Wildlife filmmaker Jonathan Ali Khan explains why regional broadcasters must invest more in natural history content in the Arab world The resistance from regional broadcasters to produce good natural history content and consequently, the slow progress being made in environmental education, in general, is disconcerting. Whilst we know the true reason for this is commercial […]
The resistance from regional broadcasters to produce good natural history content and consequently, the slow progress being made in environmental education, in general,
Whilst we know the true reason for this is commercial saleability, the fact remains that TV channels have a responsibility to use their influence within society for more than commercial gain. In many parts of the world, broadcasters are actually expected to follow government regulations to broadcast factual programmes as part of educational content quotas. It is, therefore, important that TV networks undertake more socially responsible programming.
David Attenborough once said: “It was regarded as a responsibility of the BBC to provide programmes, which have a broad spectrum of interest, and if there was a hole in that spectrum, then the BBC would fill it.”
This principle is missing in this region and, in my view, should at least be carried out by the national broadcasters such as ADTV and Dubai TV, or even the big platforms such as MBC and OSN.
Attenboroughs most profound line, when asked about the series, Planet Earth has to be one of the all-time insights into the potential power of the natural history medium. “It seems to me that the natural world is the greatest source of excitement, the greatest source of visual beauty, the greatest source of intellectual interest. It is the greatest source of so much in life that makes life worth living”.
As such, the natural world has so much to offer, in terms of exciting visual stimulus and emotional connection.
Natural history TV is one of the most important content genres this region should be creating as it represents the key to safeguarding Arabias natural world.
Historically, the Arabian Peninsula was once a rich and fertile environment, covered in swamps and forested mountains. The simple fact that this region has the biggest oil deposits in the world bears testimony to just how rich the primordial vegetation used to be. From later periods, fossilised remains of crocodile, hippopotamus and other large repltiles and mammals that are now confined to areas of Africa and Asia reveal they were once roaming the landscape in significant numbers.
And those numbers must have been truly significant at one time, if some of the remnant statistics of certain species are anything to go by.
For instance, we still have the largest nesting population of loggerhead turtles in the world on the island of Masirah, Oman and the largest nesting population of green turtles in the Indian Ocean, also in Oman. In the UAE and the waters of Qatar and Bahrain, we find the second largest population of endangered dugong in the world. More recently, we have discovered important whale shark aggregations inside the Gulf off the coast of Qatar.
This is purely a personal observation, but to me, that surely illustrates that this region was once heaving with life, mainly due to a set of conditions that favoured the use of these waters, beaches and other habitats as ideal sanctuaries for nurseries and nesting.
Its fascinating to see that the animals that are most loved and cherished in the Arab culture today are the species that have historically played a direct role in the survival efforts needed to cope and survive within the harsh conditions of this land the animals that were used to hunt down and exploit prey.
Camels, horses, falcons, hunting dogs all share a deeply romantic and almost spiritual link to the psyche of this region. These are species that shared the arduous practical task of helping people to survive, whether to help with hunting, as beasts of burden, waging wars or sometimes even as food. Virtually, all other species represented fair game and were there
to be exploited.
Whatever the needs of the time warranted, developing an intimate understanding of the natural world was vital to the survival of the Bedouin culture. However, the discovery of oil and the subsequent change in the landscape has caused a huge disconnect between man and his environment.
As a result, the task of getting people to care about wildlife remains, and the natural order of our remaining environment is rendered all the more complex.
The worlds natural history experts have recently focused their attention on the Arabian Peninsula. Projects such as BBCs TV series Wild Arabia and Icon Entertainments Saudi-focused Desert Seas commissioned by Saudi Aramco and aired recently on National Geographic provided the much-needed shot in the arm! I should be ecstatic but Im not! Unless this region steps up to fund serious efforts, even these international series will eventually fade away. NHZ walked away, after negotiations with an Abu Dhabi sponsor led nowhere. That is actually a big deal as NHZ is the worlds second biggest factual content producer. Its doubtful that they will be back anytime soon.
The BBCs production of Wild Arabia, actually failed to be as amazing as it should have been, given the short range of subjects and the limited access to more interesting stories. Anyway, it was made with a relatively small budget by their standards. All the same, there were some wonderful visuals and production values by a number of contributors.
Ironically, Arabias big time entrance to the international world of the natural history television arena was actually made with UK taxpayers money!
Basically, we had to wait for the BBC to make a series on Arabia! Once they realised there wasnt going to be any local gold added to the production pot, they started to cut corners and had to rely on their own means. They also found that access wasnt as easy to some countries as they had originally expected, which meant cutting out a number of Arabias main biodiversity hotspots. But, at least, it got made.
What this highlights is that blue chip natural history has predominantly remained under the responsibility of national TV broadcasters or grant boards with resources derived from taxes TV licences and government subsidies. All of these elements are obviously missing from this region. Whereas, many independent production houses and channels working out multiple partner distribution deals and using grants from media authorities have done some of the best work out there, natural history production seems to require the support of a nationally driven set of interests.
The recent development of film interests and movie industry has begun to offer great support to Arab filmmakers. Ive always believed that the Gulf has a stronger TV culture than cinema culture, and so expected the same level of support for TV-oriented content producers.
In my view, here in the UAE, state-backed broadcasters should take the initiative to develop the support base for gestating a content industry featuring this genre. As this has not happened thus far, we are limited to sponsorship.
The sponsorship game is far from rosy since the 2009 nosedive. We started to produce our shark focused TV series called Sharkquest Arabia with a partial grant from Emirates Foundation. The understanding was that I had to raise the remaining budget from sponsorship. But with the global downturn, that was the first thing to be affected. Ive not given up though. With 100 hours in the can, I will resort to putting together a film with what we have.
The presence of National Geographic Abu Dhabi should offer filmmakers hope as eventually, they will want to show local and regional content instead of just dubbing copious amounts of international content off-the-shelf. But their interest will favour buying finished products rather than the sizeable investment in commissioning content even from people like us to meet their stringent standards.
Having said that, I was under the impression that part of the rationale for receiving USD 100 million was to invest some of it in promoting local production and content.
Where regional projects differ from these international players, is that they primarily carry a conservation message. That means, local filmmakers will go the extra mile to see the right core values and inherent message, reflects the reality and needs of our natural world with authenticity.
For the international channels, it is primarily about entertainment and filling programming quotas.
We have been proposing concepts for affordable natural history TV series for years to all of the main regional networks. But TV channels have shown no inclination to open up their commercial airtime to this genre. In each case, they have cited the lack of a programming strain in their bouquet of programmes. Part of this is also down to an erroneous belief that NH programming is prohibitively expensive. Some even say that companies wont sponsor it or audiences dont want it, placing the onus on viewers instead of the most important reason of all revenue!
The truth is, the choice of what gets on air is largely in the hands of the media sales executives responsible for selling sponsorship packages and advertising space. To them, NH is too untried and unclear as to whether it could generate sufficient airtime profitability in this region and its simply easier to avoid the issue altogether, as they know exactly what the big spenders want. Its far easier and less riskier to regurgitate the TV pulp with the tried-and-tested formulas than embrace new programming ideas!
Natural history has the capacity to enthral and captivate audiences! Just look at the impact of Blue Planet and Planet Earth. Two examples that had millions of viewers running home at the end of the day early to tune in to the next episode.
Arabias Cycle of Life was watched by more than 20 million, according to OMD, when reporting to their client and our sponsor Jeep. The actual ROI for Jeep was truly successful in that their investment of USD 290,000 that was given to us as our production budget, plus the $50,000 paid to MBC and Showtime for airtime space and TVCs around the 12 episodes; was far outweighed by the value the multiple airings over 12 weeks, simultaneously on English and Arabic channels generated for them.
OMD measured the ROI to have been worth USD 2.5 million based just on the two channel airings! And that was before Discovery Channel picked up the series for Animal Planet Japan and Asia (sans branding of course), which significantly increased the return of airtime exposure values at least twice over.
For sponsors, it could make a lot of sense to support these projects as part of a brand building and product placement strategy, especially now with the increased exposure offered by 360-degree opportunities linking TV broadcasting and new-media platforms with social media as long as they are sincere about the intent of the content.
Digital media may be able to take a fresh stance on programming strains such as wildlife specials and classic natural history. Clearly, these subjects are widely popular on YouTube and Vimeo channels. The question is, are sponsors and new-media channels ready to up the ante a bit and help filmmakers produce content for new-media channels alone?
Perhaps, the solution is not to be too narrowly focused and to truly embrace the 360 degree philosophy, starting by placing the content on multiple new-media channels and building the hype and interest through social media such as Facebook, Twitter and other professional sites. It would be important to prepare DVD sets and use the hype to promote the series, marketing them both regionally and internationally, on-line and in-store.
In the meantime, we need to build a strategy to harness the power of television and filmmaking content to address environmental and wildlife conservation issues. Creating worthwhile and meaningful content that challenges the view that regional channels only want news, movies or glitzy entertainment is the right step forward.