Spider vs. Bee… BBC vs. National Geographic

When The Ranger was young he enjoyed greatly the diverting summer sport of tossing hapless invertebrates into spiders’ webs and seeing the ensuing fight. Even today I’m not above the odd experiment, just to see what happens. Of course, we all know what’s likely to happen. That’s why it’s such fun.

But putting flies in webs is relatively easy compared to watching the more peripatetic spiders making a kill. It was nearly twenty years, for example, before I got to see the bizarre spitting spider, Scytodes, in action. It’s not surprising, then, that when spiders make an appearance on a nature documentary, it’s often these hunters tracking down their prey that feature – fast, spectacular action. That’s what we want to see, and of course the spiders are more than happy to deliver.

Take this clip from an American National Geographic documentary:

What a dramatic adventure! Was there ever any doubt of the result? Well, if you believe the commentary, possibly there was.

Watching this film put me in mind of an interesting contrast that I have often noticed between natural history films intended for the US market, and those intended for the British (Sorry, but other English-speaking nations will have to chip in on the comments, I’ve never watched any others). There was a time when those kind folk at Warner Brothers gave a series of US DVD prizes for The Ranger to give out to lucky competition winners. Many of these were BBC films, and of course, I watched them first, and was amazed by how very different US wildlife films are – even when made by the BBC. Now, US readers are probably wondering what on earth I mean. So, for comparison, here is Sir David Attenborough narrating a comparable clip from the BBC production Life in the Undergrowth:

More-or-less the same story – but what a different presentation. It’s a wholly different style, calculated very much for education rather than entertainment. Now, as it happens, both BBC and National Geographic clips are highly educational and entertaining, but it’s instructive to see how they place their emphasis. The NG clip emphasises the drama of the process, with prominent music building to a crescendo – taking a short diversion into eerie alien sounds when close-ups of the spider’s eyes are shown. The chuckling commentary is unashamedly anthropomorphic, aiming to make the audience identify with the protagonists and feel the action for themselves.

“The jumping spider packs a ton of skulking pouncing killing fire-power in its tiny body.”

“If this were a slasher film, the audience would be screaming, ‘Look out behind you!'”

“How’d you like to stare into these eyes, with your life on the line? Ha! Yikes!”

Compare that with Attenborough’s quiet, almost abstract delivery:

“A white crab spider sits, almost invisible, on a white flower, waiting in ambush. And it catches a bee.”

“…ultra-violet markings on some flowers serve to guide insects to nectar.”

“Honey-bees seem more likely to visit flowers with crab spiders on them than those without.”

The music, such as it is, is almost imperceptible. The quiet buzzing of the insects mostly drowns it out. And even the flowers are apparently real flowers in a real field, as opposed to the quite obviously artificial scenario in the NG clip.

And yet both clips were superbly photographed, both accurately explained some quite complex information, and both clearly provided good entertainment to their viewers. So why are they so different?

It seems as though the difference lies in the vehicle which the programme-makers choose to deliver their message. In the case of Attenborough, both presenter and writer, he uses a simple scientific process in this clip: he makes observations, he forms a hypothesis. He doesn’t even present his conclusion as fact, saying only “Honey-bees seem more likely to visit…”. For Attenborough, the drama of the on-screen struggle speaks for itself. This is often the approach he takes, and BBC natural history films almost invariably follow this pattern, or at least this style. The NG film, by contrast, sets out to deliver a short, Hollywood-style set piece, as might be seen at the start of a James Bond film. Whether you understand what a retina is or not, you’ll enjoy this fast-paced action, with camera work that borrows heavily from the human world of movie-making. As well as the narrator’s jocular style, the long approach of the bee in flight; the view of the bee through the petals; the slow-motion jump of the spider – all are calculated to draw the viewer into the unfolding scene using visual cues that will be familiar and well-understood.

To my British eyes, this American clip seems almost patronising and childish in its presentation. And yet the content is little different; the difference is purely stylistic. It represents another interesting cultural difference across the Atlantic. And of course, I am forced to wonder, what do viewers in the US and elsewhere think of the BBC’s Attenborough style of natural history presentation? Do they find these scholarly discourses dull and dusty? Do they long for the commentator to chuckle in an avuncular manner or say “Whooa!”? Perhaps readers from outside the UK can enlighten us.

76 thoughts on “Spider vs. Bee… BBC vs. National Geographic”

  1. The BBC is a neccessary evil in the UK, a propoganda arm of the government at times, but a producer of quality TV at others

  2. God hear me, I will shank everybody at NG if they don’t stop ‘bedazzles’ there programs!
    I’m not Britney Spears!!!

  3. There is another argument that i dont think has been offered in this thread, and that is David Attenborough’s methodology (or ethic) of, not forcing, but allowing the viewer to be immersed in these worlds and let the scenes speak for themselves, and in doing so encourage the viewer to understand the creatures, plants and ecosystem. What makes his work all the more special is Attenborough’s obvious repect of the natural world, and the richness and diversity it holds.

    The unfortunate difference in treatment the US producers adopt is to make the subject more of a spectacle – the viewer is made to see a creatures behaviour as an oddity, and in that it is almost exploitative.

    British broadcasters are made to devote a certain percentage if air-time to education as a public service, and Sir David Attenborough is an ambassador if this.
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/video/2009/jan/30/david-attenborough-charles-darwin

  4. English is my second language. NG clip is much more understandable, but I don’t like so much dramatizing besides it’s normal to eat each other or to die in the wildlife. I think the best should be somewhere in the middle.

  5. Coming along to the discussion almost a year later…

    I’m a Brit, and I find it immensely reassuring that so many of you sane intelligent Americans are saying you prefer the quieter, informative and more understated approach to the sensationalist. That means there may be some hope for a change.
    It’s also sadly true that British TV, even on the BBC, can learn from the best of US drama – and that the BBC has gone downhill when it comes to getting scientific ideas across. Wildlife filming is better than ever – it’s just awesome, sometimes – but there’s almost no science left in the programmes (and now that David Attenborough is semi-retired we can’t ask him to do much more). I grew up on Jacob Bronowski’s ‘Ascent of Man’ (I didn’t know DA had commissioned it!) and the superb ‘Horizon’ series, which was the BBC’s prime science programme. Even as a child I didn’t want the kind of wham-bam stuff shown above – such stuff shouldn’t be labelled ‘childish’ but ‘patronizing’ and ‘insulting the intelligence of the viewer’, whatever their age.
    But although ‘Horizon’ still exists – http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006mgxf
    it’s almost unrecognizable. The programmes used to explain _how_ scientists came to their conclusions, by giving them plenty of time to talk. Now there’s usually a voice-over script (usually without a visible writer – the BBC put ads for their own programmes over the credits) which sounds as though it was written by a tabloid journalist – and sometimes there’s hardly a scientist in sight.
    The only biology left on British TV seems to be the excellent ‘Natural World’ series – http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006qnnh – which teaches me something new every time it’s on, and in an utterly enjoyable way.

    So what do we do?
    Defend public broadcasting and the funding that pays for it, as lots of people have said.
    Challenge the pap.
    And encourage science graduates to learn how to be film-makers, so they can go out there and make the superb wildlife programmes of the future.

    Any other ideas, anyone?

  6. This is extremely similar to British football (soccer), and American soccer as covered on radio and television. The British presentation is classy and respectful. The American presentation is yappy, full of useless stats, and unpolished. It’s no wonder the MLS isn’t catching on here, you have American ESPN presenters who take all of the class out of it. Watch a premier league game with British commentary and it’s a whole different experience.

  7. I most definitely prefer the BBC-style shows, although I have to say that PBS documentary’s in the US (as mentioned here in comments, sometimes made by NG) deliver much more of a balance between NG and BBC. They seem like they would be much more understandable by children, but have much less or even none of the turn-offs I get from most recent NG material.

    aditional: whats with NG’s obsession to compare some fact with a totally unhelpfull scale comparison.

    for example: this is the eifel tower ???meters high, its as big as 1.5 blue whales stacked verticly.
    they do this all the time at least on the NG I can recieve here in Belgium and it makes me cringe.

  8. You need to realise – David Attenborough is really, really special (we have trivialisers in the UK, too).

    DA started broadcasting in the 1950s, with children’s programme called ‘Zoo Quest’. Full of chlidlike enthusiasm (but never talking down to hs audience).

    Later, he became controller of BBC2 (intended to be a ‘high-brow’ channel). There, he commissioned Jacob Bronowski’s ‘Ascent of Man’ and Lord Clark’s ‘Civilisation’ – thereby inventing a new TV artform, the blockbuster culture series.

    He left that job, because he wanted to go back to making programmes – which he did, with immense success.

    And he does it because he loves it. After 50 years in TV, he still has a sense of wonder and delight at the natural world.

    Recently, he was interviewed for a little Open University fossil programme. He still remembered the first fossil he’d discovered – at the age of ten. The programme retrieved that fossil from the museum which had received it, and united it with its discoverer. The childlike glee on his face was unfakeable.

    A delightful man, and a national treasure.

  9. Add me to the pile of American viewers who prefers the BBC!

    I think part of the problem with American educational television is that all stations seek to become more popular, rather than producing high-quality content for the loyal viewers. Let’s say 25% of the population is interested in nature documentaries, and 75% prefers action or fiction. The only way for the educational channels to conquer the TV world is to cater to those action/fiction viewers. The stations try to get those who aren’t interested in educational TV to still view their programs, which is a losing proposition imo. Of course, US audiences have few other options for educational TV so we are stuck with what we have . . .

  10. I’d say the NG clip is tailored for a more simple-minded, mainstream audience with a much larger viewership. Let us not forget the population differences between the U.K. and the U.S. On the other hand, I don’t feel like I would have walked away from the NG version having learned anything. The drama distracts from the facts, so that the facts are harder to remember than the drama of it all. None of the information will be retained from the NG version. It will be forgotten. The viewers will likely walk away and go see a movie or something. That’s what grouping that show belongs with; entertainment. The viewers will retain their fabricated and hostile perspective of nature. I, personally, can’t stand National Geographic. They’ve shown themselves to not be neutral time and time again in airing blatantly propagandistic shows about 9/11, the Middle East, and the life of Jesus. I’ll only watch it if it’s something I think is benign and there’s a low chance of it being propagandized.

  11. Arriving late to the discussion:

    Don’t imagine all US TV falls short of its UK counterpart. Most of the US drama shows we get here tower above their British equivalents in terms of not talking down to the viewer.

    This clip parodies a popular UK hospital drama which never burdens its audience with too much, y’know, medical stuff.
    http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=TNSSCAcyd7c

  12. We would also like to echo the comments of people who complain that there is very little information in them. I’m sure this is partly because they are made to be broken into small sections to allow for the ads every 10 minutes or so. By the time they remind you of what was covered in the last segment (because people can’t be expected to remember anything for that long), summarize what was covered in the current segment and give you a hook to the next segment, there is little time left for much substance. I find these days I watch very few television documentaries for this reason.

  13. As a US citizen I have to agree with The Ranger. I grew up watching nature shows on public television (how about Wild America?). Nowadays, I’ll catch the rare episode of Most Extreme…which is way over the top. You know a nature show is trying too hard to attract Americans when it has to put “extreme” in the title.

    I only recently discovered Attenborough, who is my new hero. I’m only 23, and evidently I’ve been out of the loop. I believe I stumbled across a clip on YouTube (of course) from The Life of Birds, and that led to me getting the whole series on tape through inter-library loan. That’s how I spent my spring vacation that year…watching The Life of Birds on my roommate’s bed because he had a VHS player and I only had a DVD player.

    I was quite annoyed when I saw Planet Earth on TV with Sigourney Weaver saying Attenborough’s lines. Sir David has a voice that is perfect for these documentaries: clear and precise, yet hushed enough that it doesn’t distract from the wonder of what we’re seeing. Plus, Attenborough garners a high level of respect for his prestigious work as a naturalist.

    So yes, BBC documentaries are far superior to the annoying NG ones.

  14. I’m an American who has lived for the past nine years in Prague. I find the conversation fascinating on a professional level, as I teach cultural studies here. And, as someone who grew up on and loved Jacques Cousteau and Marlin Perkins, I have a vested personal interest as well.

    Seems to me that nearly everyone hated the NG piece and loved the BBC one. That’s as it should be — Attenborough is, as we Yanks say, da bomb. But it’s not quite a fair comparison, and you have to be careful making blanket generalizations about whole cultures based upon it (“Look at these clips: Americans must be x,and Brits must be y!”). Many of the comments have already pointed out the different funding structures for the BBC versus American cable TV. Funding pressures can cause producers to seek the lowest common denominator when and where possible.

    I also found a few interesting comments from Americans who talked about how much better American nature programming was 10 or 20 years ago. That is to say, the childish NG programming seems to be of relatively recent vintage (mirroring other recent American media trends that aim low, such as reality TV).

    Finally, there *are* examples of fairly inane BBC nature programming. I recently bought my animal-addicted daughter a copy of a marine biology documentary made in 2003 by the BBC called “Deep Blue.” The cinematography was fantastic, but there was very limited narration. Many times, we were just shown beautiful fish without being given so much as the name of the species we were oggling. Overall, I found it very much like having dinner with a very pretty girl who had very little grey matter, and therefore not a lot to say. You are supposed respond viscerally, not intellectually. Even more troubling, I looked up the film on imdb.com, and found that (dare I say it?) David Attenborough was credited as writer. Yeek.

    All of that to say: Don’t read to much into the comparison of these two video clips. It is true that Hollywood has been making a ton of money underestimating the intelligence of the American public, but the overall picture of both American and British culture is *way* more complex than the it seems, given these two clips.

  15. I think the trend may be true towards less sophisticated American programming, but in all fairness this unscientific comparison has too many variables that differ between the two examples. (species discussed, show target audiences, public or private broadcasting (no commercials on PBS), etc.)

    There is an ample portion of US public programming that emulates the British style for example, and if I’m not mistaken (though I don’t have access to a lot of British programming) BBC is a public entity like US PBS and I don’t think a fair comparison can be drawn between the BBC and Discovery, because of the commercialized aspects of the private channel. At the same time, I would still say that documentaries featured on Discovery can feature the more educational and literate style you’re endorsing here.

  16. Speaking for my family and myself, we much prefer the British films. The NG films seem to me to be somewhat similar to cartoons. In contrast, I like the featured British clip because it presents the material, shows the “action”, and leads the viewer to think about what is happening – without the anthropomorphizing so common to American films. Why is that American makers of so-called educational materials feel compelled to use music, tone of voice, certain film techniques, and exaggeration in order to get people interested in a subject? What is so bad about presenting a topic, showing something as it actually is, and allowing the viewer to come to an understanding of what is going on?

  17. I don’t want to rehash the already established point about the funding differences between UK and American television fueling the distinctive styles in programming; but as an American, I feel that the argument regarding the US media’s attitude toward their viewers is valid enough to stress once more, as it exacerbates the money-driven nature of dumbed-down American television.

    The American media organizations (who have proven more often than not to be shallow and single-minded themselves) insultingly assume that all their viewers are uneducated yokels who glaze-over with slack-jawed wonder at loud banter and big explosions. And sad as it is that there are many Americans out there that justify this stereotype, it’s not all about the ‘supply and demand’ credo of pandering to the drooling masses. One of the most glaring reasons that these people exist in any level of abundance in this country is *BECAUSE* of the influence of American media over the years.

    The media has forced its way into the economy and culture of America to such an insidious extent that it influences nearly everything and has subsequently managed to filter that influence through whole generations of Americans, leaving each successive generation less capable of the fundamental social rational that previous generations were forced to develop in less media-driven ages. Thus, we have our current pool of American youth with their shorter attention spans and interest in entertainment over education. The media helped *MAKE* the dumb Americans that exist today.

    The lack of social couth from the powers-that-be, which could have been applied to American media throughout its evolution–rather than leaving it to get a stranglehold on the whole country before anybody of upstanding mental repute realized what had happened–is a good place to start pointing fingers of blame for the current trends. The difference between US and UK documentaries is only one little symptom of a long-established larger problem. And the more greedily capitalistic this country gets, the more the media will tighten its tawdry hold on its citizens.

  18. I agree, I find the NG presentation, in this regard, childish, as if for a ‘slower’ audience. Perfect for children. Where as the BBC method is respectful, as if you yourself are a peer of the host. Keep in mind, I do not find most National Geo shows taped in such a fashion. This must be the odd series out.

    Also, I’m not too keen on people referring to themselves in the third person. It lends a certain taste similar to the narrator in the jumping spider clip.

  19. I think this is an unfair comparison between the “style” of National Geographic and BBC. That is just one show on National Geographic thats on at 8 in the morning usually geared towards kids. Nature isn’t has inherently easy to understand for kids and that television show does an excellent job giving life to a simple thing that goes on in nature every day.

    However, for more mature audiences the BBC clip is more enticing because we do not need to be engaged like children to understand such a natural wonder. But National Geographic has tons of those shows. I love being lazy and waking up to that National Geographic show, but certainly I watch more than my fair share of amount of totally serious (though equally accurate)documentaries too. It’s an individualized style – National Geographic has outstanding professionalism. This show is just simply a kids show.

  20. Old nature documentaries were very boring. The cameraman just stayed put in one exotic location. Try sitting in the woods for a week, how many ‘kodak moments’ will you’ll find?

    The BBC was the first to finance teams of cinematographers to travel the world. Producers could plan and sculp their arguments with the entire biophere as their palate. Unfortunetaly, even my higher intelect is now addicted to this fast edditting.

    No other institution (private or public) could start up and compete with what BBC has become. Would you try? Why would you want to?

    It’s the exact reason why Hollywood is Hollywood. (just subsitute airline tickets for billion dollar studios).

    Finaly, consider that Britain is a nation of workholics, Pub goers, and soccer hooligans. BCC needs only carter to the remaining house bound nerds like us.

  21. I like BBC nature show (by the way, they aren’t ALL like the clip shown). I like National Geographic’s shows (by the way, the channel is not always like the clip shown). I don’t like trying to skew responses to a paradigm by using only 2 clips.
    Try other Nat Geo:

    I’m not sure what the big deal is – geographic has all kinds of shows – some more entertainment, some more educational – like any other network (discovery, history, whatever). BBC has great stuff – not all of it that interesting but as mentioned, they don’t have an ad environment to answer to and American sensibilities.

    It doesn’t change the fact that its more important than ever to get people interested in the topics geographic and BBC are covering – regardless of how they do it – if they do it, and people start caring more, that’s good enough for me.

  22. As a child I watched both styles of films. Prior to 7th class, I preferred NG style films as they seemed to add more life, but subsequently, they seemed to be lacking in depth and detail. It was like watching the hollywood version of real life. That is definitely not what one expects from an educational documentary. It should pique your curiosity, introduce you to new terms and concepts, link up things in nature i.e. make scientific comparisons.
    If I wanted Hollywood, I would go to a theatre near me! 😀

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