Nature documentaries, including the BBC series Dynasties, show the lives of animals as “soap operas,” according to a new study.
British researchers argue that while depicting animals in nature is entertaining, it runs the risk of spreading “misunderstandings” about wildlife.
In their research report, they are largely critical of dynasties that were broadcast in 2018 and narrated by the legendary British and naturalist Sir David Attenborough.
The study’s authors claim that Dynasties – which is returning for a second series in 2022 – was pieced together with footage into a dramatic, script-based narrative, just like drama with human actors.
They believe nature documentaries may be a little too focused on drama and suspense rather than an accurate depiction of life in the wild.
The representation of wild animals as “characters in the style of a soap opera” in this way is “neither honest nor helpful”, it says in her work, and can distort public understanding of topics such as nature conservation.
Image of a sick lion (left) with mother in an episode of the 2018 BBC documentary series Dynasties, narrated by Sir David Attenborough. Researchers believe nature documentaries may be a little too focused on drama and suspense rather than an accurate depiction of life in the wild
The paper was written by experts from the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit at the University of Oxford and the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology (DICE) at the University of Kent and the University of Gloucestershire.
“Natural history documentaries are the closest thing to many when it comes to seeing featured animals and their behavior in the wild,” said study author Professor Keith Somerville of DICE.
‘They are an important source of information to highlight wildlife, conservation, and environmental issues.
“So it is important that instead of creating” stories “as soap operas to create an emotional impact, more emphasis is placed on highlighting the real problems that exist in today’s natural world.”
Though the authors mention the TV shows Meerkat Manor and Big Cat Diary, most of their study breaks down dynasties that can still be seen on BBC iPlayer.
Dynasties aimed to tell the “real stories” of the species featured – chimpanzees, emperor penguins, lions, African wild dogs, and tigers – each of which had its own hour-long episode that made up the series.
Emperor penguin parents, each with their own five-month-old chick, beg for food in the succession of dynasties called “emperors.”
Sir David Attenborough, pictured here in the Maasai Mara, Kenya, while David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet is being filmed
A common theme when analyzing dynasties has been the representation of animals and their behavior as if they had similar thoughts, motivations, and personalities to humans – known as anthropomorphism.
For example, the first episode shows the life of a dominant male chimpanzee – dubbed “David” by the BBC – who leads a troop in a Senegalese forest.
The life of a man within such a force is all about “power, politics and the struggle for survival” – which arguably describes the human behavioral traits more precisely.
Viewers are told that as the dry season begins, David’s potential competitors gather, that he is alone, and that he “has never been so vulnerable”.
“Anthropomorphism can, under certain circumstances, enable people to more easily deal with wildlife and conservation issues,” the team writes.
‘[But] Filmmakers and scholars who may contribute to documentaries must ensure that excessive anthropomorphism, which can mislead or distort reality, is avoided. ‘
The Dynasties shot shows an ambitious rival facing David’s alpha position in Senegalese West Africa
In addition, false endangerment has often been used, depicting normal situations in animals’ lives as unusual and far more dangerous than they actually are, to create tension.
But David later recovers, rejoins the troupe and maintains dominance – evidence that the BBC production staff purposely played the drama in the earlier fade-to-black setting when they already knew David had survived .
Elsewhere in the series, the lion episode begins with the statement that lions are the image of majesty and indeed Africa itself … [and] have ruled the savannahs for millennia ‘.
The researchers argue that this rhetoric “fits Disney’s Lion King better than a wildlife documentary”.
Nature documentaries have never been more popular for educating people’s knowledge of nature and influencing their understanding of wildlife, species, and habitats, the authors believe.
As nature conservation increasingly relies on public support, the researchers emphasize the importance of providing factually correct information to people.
“The personalization of individual animals and the heavy use of largely constructed or exaggerated endangerment mislead viewers and can ultimately create conservation problems by giving the public a distorted view of wildlife,” they say.
This therefore leads to “a weak basis on which to form opinions about how protection should be operated”.
Researchers admit that anthropomorphism isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and that some animals have some human-like characteristics.
“This takes the tendency to portray animals as human beings to extremes, which can distort the public’s understanding of human-animal relationships,” they say.
The research paper, “Soap Operas Are Not Washed For Wildlife,” was published in People and Nature.
Sir David Attenborough returns to RETURN as narrator for the second series of the hit BBC documentary Dynasties
He is back! Sir David Attenborough returns to tell the second series of the hit BBC One nature documentary Dynasties
Sir David Attenborough returns to tell the second series of the successful nature documentary Dynasties.
The beloved broadcaster, which turns 95 in May, will be exploring the existence of a range of animals, including an elephant, cheetah, puma and hyena, for the upcoming BBC One series.
Similar to the first series, Dynasties II will follow four animal guides in their natural worlds – Angelina, the matriarch’s elephant, She-Cheetah Kali, Rupestre, the puma, and Suma, the leader of the hyena clan.
Audiences are transported around the globe, including to the southern tip of the Andes, the plains near Kilimanjaro, and vast wetlands fueled by the Zambezi floods.
But devoted fans will wait for the four-hour episodes as the series won’t appear on BBC One until 2022.
“Dynasties II will provide an exciting glimpse into the lives of four remarkable wildlife as they struggle to raise families despite the odds,” said Jack Bootle, director of commissioning, science and natural history at the BBC.
Long wait: But the fans will stop at the edge of their seats and wait for the four-hour episodes, as they are not due to appear on BBC One until 2022 (Image: Meerkats: A Dynasty Special).
“With characters you fall in love with and real life and death stakes, this is going to be a show as exciting as the greatest drama.”
Executive Producer Mike Gunton added, “Being able to tell these stories is a wildlife filmmaker’s dream – and just like the first series, it will be a thrilling roller coaster ride.”
But Sir Attenborough didn’t travel to any of the locations to recount the upcoming series, The Mirror reported.
It comes after he vowed to cut his overseas shooting, and Radio Times said, “It’s probably a fact of age, but I found my heart sink deeper into my boots every time I stepped into one.” The plane got up and looked at it in a long line and thought, “I’ll be here another 24 hours.”