TV series showed polar ice melting but steered clear of an explanation

'Frozen Planet' highlights quandary faced by channels seeking to both educate and profit

Brian Stelter / New York Times News Service /

“Frozen Planet,” the seven-hour series that attracted millions of viewers to the Discovery Channel in recent weeks, shows Earth in extremis. On this planet, the poles are violently cold, yet are also atypically vulnerable to the warming trends that are endangering polar bear populations and causing huge chunks of ice to break off Greenland and Antarctica.

All of it — the struggling polar bears, the collapsing ice shelves — is shown in stunning high-definition. It is accompanied by the voice of Alec Baldwin, who narrates the series and says categorically, “The ends of the Earth are changing.”

What the series never assesses, however, is why.

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 quandary of commercial television, where the pursuit of ratings can sometimes clash with the quest for environmental and scientific education, particularly on issues, like global warming, that involve vociferous debate.

Including the scientific theories “would have undermined the strength of an objective documentary and would then have become utilized by people with political agendas,” Vanessa Berlowitz, the series producer, said in an interview.

She added, “I feel that we’re trying to educate mass audiences and get children involved, and we didn’t want people saying ‘Don’t watch this show because it has a slant on climate change.’ ”

Shying away?

This approach — anticipating criticism and tiptoeing around it accordingly — is a reflection of the political and ideological fury that infuses many conversations about climate change. Some scientists say that the politicization of the subject has succeeded in causing governments, corporations and media outlets to shy away from open discussion about it.

“Many organizations — and it sounds like Discovery is one of them — appear to be more afraid of being criticized by climate change ‘dismissives’ than they are willing to provide information about climate change to the large majority of Americans who want to know more about it,” said Anthony Leiserowitz, the director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.

The people who are dismissive of the human effect on climate change make up about 10 percent of the U.S. population, according to Leiserowitz’s research, but they sometimes drown out the broader conversation about the subject, making themselves seem more numerous than they are.

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.”

First and foremost, “Frozen Planet” is a natural history documentary, said Eileen O’Neill, the president of Discovery. 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.

‘On Thin Ice’

Discovery and the BBC jointly decided what to film and how to pay for the production of “Frozen Planet,” as they did for the previous series “Blue Planet,” “Planet Earth” and “Life.” The documentary makers felt a sense of urgency to focus on the polar areas, Berlowitz said, “because this region is changing faster than any other on Earth, we needed to make this series now.”

One of the seven episodes, “On Thin Ice,” was devoted to climate change. It placed the narrator of the British version of the series, David Attenborough, in front of the camera to show how warming trends are affecting humans and animals in the Arctic. Shown standing at the North Pole, Attenborough told viewers: “The days of the Arctic Ocean being covered by a continuous sheet of ice seem to be past. Whether or not that’s a good or bad thing, of course, depends on your point of view.”

Attenborough then noted the new opportunities for energy exploitation and commercial shipping. But he did not note that the vast majority of scientists believe that human activities are contributing to the warming trends evident there.

That hasn’t gone unnoticed. Greg Brian, a television writer for Yahoo, wrote earlier this month that by sidestepping the climate change science, Discovery has created a perception “that even bringing it up will bring a bevy of angry letters, protesters, or (worse) defectors from ever watching the particular cable channel again.”

Others said that the series was a lost opportunity for climate change education.

“It’s kind of like doing a powerful documentary about lung cancer and leaving out the part about the cigarettes,” said Bill McKibben, a scholar and climate change activist. “There’s no scientific mystery here: The poles are changing because we’re burning so much carbon.”

A larger audience

Discovery executives counter that by saying their approach may gain the attention of viewers who wouldn’t watch a straightforward documentary about climate change science.

Discovery, which had dodged rumors last winter that it planned not to televise the “On Thin Ice” episode at all, had originally planned to show the episode on April 15, immediately preceding the seventh and final episode of “Frozen Planet.” But earlier this month the decision was made to delay “On Thin Ice” until April 22, Earth Day, and call it the season finale.

O’Neill said in an email that the change was made not to de-emphasize the episode but to make it part of an Earth Day programming event.

Having seen the initial episodes of “Frozen Planet,” Richard Alley, a Penn State University geology professor, said “the parts I saw were spectacular, beautiful, and several other favorable adjectives, light on science but obviously set up that way.”

Alley said he had no objection to that because, with individual TV shows, “there is value in helping people to know the world, and science, and scientists.”

The second and third parts of his own TV series, “Earth: The Operators’ Manual,” will air Sunday on PBS. His producer, Geoffrey Haines-Stiles, said they had found their own way to address the science behind climate change: by pairing climate change talk with discussions about energy conservation and new technologies.

“Our approach is that folks will take climate change more seriously if they also see what can be done — practically, personally and immediately — to address it,” he said.