Frozen Planet

The Discovery Channel is running a series on the effects of climate change on the poles and it has generated some interesting controversy. A recent story includes this most intriguing comment: The vast majority of scientists agree that human activities are influencing changes to the climate — especially at the poles — and believe that the situation requires serious attention. That scientific consensus is absent from “Frozen Planet,” for reasons that shed light on the dilemma of commercial television, where the pursuit of ratings can sometimes clash with the quest for environmental and scientific education, particularly in issues, like global warming, that involve vociferous debate.

In a word, because the Discovery Channel was worried that covering the scientific debate about global warming might damage the ratings, they chose not to mention it, lest it drive potential viewers away. Worse yet, it might drive sponsors away.  People really don’t want to know about such things, which says something about us as a society. And it says something about our commodified culture. Profit drives the machine. If there is information we need to know in order to survive, it will be withheld because we might find it upsetting. Worse yet, we may not watch it at all. As the story quoted above goes on to say, “In private, some people involved in the production said that Discovery and its production partners, including the BBC, were wary of alienating any of the potential audience for “Frozen Planet.” Think about it.

The show is one of the more popular shows to be aired recently on the Discovery Channel averaging 1.1 million viewers for each segment. But as this article suggests, one must wonder if it would be nearly as popular if it did engage in the scientific debate about the causes of the melting of the polar ice caps instead of High Definition film of the fact itself, with polar bears and penguins trying to survive on shrinking ice surfaces We will never know, because the decision-makers (including the BBC!) have decided that we are not mature enough to be asked to think about what it is that is causing this calamity. The President of Discovery Channel defended her decision not to engage in the scientific debate by noting that  “First and foremost, Frozen Planet is a natural history documentary. The series seeks to entice viewers with footage of seals, penguins, polar bears and other animals of the polar regions. Here’s the visual evidence, it asserts, of a warming planet; make of it what you will.” Furthermore, to raise the scientific issues, she noted would have “undermined the strength of an objective documentary.”  She may have been right.  But she was most assuredly wrong to avoid entirely the discussion of possible causes.

Years ago Robert Hutchins expressed his regret about the direction TV was taking. Some time later, Walter Cronkite — who was by no means an academic — echoed Hutchins’ concerns. Here was a tool that many thought invaluable as an educational device, able to inform and provoke thought in millions of viewers at once. And we were witnessing its educational value devolve into mere entertainment, and entertainment of the most mundane variety. In the process, the sponsors took over and focused on delivering their message, which is the only one they cared about because it translated into profits. Education be damned.

It would seem that the same message is being delivered today in the trend in the schools toward vocational training in place of education. I am not a conspiracy theorist, though I am at times tempted to become one. But this does suggest a coherent pattern designed to guarantee that we think as little as possible. We will be shown pictures of the disappearing ice at the top and bottom of the earth, and we will be trained in school to do a job. But you can be damned sure no one will be asked to think about why the ice caps are disappearing, or why we are doing the jobs they ask us to do.

And then we hear complaints (but not very loud ones) about the fact the people running our companies cannot use their minds. They cannot give a coherent and persuasive speech, write a clear memo, or read a document and tell us what it was about. In a word, they cannot do the important things. But if we really cared about that, we would have to see to it that they got a real education, and that might be dangerous. And it would certainly involve raising disturbing questions in the minds of TV audiences.


4 thoughts on “Frozen Planet

  1. On the hopeful side, ABC News/ABC TV aired a documentary in June 2009 (which has subsequently been re-run on the History channel) called “Earth 2100,” which posits a serious crisis by the year 2100 because of climate change (and two other severe factors: war and famine). It blamed human causes head-on, quotes scientists and its transcript is annotated with studies/research. It was controversial, and ABC got a lot of heat from climate-change deniers, but drew 3.7 million viewers. ABC execs stuck by their guns before and after the show aired, in the face of many threats. Here is a link to the documentary’s website, which has multi-media facets, including a video about pollution’s effects. While Discovery’s decision to neuter “Frozen Planet,” is disappointing and irresponsible, it’s good to know there have been other outlets that give the harsher information — and still get very good ratings.

  2. Interesting post. In his fascinating book Our Final Hours (2000), cosmologist/astrophysicist Martin Rees looks at the various anthropogenic threats (environmental, nuclear, “engineered” airborne viruses, etc.) to the survival of our species. He writes “I think the odds are no better than fifty-fifty that our present civilization on earth will survive to the end of the present century.” So incredibly sad, because things don’t have to be the way they are. But when I look around and see the pathetic state of the average person’s critical thinking skills and the anti-intellectualism that reigns in much of the world our current precarious position makes perfect sense.

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