With landmark works like Life, Blue Planet, and Planet Earth, a huge global audience, and that friendly-British-granddad narration from Sir David Attenborough, BBC Earth has redefined the nature documentary with its awe-inspiring productions. We spoke with Matt Walker, Editor at BBC Earth, about the work that goes into its amazing projects, and how BBC Earth continues to adapt in the digital age.
BBC Earth’s mission statement reads: Think beyond your everyday world, and experience the Universe as it really is. As BBC Earth’s editor, how do you best show people life outside of their own, and how does the Internet help you fulfill that mission?
BBC Earth encourages audiences to go outside, and reconnect with nature. [There’s] lots of evidence emerging that doing so makes people happier. But few of us can travel across continents, and even fewer reach some of the most astoundingly beautiful, unique, and amazing places on Earth. None of us can yet travel off into deep space.
But wildlife film-makers, photographers, research scientists, and their equipment, including camera traps, telescopes, and probes, can and do venture to truly exotic and often unexplored terrain, making remarkable discoveries. Audiences too can now use smartphones and social media to capture unique moments.
BBC Earth can report on those, and using the Internet, share them directly, and quickly, with huge audiences in ways not possible before. So we are using the connectivity of the Internet to literally connect people with the true natural world and universe, in all its splendour, not just those more local habitats people are more used to seeing.
Audiences have been anxiously awaiting the release of Planet Earth II for a decade. How do you channel excitement and engagement around the television program into success online?
The honest answer is that the content excites and engages audiences, not us.
Our editorial and social teams work tirelessly and creatively to transpose footage and stories from the programme into formats appropriate for the web. Usually that means splicing out unique moments, and shorter narratives. Or embracing formats that work best online, such as short-form video, picture galleries, 360 degree cameras, invitations for user generated content, etc.
But it’s still the amazing animals and habitats that hook audiences—revealing insights into the natural world that have genuinely not been broadcast before, and sometimes, not seen, even by scientists, before the arrival of the film crews.
What can you tell us about the newly released Sir David Attenborough, Story of Life app? How did it come to be?
Sir David has long held the wish that his astonishing body of work be made available to the public as an educational resource. In his 90th year, the BBC also wanted to celebrate his extraordinary career, while BBC Earth is always exploring how we can use the Internet, and associated technologies, to continually improve and evolve how we communicate with audiences. The answer was to create the Story of Life app – which is perhaps one of the most ambitious transpositions of television broadcast programming into new digital media.
The Story of Life app, released on iOS and Android on November 17, 2016, contains more than 1,000 of the greatest moments in television history, from more than 40 landmark natural history programmes. The culmination of over a year’s hard work by BBC Earth and our co-producer AKQA, it is offered to audiences globally as a gift from the BBC and Sir David. It can be downloaded from Apple and Google Play.
Not only can audiences now watch Sir David’s most memorable moments whenever and wherever they like, they can arrange the clips into their own personal collections; and share those collections with the world across the Internet, via email, messaging, and social media.
That creates a fundamental change in the way audiences can now actively engage and interact with Sir David’s programmes, such as Blue Planet, Life, Africa, Planet Earth I and II, opening up a wealth of new ways the footage can both inspire, entertain, and educate.
BBC Earth has won multiple Webby Awards. That’s awesome. To what do you attribute your success?
It’s fantastic to be recognised in this way. Our success comes from hard work, and relies on the extraordinary talents of our editorial, social, and product teams. But it also stems from an attitude to continually learn, improve, and innovate.
Being BBC Earth, we look to the natural world for a useful analogy. When people think of evolution, they often suppose that animals and plants are perfectly adapted to and optimised for their conditions. You hear it all the time. But there’s an idea in evolutionary biology that suggests this isn’t quite so. It’s called the Red Queen hypothesis, named after the Red Queen in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, who explains to Alice that “it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.” The hypothesis recognises that the environment, and competing organisms, are also constantly changing. So just as the fictional Red Queen must keep running to stay where she is, species must continually evolve simply to survive among changing habitats and others that are also evolving.
I think the Internet is similar, it’s both a competitive and collaborative space that is constantly iterating and changing. If brands, products, and publication don’t continually evolve their content, formats, relationships, and distribution channels, they will quickly fall behind, and may well go the way of the dodo.
So at BBC Earth, we see innovation as key to our continued success. Rather than an aspiration, we try to make it a state of being.
What role does video play in storytelling for BBC Earth?
At its heart, BBC Earth is a visual brand: People want to see amazing wildlife and places. And we have more than 50 years of heritage of great wildlife film-making. So video is a key medium for us.
But for our genre, it comes with enormous challenges. Animals aren’t predictable—you can’t film never-before-seen behaviours according to a schedule, storyboard, or studio timetable. So our film-makers need extraordinary skill and patience to catch these moments on camera. It’s also relatively expensive.
So while BBC Earth publishes amazing wildlife footage to its website, YouTube, and social channels, and now Story of Life app, we also explore other, more economic approaches, such as using graphical and magazine formats or interviews with scientists. We try to be creative, and sometimes a different approach can perfectly complement the story we’re trying to tell. For example, we often use video animations to tell stories about mathematical concepts and physics, which are incredibly difficult to portray otherwise.
The Internet changes so rapidly that it’s essential to keep innovating to stay relevant (thus, “Internet Or Die”). What does it mean “to Internet” at BBC Earth? What does that look like in practice?
I’ve inadvertently answered that above, with the analogy of the Red Queen running to stay still. It’s an attitude and state of mind for us. In practical terms it means learning new skills; staff that are experts in the natural sciences learning to become expert videographers, for example. Learning different narrative structures, and experimenting to see how they need to evolve or meet new online opportunities. Discovering new stories, and new ways to tell stories.
Our creative direction isn’t aimless, however. I think it’s quite easy to be creative in a vacuum, with no consequences. But it’s hard to use your creativity to meet explicit objectives; reaching wider audiences without compromising your publication’s integrity, or engaging audiences more deeply without losing their attention or spending more money. That requires ambition and energy, and it’s important to give yourself and your publication permission to fail.
But if you do, the old adage is true: Try to fail quickly and cheaply. And when you succeed, don’t be afraid to repeat the approach. And make sure you are always keeping one eye on how the world around you is evolving, and adapt to meet the challenges that poses.
What emerging online trend or technology are you most excited about right now, and how do you see it changing or enhancing your work going forward?
The Internet is fundamentally changing the way brands, publications, and organisations reach their audiences.
BBC Earth originated as a television brand. We broadcast programmes and expected people to turn up to watch. But digital media has transformed the way we distribute our content. Even online, we can no longer publish to web pages and expect audiences to come and find us. We have to place ourselves where our audiences are; and interact with them on their terms.
That trend is accelerating. BBC Earth now has to create responsive, mobile-first content. Stories that deliver on social platforms. And we need to talk to communities where they like to be on the Internet, as much as on our own pages. We even create real-world experiences, such as the BBC Earth/Orbi giant screen experience in Japan.
But though that can be challenging, it’s also exciting, as those same changes to distribution create huge opportunities. We don’t talk to audiences anymore, but in conversation with them. We can become a motivator and focal point for inspiring user-generated content about the natural world, as we do via social media and the Story of Life app, for example, and help people tell their own stories about life on Earth.