Nature documentaries show animals' lives as 'soap operas', study says

Nature documentaries including David Attenborough’s Dynasties come under fire for presenting animals’ lives as ‘soap operas’ and not reality

  • UK researchers criticise BBC documentary Dynasties for over-playing the drama 
  • They slam a ‘personalisation’ of individual animals and injection of false jeopardy
  • Wildlife documentaries affect the public’s understanding of wider conservation  

Nature documentaries including the BBC series Dynasties show animals’ lives as ‘soap operas’, a new study claims. 

UK researchers argue that the portrayal of animals in nature shows, while entertaining, risks the spreading ‘misconceptions’ about species in the wild.

In their research paper, they’re largely critical of Dynasties, which was broadcast in 2018 and narrated by the legendary British naturalist Sir David Attenborough. 

The study authors claim Dynasties – which is returning for a second series in 2022 – was pieced together with footage to form a dramatic, scripted narrative, just like a drama starring human actors. 

They believe nature documentaries may have become a little too focused on drama and tension, rather than giving an accurate depiction of life in the wild. 

Portraying wild animals as ‘soap opera-style characters’ in this way is ‘neither honest nor helpful’, they say in their paper, and can distort public understanding of matters like conservation. 

Image of a sick lion (left) with mother in an episode of the 2018 BBC documentary series Dynasties, narrated by Sir David Attenborough. The researchers believe nature documentaries may have become a little too focused on drama and tension, rather than giving an accurate depiction of life in the wild

The paper has been authored by experts at Wildlife Conservation Research Unit at the University of Oxford, as well as University of Kent’s Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology (DICE) and the University of Gloucestershire. 

‘Natural history documentaries are the closest many will get to seeing featured animals and their behaviour in the wild,’ said study author Professor Keith Somerville at DICE.

‘They are a significant source of information to highlight wildlife, conservation, and environmental issues. 

‘Therefore, it is critical that rather than framing “stories” as soap operas to gain emotive impact, more focus is given to showing the true problems that exist in the natural world today.’ 

Although the authors mention the TV shows Meerkat Manor and Big Cat Diary, most of their study dissects Dynasties, which was first broadcast in 2018 and is currently available to watch on BBC iPlayer. 

Dynasties aimed to tell the ‘true stories’ of the featured species – chimpanzees, emperor penguin, lion, African wild dog and tiger – each of which had their own hour-long episode that made up the series. 

Emperor penguin parents, each with their own five-month-old chick, begging for food, in the episode of Dynasties entitled ‘Emperor’

Sir David Attenborough, pictured here in the Maasai Mara in Kenya while filming David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet 

A common theme seen throughout the analysis of Dynasties was the portrayal of animals and their behaviour as though they have similar minds, motivations and personalities as people – known as anthropomorphism.

For example, the first episode shows the life of a dominant male chimpanzee – christened by the BBC ‘David’ – leading a troop in a Senegalese forest.

The life of a male within such a troop is all about ‘power, politics and the fight for survival’ – which arguably more accurately describes human behavioural traits. 

Viewers are told that as the dry season begins, David’s potential competitors are gathering, that he’s alone and that he’s ‘never been more vulnerable’. 

‘Anthropomorphism may in some circumstances enable people to relate more easily to wildlife and conservation issues,’ the team write.

‘[But] film‐makers and scientists who may contribute to documentaries do need to ensure that excessive anthropomorphism that may mislead or distort reality is avoided.’

Shot from Dynasties shows an ambitious rival with an eye on David’s alpha position, in Senegal, West Africa

Also, false jeopardy, where normal situations in animals’ lives are presented as though they are unusual and far more dangerous than they really are, was commonly used to create suspense.

In a later scene, a fight between David and a group of young males is shown – at the end of which the screen fades to black with melodramatic music, implying death.

But David later recovers, rejoins the troop and retains dominance – evidence that the BBC production staff deliberately played up the drama in the earlier fade-to-black shot when they already knew David had survived. 

Elsewhere in the series, the lion episode starts with the statement that lions are ‘the very image of majesty and indeed of Africa itself… [and] have ruled the savannas for millennia’.

The researchers argue that this rhetoric is ‘more suited to Disney’s The Lion King than a wildlife documentary’. 

Nature documentaries have never been as popular for informing people’s knowledge of the natural world, and influencing their understanding of wildlife, species and habitats, the authors believe. 

But with conservation increasingly relying on public support, the researchers stress the importance of people being presented with factually correct information.

‘Personalisation of individual animals and the heavy use of a largely constructed or exaggerated jeopardy misinform viewers and may ultimately create problems for conservation by giving the public a distorted view of wildlife,’ they say.

This therefore leads to ‘a weak base on which to form opinions about how conservation should be pursued’.  

Researchers admit that anthropomorphism is not necessarily a bad thing, and that some animals do possess some human‐like traits. 

‘It is where the tendency to portray animals as humans is taken to extremes that it may have a distorting effect on public understanding of human-wildlife relations,’ they say. 

The research paper, entitled ‘Soap operas will not wash for wildlife’, has been published in People and Nature.       

Sir David Attenborough to RETURN as the narrator for second series of BBC hit documentary Dynasties 

He’s back! Sir David Attenborough is returning to narrate the second series of hit BBC One nature documentary Dynasties

Sir David Attenborough is returning to narrate the second series of hit nature documentary Dynasties.

The beloved broadcaster, who turns 95 in May, will delve into the existences of an array of animals, including an elephant, cheetah, puma and hyena for the upcoming BBC One series.

Similar to the first series, Dynasties II will follow four animal leaders in their natural worlds – Angelina the matriarch elephant, she-cheetah Kali, Rupestre the puma and hyena clan-leader Suma.  

Audiences will be transported across the globe, including to the southern tip of the Andes, plains near Mount Kilimanjaro, and vast wetlands fuelled by the Zambezi River’s flooding.

But dedicated fans will be left on the edge of their seats awaiting the four hour-long episodes, as the series is not set to appear on BBC One until 2022.

‘Dynasties II will be a gripping look at the lives of four remarkable wild animals as they struggle to build a family against the odds,’ said Jack Bootle, head of commissioning, science and natural history at the BBC.

Long wait: But fans will be left on the edge of their seats awaiting the four hour-long episodes, as it is not set to appear on BBC One until 2022 (pictured: Meerkat: A Dynasties Special)

‘With characters you fall in love with, and genuine life-and-death stakes, this will be a series every bit as thrilling as the greatest drama.’  

Executive producer Mike Gunton added: ‘Being able to tell these stories is a wildlife film-makers dream – and just like in series one, they are going to be a gripping rollercoaster ride.’

But Sir Attenborough did not travel to any of the locations to narrate the upcoming series, The Mirror reported.

It comes after he vowed to cut down his abroad filming, telling Radio Times: ‘It’s probably a fact of age, but I was finding my heart was sinking deeper and deeper into my boots every time I walked up into an aircraft and looked down that long line and thought, “I’m going to be here for another 24 hours”.’  

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