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Dawn Parsonage-Kent - Earth in Vision

Updated Thursday, 28th July 2016

Dawn Parsonage-Kent, Creative Director at Green.TV, expands on green television, how to rebrand the vulture, and the implications of changing audiences for environmental broadcasting.

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Dawn Parsonage-Kent

Dawn is the highly talented Creative Director of Green.TV, creating and distributing films on the themes of sustainability, the environment, and new tech for many well-known NGOs and organisations. She is a strong ideas person and has won multiple awards for her work both in the UK and Europe.

Her background is at the BBC and Red Bee Media, spending almost 10 years as a Creative, and then as acting Creative Head for CBeebies working across the BBC’s portfolio and commercial brands. She has created trailers and promotions for Deadly 60, Horrible Histories, Octonauts and beyond.  She lives and breathes unique, creative ideas and believes that the right idea can make a difference.


Earth in Vision Project

OK, so my name’s Dawn Parsonage Kent, I work for Green.TV and I’m the Creative Director.

What I do

So essentially I oversee the creative side of the production of the business, so this can mean anything from originally creating ideas, writing ideas for briefs or overseeing the rest of the team as they edit, etc., to make sure that… number one that obviously the quality is really, really high but also that the ideas are something new and something fresh in the world that we work in.

How I got started

Originally I went to Brighton University, I trained in graphic design. I always knew I wanted to work in television in some way, but I wasn’t quite sure what way and then I saw that there was a traineeship at the BBC for a creative, making trailers, making branding and idents and things. I thought, ‘Right, I’m just going to give it a go and apply.’ And there were 2,000 people and they chose me and a set of others as well, so that was my career. So I started straight from uni at the BBC, trained for about a year on the job and then became a full-time Promo Director, Creative, working on all sorts of channels; actually I started on BBC 2, but all sorts of BBC channels and UK TV channels.

And then I was there for about 10 years and in that time I started specialising in the children’s channels, so CBBC and CBeebies. For a time I was the Creative Head of CBeebies for the BBC, well, it’s actually for Red Bee Media, so at that point our department at the BBC had been sold, gone private and became Red Bee Media, but essentially we were doing the same work. So I was overseeing all promos and branding and things that came out of the Red Bee team for CBeebies.

And then, about a year-and-a-half ago, I wanted to move… it was just a life choice, I wanted to move back to Oxford and I’d kind of seen the work at Green.TV for a while here and was interested in them. They were doing a lot of high level, good creative work which I wanted to continue doing. I’ve always had an interest in the world of environmentalism essentially and so it’s a perfect fit, so here I am now.

I also in my private life, my mother-in-law actually used to work with Professor Norman Myers, so he’s a well-known environmentalist, known for things like his work on biodiversity and his work on climate refugees, etc. So together they wrote the second edition of The Gaia Atlas, so I was kind of immersed in that world as well for about the last 10 years or so, having lovely debates with Norman about the world. Yeah.

Advertising and green television

So my background in making trails and working in a more advertising setup gives me a fresh look at how to create films for an environmental world, so anything to do with climate change. I find that it means that I don’t get as stuck in the stereotypes essentially of things that people expect to see environmental films. Very much when I was at uni and I was in my previous job I was always pushing to find always a new idea, something that people haven’t seen before, so when you apply that to our world of conservation and climate change you get some quite left field ideas, which is brilliant.

Re-branding the vulture

Recently we did a film for BirdLife International. The brief was to rebrand the vulture. It’s got a really bad rep, essentially, it looks like the bad guys of nature but actually the reality is the opposite. And so that was our brief and I looked at it and we were looking at do you use wildlife footage, etc., and I said, ‘No, we need to take the bird out of its natural environment, put it in a new environment, almost film it like a beauty advert with a beautiful voiceover, so the internal monologue of the bird.’ And not done in a sort of… a lot of voicing of animals has happened in a fun, comical way, which works sometimes, but this was done in a very serious, very beautiful, almost like L’Oréal advert but with a vulture, and that worked. So instantly it wasn’t the bird soaring in the sky, as beautiful as they are, people put that in a box in their head and go, ‘Alright, yeah, the vulture’s… got that…’ But actually this beautiful little film got people really, really excited. For instance on Facebook it’s had over 300,000 views, 6,000 shares, which also mean that people are interacting with it and a few hundred comments, so … yeah.

Working with green clients

One challenge that we find is that clients maybe are not always quite as brave as they might be when it comes to commissioning films. So generally we give a series of ideas, some are more… say, a case-study based idea which will contain lots and lots of facts, lots and lots of footage of the relevant subjects, but we find that actually a single-minded, creative idea, a message is much more effective and also more left-field ideas are much more effective, for instance, in the case of the vulture film. But it is very brave initially for a client to choose a film that is more creative, essentially, because they have to sell it to their managers, etc., so it’s harder for them at the start. But as you see with the vulture film, it actually pays dividends, so as well as having hundreds of thousands of views it was featured on the BBC News as well as all sorts of other uptake. So the proof’s in the pudding and people loved it.

Using archive for Green.TV

I would say yes you can, it’s kind of taking it out of context of how you are used to seeing it, so we do use archive and we use archive, say, from the companies like Shutterstock or Getty, etc., but for instance, we made a film for WWF called Nature Alert, and in that it was talking about species around Europe who are under threat from various things. Oh gosh, there’s such a long list, but we showed very specific, rare animals. So to find footage of that was a challenge. Initially we went to sites like ARKive to look for them, but the challenge really happens when we’re trying to get the rights to that footage. Some of it was BBC, so naturally there’s money involved, quite a bit of money involved; others were very, very old clips that it was very hard to find who had the rights to them, so it was a very long and rather painful process to use that footage. We did use that footage in a very creative way, actually we overdubbed the animals, so we changed their calls to sirens, fire bells, all of these alert sounds, to show that nature is literally on alert, and again, that was the surprising element which will make people share the video, the unexpected. You have to sort of make people wake up a little bit when they’re looking at films.

We’ve done things like we’ve redubbed it with different noises, you can redub it with different voices if you wanted to do something a bit funny. Also you could overlay things over it, so you could take that polar bear out of that environment and put it anywhere you want, so it’s not just literally a case of saying, ‘This is a clip, you use it in the context of say, talking about polar bears when it was shot.’ With a creative mind it can take you anywhere and it’s always a challenge to find new and creative ways to do things, which is exciting.

Releasing the BBC archive: A good idea?

I would say so, yes. I’d say there is potential as long as the legal side of things is already sorted out, so you don’t have to go through each clip and get rights for it separately, and there was a clear way of knowing how much each clip would cost for your work. Because that’s a big part of our world, we can do the beautiful, creative ideas and we can come up with all sorts of wonderful things and then you come to the reality of actually that clip is owned by someone and it’s going to cost you £6,000, then… you have to start again.

Acquiring archive: The practicalities

So there’s three different ways that we get archive material generally unless it’s from a source. One is essentially things like Getty, where it’s rights managed, you have to say how many times you’re going to use it and thus the costs escalate and are trickier to guess how much they’re going to be beforehand. Then there’s things like Shutterstock, there’s others, but it’s very clear how much that clip is going to cost you, you can see it, everything costs the same depending on your usage or how big a file it is, either HD, 4K, etc. And then there is things like VideoBlocks. Now VideoBlocks is amazing in some ways, in that you pay a yearly subscription of around $90 and you can use all of their footage under that, so you know you’ve paid that blanket price and then you can use all of the footage in that category. Naturally they have a market place which you can upgrade, very similar to Shutterstock, but you have to look at the production process of a video to understand how things are then made useful. Budgets are big things <laughs>.

Environment on TV: What I remember

The show that I think is most influential for me personally in exploring, understanding climate change and the environment is actually Blue Peter. So when I was young, in the nineties, they were always doing things about global warming, the greenhouse effect, even things like light pollution, and as a child that was a window into the reality of that. I think people can try and cotton wool children a little bit, but it’s their world too and it really planted that seed in me, actually. So going from that world of children’s television, also things like Newsround has always been very good at talking about climate issues, maybe even more so than the regular news? Naturally then I went on then to work in children’s television, so that might have something to do with it too. So yeah, Blue Peter.

Communication conservation on TV: ‘Deadly 60’

Now there are programmes which are absolutely fantastic, like Deadly 60 with Steve Backshall. What that has is a passion, an excitement about it, he’s there, he’s actually doing it, in the middle of the jungle or wherever and he really, honestly, does live it and breathe it and that’s what comes through on camera. And he’s talking about the adventure of our world as well as the green issues and the devastation that essentially also happens, he does touch that as well, and because it’s in that package, it’s not just doom and it’s not just adventure fodder essentially, it resonates with children. And what they’ve also done, so CBBC has also done, is it’s not just a television programme, you don’t just watch it on iPlayer, which is where they’re most likely to watch it; there’s also games associated with it, there’s cards like Top Trump cards that go with it, so it becomes part of a child’s world. It’s not just a passive thing, it’s something they feel part of, which is really powerful.

Can you mix blue-chip natural history and environmental issues?

So I’d say the world is changing. There may have originally been quite a divide between these two things, so traditional nature documentaries and then talking about the environment, but I personally feel that you’re talking about an animal’s environment, that environment is changing and to ignore it is not telling the full story. Now I think… it comes to mind, I think they were filming in Madagascar and they were filming away from humans that were actually encroaching on this environment, but I know they do touch on it a little bit in a sort of narrative way, a tiny bit, about how humans and maybe the animals live together, but yeah, I’d say it’s all part of their environment, so you need to overlap it. I guess part of it is to do with the fact that to make the most sellable programme possible for a worldwide audience, because public broadcasters like the BBC also then have BBC Worldwide who they need to sell the footage to around the world to then help fund the next documentary, so you’re going to equally try and make a film that is most commercial as possible, so doom and gloom doesn’t sell as well.

Are environmental stories bad box-office?

If you look at environmental programmes it can be perceived as negative, doom and gloom, there is not hope, we’re all gonna die! but you have to look at these things creatively, it’s how you say that message. I think one example maybe is how charity adverts are now done. In the eighties and nineties there was black-and-white pictures of crying children, guilt-tripping you into giving money. Now a lot of them are looking at the positive way of doing it, that the action that you can take, the fact that people are running for life and actually making a difference, and it’s the positive stories that come through. If you applied that to the environment and climate change then you’ll get incredibly watchable, powerful programmes. So it’s foolish to look at it just at that direction.

How do you expect Green.TV to develop?

Here at Green.TV it’s a very exciting time. With every project that we do we’re finding that clients are far more open to creative ideas, to looking at things differently, so as long as that continues then we can do some really, really powerful stuff. Hopefully Green.TV will start becoming more well-known, become more of a traditional broadcaster in a way, not in a linear, television form, but a place where people will go to catch the next shows, for instance. At the moment we’re doing the Green.TV weekly show which is a roundup of the big green news for the week. We’re currently focussing on more public-facing, fun, interesting, top line stories that whets people’s appetites that might not be the traditional people who are in the green world. And that’s actually going well, we’re getting a lot of uptake on that, so hopefully that will continue and get more people interested in and reacting to climate change.

What is the potential of Green.TV compared with traditional television?

The way that Green.TV is broadcast has always been looking ahead, so originally it was set up just online, just on YouTube, etc., whereas now we have a very large distribution network and if you look at the way that viewers are behaving now, it’s becoming far and far less likely that people are going to do attention to view. So sit, look at the Radio Times and you go, ‘I’m going to watch this at that time’ and sit down neatly and watch it. They will scatter what they’re watching, YouTube is actually like the second biggest search engine, people watch shows on that, they watch it on iPlayer and ITV Player, etc. And they’re also multi-tasking when they’re watching, they’re doing dual screens. So I certainly sit there and maybe I do have iPlayer on on my big tele but then I’m researching on my iPad. So the way that Green.TV works in a sense that it is a digital channel online, very much fits with viewer behaviour now. We’re there when people want us, we can help guide them to the content that they’re interested in and then, say, with our Twitter and Facebook, we can then show them articles they might be interested in the world of green as well. So they can read that article, watch a show about it and continue their journey.

How are audiences changing?

The traditional audience was the family sitting down watching the television in the lounge, completely focussing on it, attention to view, so you’d sit down and watch your favourite programmes with the family. That changed a little bit over time, multi televisions in the home, so children started watching their own televisions, adults in the living room, for instance. And then things started changing in the way that, the history of television, you then had multi channels, so you had Sky and equivalent, so everyone was then fighting for all the viewers.

I think what’s also interesting is that people used to sit through the adverts and some people still sit through the adverts, so you’re watching ITV or any commercial channel and people would diligently sit there and wait for that five minutes of advertising to be chucked at them and then continue watching their programme, whereas the likelihood is that now if you were watching live television, you would skip to another channel and watch something else. But obviously now we watch things online far more, so on iPlayer and the equivalent is how people watch television and films. I think there was a statistic recently that children are now watching more television online than they are on actual television. And they’re the future and that’s only going to become more. I think advertising is a very interesting one though in the sense that films need to be paid for somewhere, unless you’re a millionaire they need to paid for and a lot of the time that’s by advertising, so that’s what the television world is looking at at the moment is how to monetise what they do. People are putting ad blockers on, so they’re not seeing the adverts for YouTube films sometimes, etc. but… see where that goes!

What are you working on at present?

So, after the last few months and at the moment we’re working on a mix of films, so as well as films such as the vulture film, which was more ad-like, and a single message going through it, we also work on things like case studies. So these are short films that actually showcase, say, some new green technology and not just explain what it is but actually talk to someone who uses it every day and see it from their point of view and the benefits of it. And with those sort of films we try and really get the humanity from the people, so it’s a much more relatable film and a much more relatable way of communicating things like technology, which can seem a little bit alien and a little bit dry. So that works very, very well. We also work on animations so from my background of working on children’s television we have been creating some wonderful animations here about climate change; just lots of different ways of trying to get the message out there in forms like that.

Monitoring the videos we produce

The success of the films that we create it’s a mixture of things, so one is naturally things like views, you can see that someone’s watched it and generally you can see how long they’ve watched it for and then it goes up from there. So if then people interact with it, so they like it, if they share it, that’s great, because they obviously love it then, and if they comment. Also if it is for a specific thing, so if it’s a specific campaign that’s got a website associated with it where they’re asking people to sign up or give donations or find out more about a green product, then you can see the click-throughs from that and you can see how much traffic is coming to those websites.

A lot of the work that we do might be just awareness though, so to gauge awareness outside things that are just views and likes and shares is a trickier thing. I mean that’s a longer-term thing to monitor, say for instance, like the vultures in Africa. Hopefully there will be a change for the way that they’re treated there through education, but that’s going to be monitored for a good few years I imagine.

You know, our clients do believe that we will get new audiences as well as ones that are outside their world. You can see that in some of the comments, for instance, that are on our Facebook page. It depends on the film, so naturally some films we do are for business and for the green world of business, so they want to hit people in their world. So some people are happy just to keep their film in that bubble essentially. It’s always a challenge. I think the main thing of talking to the general public is to not be preachy about things, to relate it to their world, because ultimately everyone is selfish in reality, so how does it affect them? And to speak in layman’s terms, so don’t use these really ultra-long words and little jargon-y things to make yourself sound cool; it’s just actually going to alienate people. And that’s sometimes harder said than done really.

Planet Earth: Optimist or pessimist?

I’m a mixture between an optimist and a pessimist in reality. I think there’s a lot of good happening in the world, I think people are wising up to the effects of climate change; it’s affecting their own lives now so they are going to start looking at ways that they can reduce global warming. The films, for instance, that we make will help towards that, we hope, in educating them. And sometimes it’s not just educating in a sense that just turn down your thermostat or that sort of thing, there are actually gadgets out there that can help you too. Solar panels is a gadget, so that can help or efficiency can help, all these little things build up which is wonderful. So a lot of it is education, but then education of the masses is fighting against the corporate big cheeses essentially, so big companies that rely on fossil fuels, the reality is that they are very much about the bottom line. They are not going to be looking into the next 50, 100 years, they’re going to be looking into the next say year, about profits essentially. So the only way I imagine that that would change is from the bottom up, to affect them. So it’s the way that consumers live their lives, it’s what they buy, it’s what they say and that can make such a big difference, campaigning can make a difference and it does. For instance, in America recently Obama actually put a stop to having a massive pipeline going from Canada to the US because of campaigners, and there was a big tar sands company that was very upset about that but that’s great! So this tar sand’s a terrible thing in terms of climate change. So I imagine I’m an optimist in the way looking at the general public of the world, but a pessimist in thinking how long actually this might take.

How does the public perceive companies like Green.TV

One thing that we find at Green.TV is that people’s perception of green issues as a green company as we are, I’m sure that people think that before we arrive that we are the traditional hippy with joss sticks and dream catchers, etc., with no real grasp on the reality of the world, which is not true, hopefully, as you can see… which is not true. So there is a perception of green issues of just being… kind of a middle-class fancy, I suppose. So we’re always fighting against that as well and that it’s not just saving the whale or just the traditional things like put a windmill in your garden, although these things are, naturally whales and stuff are very important, it’s a lot more practical, the solutions. Things like technology or just changing the way you live a little bit can make a massive difference. So I guess I’m saying that we are very much rooted in reality.

Aren’t you just preaching to the converted?

We know at Green.TV that a lot of our audience will be people that are already interested in green issues. I think there’s one thing to remember about that, which is that new research, new news about green issues is happening all the time, so whether someone’s converted, as people might say, or not, in that way isn’t as relevant because they need to also… they do need to have the newer news, essentially, of what’s happening around the world. I think it’s always great to get people who might not traditionally view things that are about green issues, and we do certainly strive to do that. So we do that in a mixture of ways. One is mainly to create films that are not traditional, environmentalist films. I know I keep talking about the vulture film but that is certainly one example of that. Another example of it is the weekly Green.TV show that we’re doing at the moment, so we’re very much targeting that, not to traditionally a green audience; we’re aiming it at everybody. So the stories in there are ones that affect everybody. Say for instance the one that we’ve just filmed that will be going out this week has a story on bananas in it and the fact that the main cultivar of bananas, which is 47% of all bananas are Cavendish bananas, are under threat, because of the way they’ve been farmed, etc., so they’re going to have to change which bananas they’re using. But that’s a very populist story, so if you get that story out there and you hook people in with that and then they watch the rest of the news, that they are stepping their toe into the green world and they know it’s not a scary, preachy place, it’s actually one that’s trying to give them information, and hopefully they’ll go on from there. But it’s always a case of when you’re looking at ideas, is to try and be unexpected and make something sharable, whether it’s green or not, and then you’ll get new viewers.

What is the future for young people in environment television?

So I’d say there is a lot of opportunity for young people who want to get into film but also make films about the environment and climate change and what’s going on in their world. My advice to them is literally to go out and do it, to start experimenting, to make your own films, to look at the films that you yourself like to watch, find subjects that you’re passionate about and you truly believe in or that your heart is really in, that you’re going to enjoy researching and you can film something on your phone, it doesn’t matter, it’s about the story, it’s about keeping it short. And post it online and see what happens. That’s the way you’re going to learn what works. And obviously watch people like Green.TV and what we’re doing too, and we’d love to hear from you! <Laughs> But the world is not necessarily, the world of green filming or filming is not necessarily about the poshest of cameras; it’s about the idea and putting across that idea as clearly as possible.

For instance, as well as we do these lovely, beautiful films that are filmed on beautiful cameras, we have created a film for the Wildlife Trust that is solely made out of people’s own films that they’ve done on their phones. It’s them out in the environment going, ‘This is the place that I love, this is what I recommend you do when you’re in the countryside,’ and actually its lo-fi-ness brings you into it because you believe it. It feels spontaneous and so it’s very, very watchable. The only thing with that that I would recommend is be careful of your editing, keep things short. As much as you’re enjoying your 10 minutes, cut your 10 minutes, that’s fine, then cut it to 2 minutes and see what happens, then cut it to 30 seconds and see what happens, and is your message still there? And if it is then brilliant, actually you’ve got it across in a very watchable way. So yeah, the world is changing, get excited about it!

Is there a future for long-term films?

I would say there definitely is still a place for longer form content. I mean if you look at films like The Inconvenient Truth, that shows that there is, but I think you have to have the right story for it, you have to have something that is so engaging that you want to see the next bit, you want to see the next bit. Essentially you’re not saying one fact in different ways; you’re telling a story and you’re giving new revelations as you go, so it’s more a drama way of looking at it, I suppose. The way that we all consume things online is you want to know very quickly what this film’s about and whether you’re going to spend your three minutes looking at it, so you have to grab people very early. I think the main point is that yes, films online are generally shorter, but if you can convince people that your hour epic, because an hour is an epic, is a good use of your time then of course people will still watch it, they’ll sit down and eat their dinner and watch it, but most films need to be short… it’s possible.

<End of Interview>




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