Spider vs. Bee… BBC vs. National Geographic

Matthew Chatfield

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.

Matthew Chatfield

Uncooperative crusty. Unofficial Isle of Wight cultural ambassador. Conservation, countryside and the environment, with extra stuff about spiders.

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

  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    I am an American who is also very much in favor of David Attenborough’s style of commentary. I find many of the modern American wildlife documentaries to be deplorable. Attenborough does a fantastic job on Planet Earth and all of his other documentaries, but American films such as “Top Ten Most Dangerous Animals” seems more suited for children or someone who has just finished their 3rd beer of the evening and is looking for his/her violence fix. Perhaps it serves as a way to bait certain viewers to unknowingly educate themselves, but for those of us who don’t need the bait, it is just insulting.

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  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    I’m an American with post-secondary training in biology, and I have to agree. I’ve been doing a bit of pet-sitting recently, and experiencing the pointlessness that is cable television (I don’t have it at home nor intend to get it anytime soon). National Geographic and Animal Planet both have little to offer, mostly things that eat people from what I recall. There’s a half-hour (weekly?) show on wild cats doing wild things that’s actually worth watching, and that’s it. I’ve even noticed a difference between individual episodes of NOVA on public TV, where sometimes they let the subject speak for itself, and sometimes they try too hard to make the subject appealing to someone who’s not going to be watching anyway. You can probably guess which are better.

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  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    No sweat. Just helps to be careful. Clearly, most people are willing to accept that NatGeo created that video, even though it really seems plainly obvious to me that the narrator is coordinating his dialogue to be kid-friendly. I’ve watched the series in question a number of times and it’s frequently far cheesier than what you hear in that specimen. It can still be entertaining and, yes, informative.

    Attenborough notwithstanding, the BBC is not immune to the Hollywoodising of documentary material. It’s happening at a slower pace, but it’s happening. Compare today’s output to, say, Ascent Of Man.

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  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    Oh my god! I honestly thought the Nat’l Geographic video was either a parody, or one of those little interstitial ads stuffed over the credits or between segments of other TV shows.

    There was nothing ‘dramatic’ about it. No tension, no sense of a life and death struggle, no sense of tragedy, or triumph or awe or reverence or ambivalence or anything that could be remotely considered meaning… and it cut so much, and in so many absurd ways that it was impossible to take seriously.

    Maybe I’m just getting too old, but predator prey is – all on its own – one of the tensest, most exciting/disturbing and thought provoking events in nature. To do …that… to such a powerful event not only insults the viewer, but robs an important event of it natural gravitas. Someone claimed it’s a kids show, but if that is the case, it seems to be aimed at an audience too young to be dealing with matters of life and death.

    Long live Sir Richard… we need many more like him.

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  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    You do realize that the clip you showed from NatGeo was not a NatGeo special, but a nature series aimed at children, right? It originated on Animal Planet and played early in the morning during one of the kiddie primetimes. Not that I am refuting your point, but you seemed to have gone out of your way to exaggerate matters.

    The Ranger responds: no, I didn’t know that – I don’t watch cable TV in the US, so thanks for the info. Although many others seem to think it exemplifies typical NG output, perhaps this is an extreme example. Anyway, to sample this I went to Youtube again and found the first NG clip that shows up on the search: here it is. Doesn’t look that different to me. To be fair, there are indeed many others, and some are much less cheesy. But I don’t think the spider clip is atypical, and I certainly didn’t seek it out as a means of denigrating US TV. I watched it because I like spiders – and the rest kinda followed on from that.

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  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    the national geographic version is garbage. It is ridiculously American and way too goofy. It’s practically made for kids.

    The BBC one is more appropriate and personally, i don’t want to hear too much music anyways.

    to each his own

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  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    As a born-and-bred, true blue American citizen, I can honestly say that this issue is symptomatic of two larger problems with the States:

    (1) The morons who run the entertainment industry widely generalize Americans as hand-wringing, Bible-thumping vanillaphiles who must be blasted into paying attention through ugly graphics and explosions, and

    (2) a good portion of us are.

    Sigh…this is why Michael Bay happened. In fact, I’m surprised the suits at NatGeo haven’t recruited him to make their next Serengeti doc. Although perhaps that way I can fulfill my life’s dream of seeing him eaten by a lion pride.

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  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    As a Yankee – I have to say that the vast majority of programming on cable shows in the US underestimates the typical American viewer. Perhaps I have just have just experienced a less typical version of US culture, but it seems to me that American citizens often view themselves in the same depreciating terms that other cultures often stereotype them to be – brash, undereducated, lazy, wealthy, fat, inattentive and ungrateful. If this is the way American television producers see the American public, it is no wonder their programming feels patronizing. Also note that – oddly enough – this sort of programming seems less common on those channels offered in more and more expensive cable packages. In my opinion, this argument comes down to class conflict.

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  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    I’ve noticed this difference in presentation, too, with other programming produced in the UK vs. the US (e.g. two very different bio-docs of The Who). I, too, prefer the British style. It is much more informative and no less entertaining.

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  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    I’m from Canada and I taking Biology at a Canadian university. We watch BBC films all of the time and I find them to be much better and more interesting than US films. The BBC allows your mind to take over and think for itself.

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  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    As a side note,

    I am not familiar enough with British news to correctly make the statement, but I would have to believe that this would parallel rather closely with the largest news channels between the U.S. and otherwise.

    If I have to hear about Lindsey Lohan going back into rehab on a national news channel again, I’m going to sell my television and watch my DVDs on my laptop.

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  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    I’m from the U.S. and have a fondness for independent learning. My intake is usually books, the Internet, and sprinkled with documentaries.

    The U.S. style of documentary often leaves one with the feeling that they have just watched a big ball of fluff. The minueta that makes a documentary interesting should be in the facts or theories that it suggests, not in any overt dramatic elements.

    I actually prefer watching a documentary that brings in several professionals with contrasting viewpoints.

    The only tactic that is enjoyable in ‘U.S.’ informational television is the plethora of 3D generated diagrams, reconstructed models, and high quality animated charting (such as a topographical map of a historical battle plan, or an auto-cad-ish drawing of a Pharoh’s tomb).

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  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    Hi, another one for Sir Dave. The first clip would only feature as a childrens progam here(even then it is over the top). Any adult would find it irritating in the extreme and like me would struggle through even that short clip. This dramatic “documentary”style is not used in British TV,commercial or otherwise, because it simply would not be watched.

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  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    I live in San Diego, California, and I much prefer the BBC style than NG’s. I have watched all of planet earth and love that style. NG is watchable but BBC’s is preferred.

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  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    Behold ye, the proud product of our American educational system, and the target market for the simplistic, first-grade style documentary. Information a slave to entertainment, one step away from being lost entirely.

    I, too, prefer the British clip.

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  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    Let me chime in and see if I can clear up the difference. In the United States people watch television for entertainment, if they learn something its purely coincidental (this is a generalization). From what I have seen of BBC shows is they have a higher caliber production value, better presentation overall, and an understanding that people don’t watch TV just to be entertained, but to be informed.

    So in other words, even channels that are, in general, at an attempt to teach (NatGeo, Discovery, Science Channel) have an obligation to their target audience to entertain over teaching. The best example of BBC-esque teaching is from PBS which has been deviating from this in the last few years.

    I would say that it just properly demonstrates the differences in how television is run in America vs England. American television depends purely on advertising revenue and each channel has to fight for viewers so they actually make money. From what I understand the BBC is funded by every resident in the UK through taxes, which ensures that even if the show they produce doesnt bring in enough viewers to make advertising money they didnt produce it for not.

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  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    I’m from Los Angeles, raised in the 80’s, reasonably educated, have watched nature shows on and off my whole life, and I greatly prefer the BBC clip above.

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  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    Attenborough is the best! If you don’t believe me, just compare the US/British versions of the Planet Earth series. It’s ridiculous!!!

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  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    Another Brit here (living in Canada). The thing that has struck me most about US wildlife films is the way in which they have almost continuous action. There is always some animal (or insectivorous plant) attacking some other animal for food or rivalry, accompanied by lots of noise, be it snarls or loud music. The reality is quite different. An African waterhole surrounded by a hundred animals is almost completely silent. There might be the clicking of hooves on stones, an occasional snort and, rarely, the braying of a zebra. The continual braying and squealing on wildlife films greatly irritates me, partly because I feel that if they are misleading about that, in what other ways are they being dishonest?

    I 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.

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  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    I think the difference is because in US the film maker or director or publisher stays on the top of the researcher, thinker, scholar which explains that money stays above the knowledge.
    The opposite is true I think in case of Attenborough’s work or the BBC production. Its all the matter of commercialism and profitism if I could say so. The moto of US film clip is to capture all the age groups of viewers so to achieve the maximum sale or revenue.

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  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    Steve and Tom have both, I think hit the nail on the head.

    The BBC receives funding from a public licence. Funding is, basically, guaranteed. You don’t need to trap the audience in, because you don’t need to ‘sell’ the show in the same way.

    The NG however, work on a very different premise… the ‘bums on seats’ premise, where you need to get the audience involved in order, basically, to sell the commercials which are bound to be placed in there. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that there are so many NG shows on Nazis, WWII, and sharks.

    Of course, the BBC has commercials. But it’s not the main reason for the show.

    To that end, the BBC can afford to be more academic. After all, it’s probably heavily influenced by the state, who will have a team of high ranking academics pulling the policy strings.

    As far as my preference is concerned, I think the BBC is infinitely more appealing. I get more information from it than the NG channel version. I find that commentary distracting.

    And I’m from New Zealand. Much of our programming is modeled on the BBC version.

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  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    There’s a similar discrepancy between what is considered ‘good’ writing and what is considered ‘clumsy’ writing, but it doesn’t make any difference whether your audience is adult or not. It is this:

    When you want to illustrate a point, or describe something, pick your words so that you SHOW the reader, not so that you end up TELLING them. For example, don’t say “He loved her” – instead show what he’s doing that lets readers come to that realisation themselves – it gives so much more powerful an impression on a reader’s mind to have THEM work it out. Then the emotions are theirs, and the knowledge and learning is self-motivated.

    The skill is in knowing how much to give them, and TV executives are often guilty of hugely underestimating the intelligence and sympathetic abilities of its viewers. The BBC hardly ever does this ” in fact it’s central to its editorial guidelines (ex employee…)

    This is why so many US documentaries ” and movies ” seem to be aimed at children: because they don’t imagine that adults will ‘get it’ and therefore they feel they need to spell it out, as if the audience were children. It’s just patronising, and viewers doesn’t feel like they’ve really learned anything, because it’s just been shovelled in.

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  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    This hit the front page of reddit, linked above if you want to follow the comments.

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  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    the thing that I noticed was that the BBC clip was almost a minute shorter and seemed to contained MORE information. However I agree with Sean C that the NG clip might be targeted more towards children. Of course I think even as a child I would have felt patronized by the tone and presentation of the NG film.

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  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    I’m from Sri Lanka. Long before Discovery Channel and Animal Planet came there, I grew up on older National Geographic programs (very different style – much more closer to the BBC style presented in this example) and Marty Stouffer’s “Wild America”. That was great stuff… The current style of National Geographic programmes such as this one disappoint me.

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  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    God you’re arrogant

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  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    The issue is not so much America vs UK as it is commercial vs. public television. Back in the 70s PBS nature shows, including those created by National Geographic, were almost exactly like their BBC counterparts.

    But now all those shows have to get spots on commercial TV so it’s inevitable that they get sexed up.

    I have no doubt that if the BBC lost it’s government funding and had to rely exclusively on advertising the tone of its programming would change.

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  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    I’m not entirely convinced the first NG clip wasn’t targeted at children. There’s quite alot of nature programs that run on saturday and sunday mornings that use the style shown in that clip to try and get kids excited about these topics.

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  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    Hi. I’m from Dallas, Texas, USA. I MUCH prefer the BBC’s commentary over the childish American National Geographic version. The NGs overuse of puns is also incredibly annoying in this clip.

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  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    To my American eyes, the American clip IS patronizing and childish, spelling out the drama and anthropomorphizing the subject so that it literally comes across as a children’s story. It doesn’t surprise me. Entertaining (and thus cultivating) a passive, infantile audience is an unspoken goal of most American media. Assuming your audience is intelligent, engaged and adult and then treating them as such, informing rather than entertaining, showing rather than telling… the very thought seems positively unAmerican, positively counter-culture, dangerous.

    An enlightened public is not in the best interest of a consumer society.

    So yeah, I’d choose Attenborough over that NG garbage any day.

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  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    Another American here, and I totally agree that NG’s presentation is childish. I also feel that entertainment and education aren’t mutually exclusive. Attenborough’s piece is a testament to that. To everyone reading this, please know that American TV does not necessarily reflect American people.

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  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    I am from the USA, and personally I prefer the BBC version. I am a fan of National Geographic magazine, but that documentary style is childish and patronizing, like you say. It’s unnerving and tense. The BBC version is relaxing to watch, and I feel like I am learning something, rather than watching a monster film.

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  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    I have thought about this too, and find the American style unwatchable. However, it seems to be a newer style come about within the last ten years of broad cable that is heavily commercial and panders to some, say, more immature demographics.

    I remember when I was a kid growing up in the late 80s there were alot of excellent nature documentaries on PBS featuring long uninterrupted shots and no musical score, narrated by a lone, unexcited bassy male voice. I just can’t seem to find who produced those, they would be great in this comparison as well. The straightforward style has gone out of fashion in America, as though the board room execs all sit around vetoing the quite films for more bang-bang sounds and fast cuts.

    Also I think Aattenborough is just special and not just anybody can make something on his level.

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  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    Excellent comparison and explanation of the basic points.

    The difference in the two short video clips is significant but illustrates a pattern of such differences that is much, MUCH more significant: I’m in the US, and I have long deeply, profoundly, bitterly hated and despised the approach of US TV and nearly all of US media and popular culture.

    For more, long my view has been that the Hollywood drama techniques you describe are, instead of providing information as you describe it, denying the world information crucial for people being informed citizens, have citizens and the world flying blind through very dangerous weather, and, thus, are the cause of the most serious problem facing civilization.

    There are three points of ‘irony’:

    First, as illustrated by your Web page on the Internet, the best hope for a solution to the problem of bad TV is the Internet.

    Second, where did Hollywood get its expertise in drama? Sure from the world center of expertise in drama, with its examples from Chaucer through Milton, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, Keats, Dickens, Henry James, etc. From Attenborough and the BBC, apparently the British know enough about British drama to know when it is inappropriate but the US does not!

    Third, where did the BBC and Attenborough get the better example of communicating information, e.g., as you explained with an “hypothesis”? Sure, from physical science. And where is the world center of science? Sure, the US although have to give HUGE thanks to Newton, Maxwell, and some others from Britain.

    Wherever drama and science came from, this far into the 21st century it’s time for more information as in Attenborough and MUCH more and to leave the drama in Hollywood for light entertainment only. Now to get US TV news out of Hollywood dramatic entertainment and into solid information, scientific whenever possible. Not that don’t like the eye candy news babes, but have to turn the sound off to enjoy them!

    What is going on in the US? Sure: The actual ‘standards’ of what should be in media are mostly not clearly articulated and argued; the articulation here is exceptionally clear, explicit, and thorough. So, with the resulting ‘fuzzy’ world of the media, the Hollywood techniques are free not to be criticized. Also, the Hollywood techniques have a big advantage: Nearly everyone in the US with a background in conceiving, writing, photographing, directing, editing, and producing video content has their career background in the Hollywood techniques. Finally, the US is BIG on ‘herd’ mentality. So, the Hollywood techniques rule: No producer, director, editor, writer, etc. is willing to bet their career on trying something different or even knows enough about ‘science’ or anything significant outside of the Hollywood techniques to know how to try something different.

    Net, in the US, essentially everything that passes through a video camera has to be done with the Hollywood techniques with people who know only the Hollywood techniques. The situation is so strong that, e.g., essentially all US videos done for high school teaching of mathematics and physical science are just Hollywood drama pieces with the real content missing or badly wrong — no student should ever watch them.

    The hope for progress is people with backgrounds in science, etc. who get some video equipment and distribute with the Internet.

    Finally, in the US, there is now an insurance company, Geico, that is running several series of ads, and one of the series is a satire on Attenborough’s nature programming! So, at least Geico believes that Attenborough has been widely noticed!

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  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    This post only illustrates the tip of the iceberg in relation to NG’s warped views on anthropological and scientific reporting. I took an anthropology class a number of years ago in which the book “Reading National Geographic” by Catherine A. Lutz and Jane L. Collins was required reading. It really opened my eyes to the reality of what I thought was a great magazine when I was growing up. Since they have moved into new media, there standards and practices have only degraded further. It’s a shame really because the American public has been inundated with it for so long, they don’t even realize how these portrayals influence them and how damaging this trend towards “edutainment” really is.

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  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    US citizen here… I think another problem with Comparing NatGeo programming with BBC, is that NatGeo programs are presented on a channel that shows only that type of programming all day, everyday. When you have to fill the hours, the quality is going to go down. And come one, David Attenborough, how can they do any better than that?

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  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    LOL, those guys just toally crack me up man!

    JT

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  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    C’mon Ranger-Man! Calling Captain Obvious. I have been watching D. Attenborough for over 25 years. After all, he is my hero. As a U.S. citizen, I lived in the UK for 14 years and have been forced to watch much of his stuff on DVD, as well as searching for streaming content. I sure miss all those wildlife specials shown on the Beeb.

    It’s all just a reflection of two entirely different societies. Simple as that. Quiet, reflective, understated —- the British version of events. BRASH, IN YOUR FACE, OVERBLOWN —– the Yankee version. So what else is new?

    Bravo Sir David Attenborough! The best!

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  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    The fact is, American television panders to the vast majority of American citizens with short attention spans and low IQs.

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  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    Im also from the UK and have grown up with David Attenborough and his wildlife documenteries. ive been watching them for years after all he has been doing it since before i was around and ive always loved them.

    its funny tho to those american readers, its not only evedent in documenteries the difference between american shows and the uk counterparts. another genre that you can compare are the police / cop car chase shows. The uk shows are generally very informative and show the video as it was recorded no special effects etc. The american shows just make me angry. Are we supposed to believe that the guy commentating on the chase in the helicopter is the same guy in every state or is it some miracle that the police just hire guys with the exact same voice. Also why do they add sound effects to the car crash’s, skidding sounds, smash’s, gun shots etc and telling you obvious facts like “their break neck speed is dangerous”, as if we cant figure that out for ourselves. Its espeially annoying when they exaggerate what your watching.

    i do think that because the uk pays for the bbc through the tv licence not only do we get no adverts (commercials) on bbc channels Woo! but i think the quality of the programs is always hi, there is no need for advertisments in shows no blatent product placment none of the things you would associate with a commercial station, and i think because of this, over the years other tv stations in the uk have had to keep the quality of their programms up. the budgets are no where near as big as those in the states but the beeb has prooved time and again that this isnt always neccessary.

    i have to agree that some American shows to me seem patronising and annoying even when i watch news clips on YouTube from the states i find the news casters patronising and annoying most of the time, as if the viewer cant grasp basic facts.

    however US TV shows are not all bad if i need a laugh i still love to watch family guy, or scrubs and things like 24, heroes and lost keep me entertained.

    Some David Attenborough facts, he actually turned down the job of Director general at the BBC (i.e. the top guy) because he wanted to carry on making Wildlife documenteries. His brother is Richard Attenborough i.e. the guy in the movies (jurasic Park and so on) in his documentories he has always worn the same clothes, he reason for this was so that he could do a link in india about some lizard, then fly halway around the world and do another link in africa without ever having to worry about continuity. infact you could probably seamlessly link some of his early footage with more reacent stuff and not really notice.

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  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    Here in the UK we’re starting to see more and more programs in the style of the American documentary and it’s not a trend I particularly like.

    If I want to watch a highly stylised over the top action thriller I’ll watch a film, if I want to watch a documentary I want to learn about the facts and they should be presented in a scientific way.

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  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    I grew up watching programs such as National Geographic and Nova during the 90’s, but as an adult found myself watching more UK programs on DVD instead of watching television. When I had a chance to watch a current National Geographic episode, I was genuinely shocked at how little content there was. In two decades, the programs that once had me excitedly drawing a seismograph in kindergarten are little more than high octane, low information shows seemingly written for an attention deficit audience.

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  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    National Georgaphic used to be a world standard of reporting on nature and societies. Now it competes with E! for the attention of brain-damaged Fox viewers.

    As the dramatic content has gone up, the actual information has been squeezed out, leaving little or nothing at all.

    My favourite National Georgaphic story involves a doctors appointment when I was reading a N.G. from about Dec, 1997 ( +/- 18 months ) about Afghanistan, where it refered to “the Taliban ( freedom fighters)”. I want to get a t-shirt made up with that quote, if only I can find the right issue to get the citation correct.

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  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    I have Attenborough’s “Trials of life” they are great,I agree there is a tilt toward sensationalism in some NG’s shows,but not all.Pbs used to have a show called “Nature”I think it was produced by NG.They are the best ever,but it was about animals,and not insects.

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  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    Another American. I agree that natural history/wildlife programs in the U.S. have tilted way too far over to the entertainment end of the scale (but that could be said for TV, in general, I guess). When my son was little (in the mid-80’s) he would watch Sir David’s shows by the hour (he even did a passable imitation of him), and other wildlife animal shows that were on TV, mostly BBC-based. The pace was easy for him to follow, and there were long stretches of no-narration, where you could actually hear the sounds of the environment where they were. The way the shows were put together showed a trust that the viewer would stay with them if they presented the material in an interesting way. Kids’ wildlife magazines back then (Ranger Rick springs to mind) were more focused on information and less on technicolor eye candy, too. My son’s grown now (studying Environmental Biology), so I haven’t looked at these type of magazines in a while. I was considering a subscription’s for a friend’s child, and was shocked at how commercialized, and wildly busy the format of the magazine is now. It looks like the back of a cereal box, page after page. I was afraid it would give the child seizures.

    I love Blue Planet, and the recent Earth: A Biography series. These are both, I believe, BBC-based.

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  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    This is interesting that others finally figured this out.

    The NG shows are neat on the eyes, but I usually don’t finish watching them. The BBC ones, I’ve bought and even sometimes downloaded. (sorry)

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  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    Thanks Nate. Consider me riled!! Funnily enough it was indeed a remixed US DVD of BBC’s Planet Earth (kindly supplied by Warner Bros) which first set me off on this train of thought. I’ve seen a few US documentaries and thought they were just children’s stuff – but seeing Planet Earth made me think that actually, the whole genre was different.

    I think your positioning argument is probably an important part of the answer. And it’s possible that Attenborough’s monumental influence has skewed the BBC’s output, but if so then other wildlife TV makers have never failed to pay homage to him in the UK. Also, there simply isn’t a genre of ‘childrens wildlife TV’ in the UK which is anything like the US version. Young people’s wildlife TV is, if anything, even more earnest than the adult versions. Example: A rather bizarre example of wildlife music TV from 2007.

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  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    Thanks for your commentary. Despite being an American, I agree with you whole-heartedly. I find the artificial suspense both patronising and childish, and much prefer the British approach.

    I think the differences are largely a matter of positioning. My understanding is that the BBC has a more secure source of funding and a more locked in audience. Public broadcasting in the US feels the need to compete for audience with the mainstream media, and as a result tends to imitate it more.

    The BBC Planet Earth series provides an interesting comparison. It was re-released in the US with a simpler script and narration by Sigourney Weaver, a well known actress. I found it much less watchable, but some Americans found it preferable. Perhaps it found a wider audience as a result?

    There’s more discussion about the differences in narration at Ecorazzi:

    Here’s an excerpt to rile you up:

    “I first started out watching the series on TV with Sigourney Weaver, who has a nice, clear, loud voice. I then bought the series on DVD expecting Weaver, but much to my disappointment I got the one with David Attenborough who has a quiet pansy voice and is hard to understand. I remember with Weaver I could hear her loud clear voice over everyone who decided to talk, but with Attenborough I had to quiet everyone in the room and turn the volume up all the way and still he was sometimes difficult to hear.”

    As you see, the problem with Attenborough is that you have to pay attention to what he is saying… 🙂

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  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    [dropped in from reddit, by the by.]

    I can’t speak for the rest of the United States television audience, but I feel that the “educational” cable television channels (NatGeo especially) are sensationalist and trashy to the point of being unwatchable. Oh, how I long to be able to afford BBC America….

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  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    I’m a graduate student of physics in the US, and I personally prefer the British style of presentation. I find the over dramatization of educational films and TV series in the US annoying and distracting, to the point where I usually just turn them off.

    Attenborough’s style reminds me of Discovery Channel shows from the 80’s and early 90’s—the action spoke for itself (do you really need to dramatize a lion chasing down and killing and antelope? Isn’t that already inherently dramatic?) and the commentator simply added background information, and details in the scene a non-expert would easily miss.

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