Posted on 26th November 2020

Subtitles to Save the World 2 – Launch event recap

To celebrate the launch of our second subtitle report, we hosted a conversation with some very special guest speakers to discuss our findings and ask how the TV industry should bring the planet into its programmes

What stories should we be telling on TV and crucially, how should they be told? The societal narrative we are currently telling ourselves about the way we live is not one that the planet can sustain. The Norwegian Research Centre has hypothesised that one of the key ingredients to effective climate communication is that we have to believe that we can inhabit and embody the stories that we are told. They have to be believable, and we have to be able to imagine ourselves as the protagonist.

The TV industry will play a pivotal role in ensuring that humans will remain on this planet, and that the planet remains as our home

— Aaron Matthews - Head of Industry Sustainability, albert

Angela Francis - Chief Advisor, Economics and Economic Development, WWF UK

“There are so many possible things that could come out of climate action, that we don’t have to preach to people, we can instead talk to them about how the environment can change their lives in lots of positive ways.

2020 has been a crazy and wild year, and what’s going to be written about 2020 in the history books will not be determined by what’s happened so far, it’s going to be determined by what happens in the next 2-3 years; will 2020 be seen as a turning point for better health systems, international cooperation on vaccines, a change in what we value as individuals and societies, or will it be the point that conspiracy theories take hold and people separate and isolate to feel safe? Which of those futures we get, and how 2020 is seen is going to depend which one people are making the case for, who is persuading the public, and what stories are capturing our imagination and giving people something to believe in.

These big economic moments are also big social moments. The global recession we’re seeing in 2020 which will continue into next year, is the biggest since WW2, and twice as big as the 2008 financial crisis. After WW2 there was a consensus among the British people that it was time for change and the government brought in free education for all, a system of state welfare, pensions and the NHS. That level of change is possible now.

We could see a green economic recovery after 2020, and see the UK and other countries build back better, and invest in net zero and nature in a way that accelerates the transition to a green economy. There’s a similar consensus among the British people as there was after WW2, with Greta Thunberg’s school strike gaining popular support globally as well the Extinction Rebellion movement bringing together the young and old.

At the very least, TV and film should be reflecting the issues in society around us, but more than that. It can lead. What is your role in helping your audience navigate some pretty big changes over the next few years? How will you increase understanding? How will you make people feel hopeful and inspired? How will you show the change in aspirations of ‘what is a good life’?

The WWF has some experience of this in natural history programming working with Sir David Attenborough and Alastair Fothergill on Our Planet and A Life on Our Planet, whose production teams were ahead of the curve in terms of how natural history programming addressed environmental issues. Blue Planet sparked the ‘marine plastics’ moment where the public were made aware of the issue and left us with the iconic image of a seahorse with a plastic cotton bud, leaving a hunger for change.

Our team learned that you can give the audience the truth when it comes to the environmental crisis, and create an emotional connection that isn’t always about a lion chasing a gazelle, but can also be about orangutans dealing with deforestation. You can also show the audience how an issue halfway across the world is relevant to the UK, and show new habits which can become normalised and part of their daily lives. And lastly, we learned that you can talk in analogies such as ‘planetary health’ and ‘planetary healing’ so we can talk about change in a way that is achievable and attainable – hitting the heart, the head and then empowering.”

Manda Levin - Senior Commissioning Editor, Drama, BBC

“I think scripted drama is the most challenging area – I’m in the drama commissioning team at the BBC and part of a cross-genre group that meets regularly to talk about sustainability. I’m keen to get the message out to the creative community that we, as commissioners, think this matters.

There are several steps we can take; we can get as many of our productions albert certified as possible, and then there’s editorial, which can go into two buckets, one which is demonstrating and modelling good behaviour around sustainability in the programming, and the other, which is how scripted drama can look the climate crisis in the face in ways which don’t look too dystopian and end up preaching to the converted.

 I think we can take a page out of Obama’s book – his ability to look at very difficult things, very honestly and truthfully but leave audiences feeling empowered at the other end of the conversation.

We have to find the best ways to narrativise these issues while making sure we don’t end up creating narratives that leave audiences feeling powerless.”

Fiona McDermott - Head of Comedy, Channel 4

“I run the comedy department at C4, and the intention is definitely there, but it’s so difficult to get these messages into narrative in the same way. You don’t necessarily have the opportunity, especially in comedy where you don’t want to preachy or bring people down with an apocalyptic vision of our future.

It doesn’t necessarily feel that comedy is the genre in which we’ll be educating, but rather it’ll be the one which tells us the truth about how people feel about these issues and find the comedy in the anxiety, find the comedy in the worry, find the comedy in the ‘what do I do?’ and ‘how do I make a difference?’.

We definitely can’t do what Blue Planet does, but in dealing with the worry, the anxiety and making jokes around the human response feels more personal, it doesn’t feel exclusive and doesn’t push you away. At C4 we are having conversations on how to approach these issues in ways that don’t feel alienating and to engage people in ways that they can make a difference.”

Lara Akeju - Commissioning Editor, Daytime, ITV

“I look after the afternoons and weekday mornings. My colleagues in daytime have a great connection to their audiences in their live programmes and they do a lot of work around the environment.

In my area it’s challenging but not impossible to talk about these issues, it’s certainly easier than in drama or scripted to address sustainability.

A lot of my programmes are quizzes, where there is opportunity to have questions around sustainability and the environment within the quiz space. I also have a lot of cookery programmes, for example John and Lisa’s Weekend Kitchen, the hosts will always mention if something is sustainable e.g. using beeswax instead of cling film, or making crisps out of potato peels, and so on. That’s a way we can start to reflect what people are doing and also inspire our audiences.”

Richard Watsham - Director of Commissioning, UKTV

“Beyond mandatory albert certification and offsetting in areas where we can’t reduce the carbon, we’ve sat down with every producer, for every show that is made for us at UKTV, and talked about Planet Placement, irrespective of genre and finding ways to raise the issues of the climate crisis, and the results have been impressive.

We try to find a way, whether it’s drama, scripted comedy, comedy entertainment, or factual. For example we have a show called Expedition with Steve Backshall, where the host goes to parts of the world where no one has been before, and in the places he visits, you can clearly see the impact of climate change. We’ve had it in comedy, for example in Ultimate Worrier where one of the worries discussed is global warming as well as Nish Kumar doing a lecture on 10 reasons the world could end (one of them being climate change).

We’ve just sat with everyone and talked, and thought, as a group of execs and commissioners together about how we can raise these issues. What we’ve started recently is having meetings after production, it was a good start having the conversation before production but I found that there wasn’t much following up. There is a degree of holding our producers’ feet to the flames, gently reminding them of the value to us of Planet Placement. The results so far have been really good.”

Glossary of videos referred to in the launch event