Blue Planet II Captivated Audiences Abroad. Why Didn’t America Care?

We’ve become accustomed to nature documentaries that feed us celebrity-led, perfectly packaged drama.

Blue Planet II.
Blue Planet II. © BBC

When Blue Planet II debuted in November on the BBC, it immediately asserted itself as a cultural phenomenon, becoming the most-watched program of 2017 in the U.K. The audience for its first episode amounted to an astonishing 20 percent of the population. For comparison, that’s higher than the percentage of Americans who watched this year’s Oscars and the first night of competition at the Olympics combined. (In the 21st century, only the Super Bowl has fared better in attracting of such a swath of American viewers.)

In the U.K., that popular response prompted a political one. Following the final episode, conservative members of Parliament suddenly came out for environmentalism in a coordinated tweetstorm that, while deservedly mocked, is also a testament to the series’ influence on the national conversation. The BBC called it the “Attenborough effect”: Environmental issues suddenly shot up the agenda, elevated from a footnote to the subject of new policy initiatives and keynote speeches by the prime minister. Even the queen is getting involved.

Blue Planet II’s success wasn’t limited to its country of origin, either. In China, the premiere drew about 80 million viewers—and broke the internet in the process. British Prime Minister Theresa May gave Chinese President Xi Jinping a box set as a sign of the nations’ “shared agenda” in taking on plastic pollution. It’s a PR move, to be sure, but the fact that a DVD (in 2018, no less!) could take on such symbolic weight speaks volumes. In the U.K., China, and beyond, the series inspired a cultural moment all its own.

Yet despite rapturous advance praise from critics, the reception in the U.S. has paled in comparison. The first episode won just 3 million viewers—certainly respectable, but nowhere near the response seen elsewhere. With the episodes leading up to last weekend’s finale averaging about the same turnout, it seems the international phenomenon has largely passed us by.

America’s (understandable) preoccupation with politics isn’t enough to explain it. The U.K., too, is dealing with a shambolic government—and a revolving door of resignations and dismissals from its leader’s inner circle—but that didn’t stop viewers from tuning in by the tens of millions. What’s really behind the discrepancy? And has America always been indifferent to nature documentaries?

To answer this, it’s worth taking a step back. The history of wildlife filmmaking as we now know it in the U.S.—and the world—begins with Disney. Specifically, it begins with Walt Disney’s True-Life Adventures, a series launched in 1948, which wasn’t, as it turns out, particularly true to life at all. If you’ve ever heard that lemmings jump off cliffs, you’ve been a victim of the True-Life Adventures propaganda machine. The myth was cemented by the producers of White Wilderness, who paid Canadian children 25 cents per rodent to round up a gaggle of brown lemmings. They then drove their furry haul to Alberta, Canada—a naturally lemming-free locale—and shoved them into the “sea,” as a voice-over explained that the (nonmigratory) species sometimes mistakenly “migrated” into bodies of water that were simply out of their depth.

White Wilderness was rewarded for its high-stakes fakery with an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 1959, becoming one of the first of the genre ever to receive the honor. The most recent nature doc to do so was March of the Penguins. As narrator Morgan Freeman informs us, the 2005 feature tells “the incredible true story of a family’s journey to bring life into the world.” With stunning footage and a script that deliberately tugged at viewers’ heartstrings, March of the Penguins was that rare beast among nature documentaries to achieve the trifecta of critical, cultural, and financial success. It won the Oscar and dominated the box office, becoming the second-highest-grossing documentary of all time.

It also became an unlikely darling of the evangelical right. “March of the Penguins,” conservative radio host and film critic Michael Medved told the New York Times in 2005, “is the motion picture this summer that most passionately affirms traditional norms like monogamy, sacrifice and child rearing.” He praised the film’s avoidance of more controversial issues like intelligent design and global warming as “very smart … Why bring it in?”

Why, indeed? When asked what led him to omit any reference to climate change despite its undeniable impact on Antarctica, director Luc Jacquet told National Geographic, “In my opinion, the best way to protect the planet is to get people to like it. One protects what one loves. It’s obvious that global warming has an impact on the reproduction of the penguins. But much of public opinion appears insensitive to the dangers of global warming. We have to find other ways to communicate to people about it, not just lecture them.” In other words, he made a bet that his soft-pedaling approach would help the film reach a wider audience, and he was right.

But neglecting evolutionary and ecological facts meant viewers with a very different ideology could easily fill in the gaps in a way that reinforced their own beliefs. They did this with gleeful abandon: In addition to the “traditional values” framing, other Christian critics felt that the miraculous survival of young penguins in such harsh conditions made a strong case for intelligent design. Jacquet, to his credit, expressed frustration at people’s insistence on projecting onto penguins, but his objections didn’t change much. March of the Penguins, inoffensive to a fault, became the most successful nature documentary of all time—and in America, almost every subsequent entry to the genre has followed its formula.

In a post-Penguins world, wildlife docs have become increasingly anthropomorphic. It’s true that filming live animals is notoriously difficult—the BBC has occasionally courted controversy for its framing, too—but at Disney in particular, the scale and flagrancy of fabrication as a means of creating satisfying storylines has become downright alarming. Chimpanzee used two different chimps in the role of its protagonist, Oscar—who reportedly “vanished and is almost certainly dead,” though of course the heartwarming tale doesn’t acknowledge that less-than-happy ending. As the film’s director put it, “We wrote a long, Hollywood-type script, expecting things to happen based on our experience of chimpanzees.” African Cats, narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, features the banished Kali, a lion scheming to expand his own territory into the neighboring Fang’s realm. One critic expressed amazement that Cats “has no official screenwriter credit for all the narrativizing going on.”

Producers’ efforts to tailor international features to an American audience are similarly cringeworthy. The apparently insufficiently exciting Nature’s Great Events became Nature’s Most Amazing Events when it came to the U.S. from Britain. The series’ name wasn’t the only change: They also redubbed the entire series, with Hasani Issa replacing renowned naturalist David Attenborough. For nearly two decades, this was standard practice for American releases. Sigourney Weaver gave voice to the seminal Planet Earth, and back in 2001, the U.S. edition of the first Blue Planet was narrated by Pierce Brosnan, still riding the high off his turn as James Bond.

Redubbing has also allowed changes to the content. Oprah, for example, was brought on to redub Life, with a noticeably simplified script. Alec Baldwin took on Frozen Planet, which sidestepped global warming for much of the series because, as producer Vanessa Berlowitz told the Times, “[W]e didn’t want people saying, ‘Don’t watch this show because it has a slant on climate change.’ ” (A Penn State geology professor described footage from early episodes as “spectacular” but observed that Baldwin’s lines were “light on science.”) The controversial finale, which made that connection most overtly, nearly wasn’t aired in the U.S. at all.

Blue Planet II pulls no such punches. It’s a product of the BBC Natural History Unit’s careful, extensive experimentation to find the right balance between science and spectacle. And it works. The series shows us young albatrosses who’ve choked on plastic, the grim reality of coral bleaching, and the autopsy of a young dolphin. It also makes it clear that these things are our fault. But as the most overtly “political” series ever to come out of the NHU in terms of acknowledging human culpability, it may have alienated a certain percentage of American viewers from the outset. Republicans are an anomaly among conservative parties worldwide for their anti–climate change stance. The Tories may not have a great track record either—and their efforts to capitalize on Blue Planet II read mostly as a cynical move for a government in crisis—but their shortcomings stem more from a failure to prioritize the environment than a refusal to acknowledge there’s a problem. America, by contrast, is more polarized, with climate change denialism, mistrust of scientists, and antipathy to the environment deeply entrenched in the GOP, while Democrats continue to tiptoe around the issue.

Blue Planet II shows that you don’t need anthropomorphism to win the hearts of your audience. Over and over, the series makes the case for the weird, obscure, astonishing organisms that will be (and have been) lost as a result of our actions. They’re captivating, sometimes mystifying, and undoubtedly under threat. Seeing this firsthand has made viewers around the world care deeply and adjust their actions accordingly—so it’s a pity that so many Americans didn’t get the message.