A market governed by co-productions and by the competitive pressure to capture large and diverse audiences to justify high budgets has led to generic innovation in wildlife programmes during the latter part of the 1990s. In the same way as the rest of television’s documentary output, the discourses of sobriety that have dominated wildlife programming in the past have been joined by a full-blown exploitation of the genre’s dramatic possibilities. The fully fictionalized Walking with Dinosaurs (BBC/Discovery 1999) was both a critical and a popular success (Donnelly 2001). Its use of digital imaging to create a primeval nature inhabited by dinosaur characters owes as much to imagination as to scientific evidence; the standards of realism are set by Hollywood film rather than ‘nature as it is’. Here, advanced technology is used to create an entertaining story of a mythical past. The individuation of the ‘characters’ in this drama and our emotional engagement with their struggle for survival is foregrounded in ways that speak to a cross-gender and cross-generation family audience oriented to computer game animations and soap opera drama, thus justifying its place in network prime time.
The success of Discovery has also depended on the development of popular and cheap infotainment formats. Small independent production companies produce much of the low-budget content. Animal Planet, for instance, offers The Planet’s Funniest Animals, Animal Cops, Amazing Animal Videos and Growing Up Grizzly, in which sitcom star Jennifer Anniston invites us to ‘get to know a unique grizzly bear family, and join a live chat with its patriarch’ (Animal Planet 2004). The drama of animal lives performed in front of the camera or constructed through the editing process creates anthropomorphic stories that engage the audience’s emotions (Crowther 1995; Lindahl-Elliot 2001). Heightened emotions are a necessary, if disruptive, presence because these films are addressed to a mass audience for whom animals are a matter of emotional connection rather than the object of scientific study. Yet Nils Lindahl-Elliot (2001) points to the way in which the professional legitimacy guaranteed by science has in the past required a disavowal of this aspect of the genre’s appeal. He cites a producer in the 1970s who declared, ‘I had laid it down as one of the tenets of Survival that we would always avoid sentimentality and that we would never allow ourselves to be accused of anthropomorphism’ (ibid.: 289). Yet, he argues, this is an impossible ideal. Even in the most scientific of approaches ‘humans cannot but be anthropomorphic when speaking about nature’ (ibid.: 290-1). The conventions of the genre have obscured this process, he explains, by working to naturalize the degree to which the programmes privilege a particular perspective. This is true both in the choice of shots and in the narrative conventions deployed. A recurring example is their use of masculinist, quest narratives that originated with the ‘big male hunter’ scenarios of imperial adventures in Africa.
In an advertisement for Discovery Channel (Channel 4 1998) we can see a different mode of address in operation, one in which the anthropomorphic and dramatic
pleasures of the genre are explicit and the origins of the genre in the big game hunter adventures of the colonials lightly satirized. It begins with lots of fast cut shots of police cars, sirens wailing and police marksmen leaping out with guns at the ready. One shouts into a megaphone, in an Australian accent, ‘Come on mate, give yourself up. You’re surrounded.’ The next shot is from up in a tree, looking down at the police below, with a voice-over saying, ‘There is an animal who has fingerprints almost identical to our own.’ It then cuts to a shot looking up to a koala bear hugging the tree trunk. On the sound track the police are now gently coaxing, ‘That’s it – come on, come on.’ It cuts to a human thumb printing on to a white screen that turns into a globe forming part of the Discovery Channel logo, with the caption ‘Discovery Channel. Explore Your World.’
This references the origins of the genre in a world where men use guns to hunt down wild animals, exerting their control over nature. But instead of presenting this to us straight, the advert gently makes fun of this demonstration of masculine prowess. It starts with police-series narrative conventions that lead us to expect a dangerous criminal fugitive. When we see the cuddly koala, therefore, we laugh. From this point, there is a softening, a feminization of the narrative in which our biological closeness to this creature is asserted in our shared fingerprints, and our relationship to it domesticated by its equation with coaxing a pet cat out of a tree. Although we are invited by the camera to see the world from the koala’s point of view, it is structured so that at first we assume it is a human point of view. We are also reassured that that is ‘your world’, on which you can imprint your identity. It is a different kind of domination that works by an assimilation of the wild into the domesticated context of our living room, a world in which we relate to wild animals as if they were our pets or our children.
Infotainment formats also draw heavily on the fictional narratives of heterosexual romance. The Discovery website (www. discovery. com), for instance, in the week before St Valentine’s Day, included an account of animal mating behaviour introduced by the headline ‘Dancing and Romancing’:
Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracey, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, Anthony and Cleopatra. Their passion is legendary. But can it compare to the male alligator, which blows bubbles on his sweetie’s cheeks? Or the banana slug, which presents a blanket of slime? The ritual of finned, feathered and furred courtship, designed to stimulate and tantalize a female, may not involve flowers and chocolates, but their flirtations are just as sweet.
This accentuates a narrative that has been intrinsic to the wildlife genre from the start. Critical accounts have shown the ways in which wildlife narratives have been structured around reproduction (Crowther 1995), while any animal behaviour that disrupts a conventional heterosexual account is routinely ignored (The Truth about Gay Animals, Channel 4 2002).
Discovery’s mode of address is unashamedly designed to appeal to a mass market for
whom sobriety is displaced by humour, fact is interchangeable with fiction, and the gap between humans and animals is dissolved. The website continues:
Sex is on our minds. So it is with animals. Like humans, all mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish spend a better part of their lives flirting, fighting, dancing and romancing so they can mate and reproduce to pass their genes on to the next generation. Those we’ve included here have developed wild ways of wooing their partners.
The comparisons between human and ‘wild ways of wooing’ that can be found in animals, which gestures towards the potentially disruptive nature of our ‘animal desires’, is foreclosed by the assertion that sex has only one purpose, the reproduction of our species.
This ‘sociobiological’ account of animal reproduction, in which animal and human sexual behaviour are both understood through the same socially constructed narratives derived from evolutionary biology, is characteristic of the wildlife genre and is fundamental to the genre’s sexual politics. The next section examines this aspect of the genre in more detail through a discussion of a science documentary that examined the sexual politics of ‘primatology’, the study of apes, and its interrelation with the politics of wildlife film-making. Indeed, according to the introduction to a book on women and science, ‘Primatology may be viewed as the soap opera of contemporary sociobiological narratives of sexual evolution’ (Jacobus et al. 1990: 1).