Chris Palmer, distinguished film producer now in residence at American University, the methods they use to evoke those responses in viewers go well beyond artistic license.
How many of our favorite shows and networks have rented animals from game parks and zoos and passed them off as wild, used actors as fake scientists giving interviews, and mistreated animals in order to get ratings? RedOrbit spoke to the author to find out.
Palmer isn’t green to the wildlife documentary world, with 30 years’ experience of making programs for prime-time television and the IMAX film industry, and an Oscar nomination. But his new book, Confessions of a Wildlife Filmmaker: The Challenges of Staying Honest in an Industry Where Ratings Are King, details his regret at having badly deceived audiences and his anger at how networks continue to allow “fabrication, sensationalism and sometimes even animal abuse.”
“I know many people at these networks and I can say that, typically, they are honorable and ethical people who care about wild places and animals, but the business side of television seems to coerce them into behavior that sometimes harms wildlife, spreads misinformation, and coarsens society’s appreciation of nature,” Palmer says.
He believes that the pressures of career-building and even putting children through college makes employees resort to levels of fabrication that should be shocking even for people who are aware that TV is often a fix.
Fake from beginning to end
Palmer begins by talking about the infamous footage from the 1950’s Disney film White Wilderness, pointing out that: “The famous lemmings scene was all made up, they made out that the lemmings were migrating but really there were just people behind them forcing them off a cliff.”
Half a century later, things have not improved. The Discovery Channel featured in its 2013 Shark Week a two-hour special titled Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives, which investigated whether a sixty-foot extinct shark that last survived on Earth over two million years ago is actually still roaming the oceans and wreaking blood-filled havoc around South Africa. There was a media storm at the time in which people were outraged at the perceived deception, yet Discovery has repeated the behavior since.
“There have been TWO Megalodon shows, both with the same appalling elements,” Palmer says, these being: “archival footage, scientific evidence and interviews with scientists which were all made up. The scientists were actors, the footage fake, the evidence fabricated, the photos falsified.” He adds that: “It was all a big lie, but they made it look like a science-based documentary. It was just fake from beginning to end; it was so disgusting to me that they would sink that low.”
The renowned producer admits that he is guilty of deception himself. He told us: “I made an IMAX film on wolves, and when you watch the film you see these glorious pictures of wolves galloping across the tundra… but they were captured wolves; the audience didn’t know that.” He says that they thanked the game park who loaned the wolves in the credits, but “who reads the credits?” And the nature of the park’s contribution is not mentioned.
Footage is even shot in completely different countries to that presented. “If you have a hibernating polar bear coming out of hibernation and the little babies in the den, and you’ve actually shot that in a Belgian zoo but it looks like it’s shot in the wild, it’s best just to be honest about it.”
Sadly, the irresponsible behaviour goes beyond deceiving audiences.
“Especially for that important demographic of males aged 18 to 35, which people like Animal Planet are so desperate to go after to satisfy their advertisers, making shows with a lot of predation, killing and violence is needed for higher ratings,” Palmer revealed, adding that: “These networks don’t really want to put on these shows, because they’re contrary to their founding visions” – but the need for ratings trumps those visions.
Palmer says: “Animals are wilfully harassed and sometimes killed. For example, there’s a show on Discovery Channel called Yukon Men which involves the trapping and killing of wolves and wolverines, bears and lynx. All of these shows, often watched by children, manipulate a situation where people kill wildlife.” He is deeply concerned that: “Wolves are demonized as vicious, nasty, and fully deserving of excruciatingly painful deaths via steel leg-hold traps and other means.”
Whereas actually, he explains: “Wolves are intelligent and highly social animals. They live cooperatively in family-based packs and are caring parents. Yukon Men shows none of this behavior. By characterizing wolves as menacing, cunning man-eaters, the series deals a significant blow to wolf conservation efforts. Playing on a cultural fear that dates back to Little Red Riding Hood and far beyond, Yukon Men sends a clear message that wolves are aggressive, violent, and predatory—a species the world is better off without.”
“Other programs that exaggerate and lie about the dangers posed to humans by predators include Mountain Men on the History Channel, Swamp People also on the History Channel, and Wild West Alaska on Animal Planet.”
Discovery Networks declined to comment on these remarks.
A more ethical future?
Asked what such productions would look like without these practices, Palmer says that great documentaries can still be made, by “using better cameras and longer zoom lenses or even drones, hiring scientists who really know what they’re doing and know how to find the animals and know their behavior, and lowering public expectations for blood and gore and extreme close-ups: we keep feeding that to people so they want more of it.” He adds that: “Of course, we could just find ways to tell more compelling stories.”
Not all wildlife shows neglect conservation, though.
“Well-made films and TV shows that incorporate a conservation message may be the exception, but they do exist,” Palmer says. “Some of my favorites are Frozen Planet, Grizzly Man, Battle at Kruger, The End of the Line, The Last Lions, Eye of the Leopard, The Cove, Whale Wars, Green, and Kingdom of the Apes with Jane Goodall.”
A final, hopeful note
In January, Rich Ross became the new president of Discovery Networks, replacing previous president Eileen O’Neill, and vowing to do away with shows like Megalodon and Eaten Alive.
“I would say the most important thing is that this network and flagship of this company could stand for is, if there was one word, it would be authentic,” he told reporters. “It’s really important that we look into this incredible brand and all the programming we make and make sure that’s what we stand for.”
He added: “I don’t believe you’ll be seeing a person eaten by a snake during my time.”
To read more about Mr. Palmer’s career as a wildlife filmmaker, check out, Confessions of a Wildlife Filmmaker: The Challenges of Staying Honest in an Industry Where Ratings Are King.