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Julian Hector - Earth in Vision

Updated Thursday, 21 July 2016
Julian Hector, Head of the BBC Natural History Unit and former seabird biologist, discusses commissioning programmes, the difference between radio and television and the relationship between broadcast and digital.

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Julian Hector

Julian Hector joined the BBC in 1993.  He was appointed Head of the Natural History Unit (Acting) in April 2016.  As a producer, Editor and Executive producer, Julian has a portfolio of credits across Radio, TV and Digital including landmarks Wild Africa (BBC2), The One Show (BBC1), Tweet of the Day Radio 4 and  Prior to the BBC Julian worked for the British Antarctic Survey as a seabird biologist.


Wildscreen, 20th – 23rd October 2014

Earth in Vision Project

Julian Hector, an Executive Producer at the BBC Natural History Unit with a portfolio ranging from radio right through to television and even theatrical release.

Why I work in natural history

I’ve always loved animals and I’ve always loved animals actually that you can see. Latterly I’ve become more interested in small things, but I remember as a boy, I just always wanted to pick everything up, it didn’t matter what it was, but just pick it up and look at it.

What I’m working on now

Well we’ve got lots of big things at the moment, I’ve got some TV series running. One of them has been quite a hit actually, it was called Tiger about the House, but we’ve had a sequel commissioned and it’s a rather bizarre story of a tiger keeper, a zoo in Australia, the Australia Zoo, where he reared two tiger cubs, Sumatran tigers, in his own home. A strange, juxtaposition of raising two predators in his own suburban home in Australia, and the trials and tribulations that he went through doing that, because he really thought that it was in their best interest, because a lot of tiger cubs die in captivity. But we had a sequel commissioned, where they’re taking that conservation fight of Sumatran tigers into the wild.

I do a whole load of radio, I’ve got a beloved project at the moment called Tweet of the Day on Radio 4 and also a very hard-hitting series, which you’ve been on called Shared Planet, where we’re trying to help define what I see as a very sort of curve of the modern conservation agenda, so if you like, negotiating the space between the natural world and people.

And I do a whole load of other things, I oversee, for example, the content that ends up on BBC website, it’s just been recently rebranded as Earth. So I have overarching signoff of all of that.

What programmes inspire me

I’m a great fan of the landmarks. Landmarks, these sort of big, high end, very high budget films, they get a bit of a hammering at the moment, because they’re so expensive and with the very exacting conservation agenda running, there’s talk about whether they do the job or not, but I have to say that I am one of these Attenborough groupies, I do think that Life on Earth, Trials of Life, those early series in the late seventies and early eighties, they actually linked, if you like, a great communicator with the natural world; for once you saw ants crawling up Attenborough’s legs, you had a sense of how big things were, how wondrous things were. And they were very informative for me and, I think, actually for the rest of the world, because people like myself who already had a passion in animals, just fed that passion. I think it’s rather like an illustrated lecture, there’s nothing more wonderful than a great lecturer talking to you and illustrating it in a stimulating and mesmeric way, so I think those were highly informing.

The other side was some of Cousteau’s stuff, I know it goes back a long way, but I’m thinking about Into the Deep, I think one of them was, a rather controversial film actually. When you watch it today, it seems so dated, but that had a wonderful sense of expedition and into the unknown, I mean not just his gorgeous French accent narrating the film, but truly going into a world that was beyond most of our experiences, but actually you felt you could join him one day, so it wasn’t totally out of this planet. And I found some of his work very informing as well, and continue to.

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

Well the big landmarks still do an amazing job and, without doing them an injustice, they fit into a category rather like film art. I mean I’ve just been to the Wildlife Photographer of the Year ceremony in the Natural History Museum and when you see still photography at the very high end, it does remind you, and photojournalism of still photography, it reminds you that these people are very skilled at telling a story in a single frame. And it has a kind of blue chippy feel about it and these big landmarks really do give you a sense of escapism, of wonder, they have an art form, which is super-skilled and it charges you and it makes you feel that there is something out there to wonder at, to aspire to, to cherish.

Now the nub of your question is, so what do you do once you’re really inspired or in awe of the natural world and I think in the past they’ve just left you with it, but now and for example, just thinking about our work in the BBC, if we have big landmarks commissioned, we’ve got a huge landmark commissioned on the oceans, for example, and one whole film will be devoted to the issues that the global ocean today faces. And I think that Africa, the big landmark series as well, was also something where the last episode was trying to look at the issues that that amazing continent faces, the sort of bellwether of the world really, it had a kind of tone of that. But I do think there’s a tension there and I have to say, myself and colleagues in the BBC Natural History Unit, we ask ourselves these questions the whole time, about having, with these landmarks, having really motivated people and wound people up and got them really caring, if you like, with the modern form of storytelling as well, of sort of beginning, middles and ends, heroes, jeopardy, separation, all these things that make amazing stories, once you’ve got people caring, what then, what next? And I think we’re on that curve now and I think that is the agenda, is what next? It might well be that the digital space is the answer.

Environmental issues: Are films like ‘The End of the Line’ and series like ‘High’s Fish Fight’ breaking new ground?

I think anything to do with broadcast ultimately is not only is there a good story but is there a good storyteller. So a great story is great broadcasting. Two things there. I think that if you can make programmes for a broadcast network or some form of release where campaigning is alright, there are lots of issues that you can campaign about and actually as soon as you’re let loose into the campaigning world, actually the kind of edge that you can put into programming is much, much greater. Now, I work for the BBC, it’s part of our charter that we don’t campaign, that we report stories and we report stories fairly and impartially, that’s what we do, and I imagine the BBC would have quite liked to have put on Fish Fight, but they can’t, they can’t do something like that. So from a public broadcast point of view, in terms of what has loosened up, I think what has loosened it up is that all programme makers in my bit of the public service part of the broadcast world are just bombarded with source material after source material of the collapse in biodiversity and the collapse in processes in the natural world. In other words, it is becoming a bigger and bigger omnipresent story all over the world and I’m not just talking about the recent release of the World Wildlife Fund report on biodiversity, I’m talking about sources from lots and lots of different places.

And I think from a public service point of view, is that we, the programme makers, have to define what the story is, we have to help define the modern agenda in conservation, in our relationship with the natural world, and we have to go to commissioners and say, ‘This is the story that has to be told.’ And we have to be clever about telling that story, because just presenting endless ideas of an apocalyptic vision isn’t, in itself, I think, broadcasting.

Commissioning programmes: Audience research and gut instinct

I think there’s a lot of intuition in commissioning, speaking on behalf of the commissioners I know; part of the skill that we have to show as programme makers is to tap into their instinct for what makes good television or good radio or what have you. On audiences, obviously there’s pure numbers of eyeballs, if you like, and that’s very important to all networks and the sheer number is, if you get over the 3 million mark on BBC 2 in this country, that is a big success on BBC 2, that’s a major success and it’s high fives all round. On BBC 1 anything over 4 million is considered a success, so eyeballs are important. And this is all data that’s relatively easy to get, and then what share, what proportion of the country or the audience were watching your show, whatever the numbers was, what was the share? Share is important too. I work for some programmes that we provide content for where it’s not so much eyeballs but share that they follow, they track literally every minute through the programme what the share is. A huge amount of analysis done at the junctions, at the end of programmes when the credits roll and you get the credit squeeze and you start trailing the next programme, it’s a very, very important time, that’s analysed forensically, so that all goes on the whole time.

And the second part of the answer to this question is when you do specific audience insight research, with a piece of Pulse research or RAJAR or whatever it might be, but if you initiate the research yourself, it’s immensely expensive, by the way, but you can get very detailed analysis of who’s watching; the demographic, what time, what they were doing, were they actually sitting down and eating, watching or were they running around with the hoover, but you have to commission that sort of audience, and we do everything.

Television and radio: How different are they and can they support eachother?

I like the way you say mad range, I think we should all do it actually! Radio is a really interesting one. That was obviously the first broadcast medium and in this country we’re very lucky to have this immensely mature speech network, Radio 4, World Service too, which goes round the world, and Radio 4 is truly a civilising influence on the country, hugely important cultural instrument in the country. What I love about radio, and it’s particularly poignant with the environment agenda, conservation agenda, the natural world, is that, how can I put it, it’s so intelligent and we can put things on radio which are different to television. So, for example, we’re just coming to an end of a 60-episode landmark on Radio 4, called Shared Planet, which really does try to look at the future, as to how people and the natural world are going to negotiate the same space and share the planet in order to survive. And that’s a very difficult thing to translate into pictures, because very often it’s about ideas, very often it’s about tension between ideas.

Now with television, television is broken up into rather more formats than radio, but increasingly we’re trying to put those ideas-led, radioesque ideas-led content on television. Now some time ago on radio, we did a mega event where we followed some whooper swans and Bewick’s swans live on radio as they migrated to Britain at about this time of year, in autumn. And we’ve just managed, some years later, to translate that, because of the technological advances, into pictures, we have commissioned, essentially, a World on the Move on television, where we’ll be following the movement of animals around the world, using all sorts of technology. So I could argue in terms of ideas you can take more risks on radio, radio is always ahead of television, but pictures are so moving, they’re so driving, and when the technology catches up, then we can do lots of things that we do on radio on television.

Now in terms of the second part of your question, in terms of interaction, do you know, there’s not enough interaction between radio and television and I can’t give you an answer. Any of us in the professional world who collaborate know that the perfect collaborations are where you bring something different to the table, where there’s not a great deal of overlap. And one of the issues of radio and television in terms of broadcast collaboration or companion broadcasting in natural history is that what could look absolutely spectacular on television can be as dull as ditch water on radio, unless you’ve got people who can really describe things well. But if they’re describing something wonderful on radio and you can see it in pictures, why do you go to the radio, and there is a tension there. So what happens is, the logical conclusion of that is, that all the apocalyptic and doom and gloom and heavy stuff goes on radio and all the visually wonderful and illuminating and reaffirming stuff goes on television.

So we’re in this bit of a malaise, so actually they’re two different cultures that don’t overlap a great deal, but where, and I’m talking about speech radio and television, but some very exciting developments are happening between television and perhaps radio networks you won’t expect to ally with broadcast. So we’re looking, for example, with landmark television, going into broadcast collaboration with Radio 1, for example, sticking a radio 1 DJ on the top of a rainforest tree and doing the morning show from Congo or somewhere like that. So do you get the idea? So actually it’s about collaboration, bringing something different to the table, so maybe a Radio 1 show and a major BBC 1 natural history landmark is a much more effective collaborator than a content-laden speech series against radio; that’s the point I’m trying to make.

Broadcast and online: how they interact

That’s a rather more happy broadcast relationship, I would say, because they are fundamentally two different platforms and they can be used simultaneously and so with this idea of second and third screens and what have you, is that you can have something running on terrestrial broadcast and at the same time there can be different types of content running simultaneously online. And also in the digital world, and this is very significant, it’s that in trying to define the digital world we need to get out of our mind set of websites, because websites are almost like destinations, like places, so in the digital world we need to think in terms of lots of things coming from different directions, out there in the digital world. So when it comes to online, it could be social media, it could be films on YouTube and similar things to that and it can be content on websites, but the point is, they’re all coming from different places and you’re sourcing them in different ways. So what I’d like to think of more in terms is broadcast and the digital space, that is where there’s a very bright future.

Using archive in the Natural History Unit

If an accountant went round the BBC Natural History Unit, they would say the most valuable thing we’ve got is the archive, they’d actually put a monetary value on it and we’ve only just started to think like that a small number of years ago, when you consider how many years we’ve been making natural history films. Archive is used in a number of ways, there are… we do use the archive, if you like, to reversion completely different ideas. So if you like, the big, very expensive landmarks generate a huge amount of high end, filmed work from the natural world and then say, a good example with children’s television was Steve Backshall’s Deadly, which is a very sustained brand, a great deal of the precursor of Deadly as it is broadcast now, was archive. It was an idea saying we’ve got an amazing archive, we’ve got an amazing presenter, he can do one or two things for real, but actually, we’ll be showing all these animals and their behaviour from the archive. So it does a completely different job to its original purpose. So there’s that.

We do use archive, for example, when we’re making many more observational documentaries these days, where the emphasis is much more on following people say, in an expeditiony sort of way, but we are putting a huge amount of time and investment in filming animal behaviour and within the storytelling we can cut away, if we have filmed that animal behaviour before. But therein lies a problem, is that things technically are moving on the whole time, we’ve gone from standard definition to high definition, to ultra-high definition, which is called 4K, people are already talking about 6K and 8K now and audiences love high definition. And the higher the definition it goes, suddenly the potential of that archive which is filmed on cameras which are now relatively small, that can be blown up to go onto very large screens. So, for example, some of the archive that we have is now in an installation project on a 44m screen in Tokyo, Ookayama,Tokyo, and so it was originally broadcast on television and there it is on the largest screen in the world, presenting natural history. But there is a rub, because the archive never seems to be in date. I mean nobody wants particularly, for broadcast wants to use standard definition, unless it’s of historical importance.

Releasing natural history archive to the public? What’s the potential?

The Creative Commons it’s called and it’s an absolutely fine and charitable idea and I’d say, talking as a BBC man, I would say that there’s a rather wonderful public service spirit in that, the creative commons, that we could put an awful lot of rushes or clips, ins or outs, whatever jargon you want to use, online, free to use. And there’s a lot of talk about this and there are various initiatives. It’s a difficult one for the BBC, because embodied in our whole existence and our charter is not to campaign and we have to be careful… Well, it’s a question, when I say we have to be careful, it’s a question to ask, saying if we put lots of rushes and ins and outs and things online for anyone to cut their own films from, is it right that those might end up in campaigning organisations and should we have any say as to whether the kind of Trust, if you like in the BBC is affected if those images are used? And you might not think so, but actually an awful lot of stuff that is filmed for BBC natural history programming is remarkably recognisable. You’ll be amazed how many scenes you know if you saw them again used in a campaigning film. So we’re not there yet, but I think it must be a good idea.

BBC natural history archive: Is it a useful record of environmental change?

You can’t help but feel there’s potential there. I’m going to start very parochially and then I’ll try and broaden out. The One Show is one of these great magazine shows on BBC1, with great engines, it goes out at seven o’clock. We make wildlife content for them. And the commissioners of The One Show always come to us saying, ‘We’d really love you to make some films about some British landscapes or British wildlife stories, where perhaps you’ve filmed it umpteen times over the decades and you can show us how it’s changed?’ And actually that archive doesn’t exist, we can’t find it!

Now there are, as I broaden out and think more globally, for example, I think we have visited the coral reefs in Sulawesi several times over the last three decades and those Indo-Pacific coral reefs have changed. So if we were to look back at some of the earliest Wildlife on Ones, perhaps, which filmed there and then look at other series which filmed there, it would be interesting. Maybe that sort of thing would be an interesting collaboration with universities?

Environment and natural history: The great theme for the future

Shared Planet. I think that we’re all becoming increasingly moved, of course we are, about the loss of biodiversity and the absolute apparent competition that the human race are with the natural world, the natural world on which they depend, so we cannot escape this kind of almost sort of war on nature and we’re right on it now, it’s inescapable. So there is going to be the richest seam of content, of storytelling, of ideas, that work around how we’re going to find a way to negotiate the same space with the natural world. Perhaps the greatest living biologist at the moment, Edward Wilson, has come up with his half planet idea, and he’s been talking about this for some time, but where half the planet is literally locked off, away from people, connected by corridors, and it’s there forever to preserve the natural world and the human race live in the other half. And that’s very typical, and I think he’s even talking about rotating the national parks of North America, to go in the direction of climate change, a bit like Yellowstone goes West-East, he wants it go North-West. He probably means you need to add an awful lot more onto it. But the point is made is that there are going to be some very big ideas around this Shared Planet area. One thing.

And the second thing is that we are going to have to get very, very in line with the whole social media, online, digital space, because there’s no doubt about it, we all know this, it’s not my view, it’s just, it’s hugely democratized opinion and it’s fascinating seeing the waves of ideas that go through it. And one of them is our behaviour towards animals, our actual treatment of animals, wild animals as well as domestic animals. And I think that that kind of relationship we have with animals and that relationship we have with the natural world is going to be another very rich area in five or ten years. So Shared Planet and our actual relationship with individuals.

Planet Earth – Optimist or pessimist?

I’m definitely going to be half full; I’m definitely going to be optimistic. I’m a great believer in the human spirit, we can all become depressed by it, but the point is that we all need food and we all need shelter and there’s a slightly Lovelockian approach, if you like, and I can call him that, that when you really need to, you break down the differences between yourselves and you meet the impending danger. And he always talked about this in terms of lions attacking a village in Africa, that when the lions are at the boundary of the village, everyone downs tools, friend or foe, and tries to deal with the threat. Now there is this kind of just in time sort of aspect of the human race, but I believe that the creative side of mankind, our ability to be more abstract about why we’re here, will eventually win. So to put it another way, I think the heritage value of the natural world will win the day, ultimately, and win the argument.

 <End of Interview>


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