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Tim Scoones - Earth in Vision

Updated Wednesday, 13th July 2016

Award-winning Executive Producer at the BBC Natural History Unit Tim Scoones discusses his inspirations, Springwatch, citizen science, archive and new media. 

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Tim Scoones

Tim Scoones is an executive producer at the BBC Natural History Unit, currently specializing in live broadcasting with programs such as Springwatch and 24/7 Wild and also in pop-science, which includes Nature’s Weirdest Events and Natural Born Hustlers. He also leads multiplatform digital broadcasting for the BBC, driving direct audience interaction and engagement. An Oxford biologist by training and a passionate conservationist, Scoones has been making wildlife films for TV for over 25 years. He has won many awards, including an Emmy for Best Documentary for a National Geographic special and a Special Award from BAFTA, for ten years of Springwatch and innovating across platforms.


Wildscreen, 20th–23rd October 2014

Earth in Vision Project

My name is Tim Scoones, I’m an Executive Producer at the BBC Natural History Unit; an Executive Producer runs the team. I like to think that when things are going well I describe my job as someone who supports a fabulous team of people doing wonderful things; when things don’t go so well, it’s all my fault.

You can find me on Twitter @natureboytim

I’ve been a naturalist since I can remember, so my Twitter handle is @natureboytim, because that is what defines me, that is who I am and probably who I always will be. I met an old school friend of mine the other day who came up and shook my hand at a BBC thing and said, ‘I knew you’d end up doing that,’ which is quite funny. So I grew up in the Dorset countryside, nature was my friend and my companion and my fascination. I thought I was going to be a nature reserve warden when I was young and everyone else wanted to be doctors and firemen and things. I then thought I was going to be a research conservationist, which I was for a while, and then my conservation colleagues said, ‘You’re a good communicator; we need to win the media war, we need to win the hearts and minds, so that is where you should do your thing.’ And that is why I went into television and that’s why I’m still here.

Inspirations and heroes...

Well I’m going to say the obvious, because I’m 47-years-old, which is those early Attenborough series and The World About Us, Sunday nights, you know, it is now called The Natural World, that was a real eye opener for me. I used to sit with my parents, I was in front of the fire, like a dog, watching the world through this little box in the corner of the living room in the early seventies, just thinking, ‘That’s absolutely amazing.’ The fascination of nature, the beauty of nature, the fascination of animals and ecologies and all of that and morphologies was just endless, absolutely incredible. So yes, probably the Attenborough’s, a bit Carl Sagan, you know, all the classics really. But also things that happened for me locally, things that were happening in my life, the nature reserves down the road, the fact that I used to go and see talks by one of my big heroes, the local RSPB warden, I wanted to be him. So those were the things that really drove me, even in the days when the media was pretty limited, frankly.

What are you most proud of?

I think there’s a few that I’m proud of. I run the Watches, Springwatch, Autumnwatch, Winterwatch, Snowwatch, watch whatever you want to watch, these days. That’s a big show, it’s 26-hours of BBC 2, I’m very proud of the fact that we have interactive, participative, joyous, celebratory, UK wildlife for UK audiences on air for 26 hours a year and now all other social media, websites, red button, you name it. And even more proud of the fact that it’s actually a hit. We’re not doing it just because it’s good for us, in a Reithian, BBC kind of way, it’s actually popular, so I’m exceptionally proud of that.

My Oman show…

I’ve done other things in the past where working as an independent producer, where you own the rights and the idea until you licence it to a broadcaster. When I realised that that’s how it worked, the whole intellectual property thing, I made a Natural World in the Sultanate of Oman many years ago and I’d done the legwork and got the access to what was quite a closed country then and some amazing wildlife and landscapes. And to cut a long story short, I did a deal with the BBC whereby I withheld the intellectual property in the rights to broadcast that show in the Sultanate of Oman, and then as soon as that contract was signed, the very next day, I sold those rights for £1 to the Government of Oman, which then meant that they not only supported the making of the show, ‘cause they realised that I wanted to give it back, but then I worked with their ministries and we redubbed the whole show into Arabic. And then through their Education Ministry, we had that film distributed in English and Arabic to every school in Oman and it’s still being shown, not only as a film about their heritage, a film about biology, but it’s also a way for them to learn English. That I am exceptionally proud of and something I wish we would do so much more of, so easy.

Why rights issues are so complex…

One of the reasons why I think people find it tricky to come up with clever rights solutions to broadcasts, when it would be so obvious that the rights one should be most careful of are the rights of the country that you’ve just made a film about, one of the problems is it’s very complex these days; no one broadcaster owns all the rights, they’re all co-productions, they’re very, very complicated deals, and all you need is one co-producer not to agree to it and then you’ve had it. I think a lot of the deal making is done away from the passion of the filmmakers, ‘cause it’s a big business, so this is just another piece of television, whereas we don’t think of it as another piece of television. The other reason is there aren’t that many shows these days that are made about one place. When I made a show on the Sultan of Oman and I could take those rights and I could do something clever with them, we rarely do that now, so it’s usually a more complicated picture, but we should strive to aspire to that kind of thing whenever possible.

Blue-chips versus environmental programmes…

I think when you talk about blue chip and you talk about angst-ridden, doc-4, micro audiences, you’re talking about two extremes and you’re talking about two extremes of production, but two extremes of consumption, and I think these days we all know that both production and consumption is becoming much more diverse, so I don’t think they’re polar opposites anymore and I think there’s a lot more in between. And again I think that natural history broadcasting needs to work on a number of levels at the same time, not necessarily the same programme working at a number of levels, some do, but across the piece it can work at a number of levels. There’s what I call the lush and awe approach, which is just totally bamboozle them with gorgeousness and everyone just goes, ‘I love that.’ Now that is creating a base response that sadly these days some people may not get, because they don’t see sunsets and lovely, falling leaves and amazing wildlife themselves anymore, so at least they’re getting that serotonin hit from it. But all that does is create a background into which other players, be they other programmes or non-governmental organisations or whoever, academics, can then make a point, because then the emotional response has started. But I think sometimes it’s very important, like Hugh’s Fish Fight, for example, brilliant Channel 4, very practical, this is happening, but you can do something about it, that sort of stuff is also important. But I think there are other places like Springwatch, for example, where a lot of it is joyous, positively light if you like, in its tone and celebratory, but it also has stuff that really connects you to what’s going on in your own world and then encouraging you to participate in a very gentle way. And we all know that once people start to participate, the very act of participating changes the way we see the whole thing, so I think there are other shows like Springwatch which are about first steps. And we should probably never expect one particular television programme to do that, but now that we have multi-platform, actually one, big idea may be able to do that, albeit in different forms at the same time. In the same way that Springwatch goes, ‘Here’s something we filmed that you wouldn’t be able to and it’s absolutely gorgeous and if you go on our website we’re going to tell you not only how to go and see that yourself, but maybe how to do something to help it.’

Habitat destruction – has the media failed?

I think it’s fair to say that many natural history filmmakers would say they haven’t done enough and the industry has failed in delivering genuine environmental awareness when we’ve been spending so much time showing how gorgeous everything is and basically how pretty our work looks. Though in the defence of those people who genuinely feel that, because most of us come to natural history broadcasting because we want to make a difference, in their defence I would say it’s also a failure of humanity to listen and want to listen, because when commissioners commission things, they look at past performance and if people don’t watch the stuff, then why are we making it? And you could argue for someone like the BBC, whose meant to be reaching, quite literally, as many people as possible, something for everyone, because we’re essentially all paying a tax for it, then you could argue that that would be political interference to keep making shows that no one watches. So I would say humanity has a responsibility to vote with their feet and watch, but we also must think of better ways of delivering it, that don’t inspire guilt and internal damnation, if you like, in just thinking, ‘Well what’s the point?’ and giving people a sense of despair.

So what one could also say is what would have happened if natural history broadcasting hadn’t been there for all its prettiness, and if you could say sticking its head in the sand about what’s really going on-ness, what would really have happened? What would have been the effect, for example, on the human race if the natural history unit at the BBC had never existed and never made any of those programmes? We will never know, but it’s an interesting question to ask. That’s not to get natural history filmmakers and particularly commissioners off the hook, but it’s an interesting thought and there is still a role to be played for people to just make people love, adore and be in awe of the natural world, and you could argue that’s the biggest thing we need to do now, with the population of the world that is becoming more and more urban, more and more virtual and more and more disconnected from quite literally the joy of being outside.

Storytelling and the environment…

I think there is a very interesting change going on where, because we’re all having to get more sophisticated about our storytelling and indeed, generationally there are many more people in the upper echelons of the business that are my age, who I would now call themselves environmental natives, you know, Save The Whale was happening was I was 10, that sort of thing, I’ve grown up with it and now that I’m in a position to make key choices, that’s a natural choice for me, whereas before it might have been seen as something that we might do in certain circumstances. So what’s even more important now than ever before is telling good stories, and if actually an environmental impact or context is a key part of that story, it should be in, and if we can make that emotional, because you have engaged in some way with the beauty or the character of natural history and then it plays into that story, then that is highly impactful and that isn’t accidental, that is deliberate.

Richard Hammond and saving the elephant

I’m very proud of the fact that, for all that everyone hated about a show I did called Planet Earth Live, because we had Richard Hammond on it and Julia Bradbury, who frankly is a bit like taking the devil to a Christmas mass in some people’s eyes, what that did, that show, was get 30% of the audience watching who had never, ever watched a natural history programme ever before, who got very engaged with those animal characters that many of my colleagues said, ‘You can’t do that, that’s just soft soap,’ but they were engaged. And then low and behold we found ourselves live three times a week for three weeks on BBC 1 actively talking about elephant poaching in Africa, because it had messed up the social structure of the characters that people had become very engaged with. And we realised having dipped our toe in on the first show, seeing the social media reaction to it, we were seeing people going, ‘I’d no idea that was going on, I was no idea that was the impact,’ we kept going and kept going. And we were astonished ourselves at, once we’d been given the narrative opportunity to do it, how much people were up for, and that was on BBC 1 and that was Richard Hammond from Top Gear doing it. So that was, let’s not get too pious about what we do or else we will end up in funny, little churches on the top of hills. We need to be where the people are and that means taking those messages, taking those ideas to people where they find them and where they’re going to listen, because do not expect people to naturally sit down and listen, even if you’re the BBC, god forbid.

Archive – its use

Archive, so footage that’s been shot before that we, the euphemism is, that we ‘repurpose’ into new things, is a very important part of what we do on a number of levels. So from a craft perspective this stuff if the crown jewels, especially now it can be digitised and you can save it at very high resolution. It’s a goldmine of information and we’re working with academics now who are actually using it as a scientific record of things, because we’re in funny, remote places all the time. You could call it sampling if you were an academic, so we’re quite interested in that. But in terms of the craft of filmmaking archive is, particularly with reducing budgets and all of that, cynically it’s a way of putting stuff on screen that’s free, because you’ve already shot it, but I would always say it’s never used as padding, it’s used to propel a story and as long as you are accurate in the way you’re portraying it and you’re not mixing it with new stuff and pretending it was all happening at the same time or you are using it in its relevant context, and if actually the world has changed since that thing was shot, you need to show that or at least explain that, then we’re only after storytelling, not footage acquisition. So people who say, ‘Oh no, you can’t use archive,’ why not? It would be like saying, ‘Don’t use paint that you’ve already opened yesterday when you’re painting a picture.’ Why not? It might even look better? So as far as I’m concerned, I’ll use any tools at my disposal to tell stories that will engage people in the wonders of the natural world and how it works, and as long as we’re honest about its use and crafty about its use, then I have absolutely no issue with it and will become increasingly more important.

Digital archive and the lost tribes

Sadly, it’s going to become a digital ark of some things that we can never see again. And one example that absolutely chilled all of us on the exec team of the Natural History Unit was when we realised that through a semi-automatic process a whole load of rushes, that’s original, raw footage, of a series shot a long time ago about tribes, it was an anthropology series that people went, ‘Oh, that’s so old and it’s on this format,’ and all of that, we had no idea but it was automatically junked, irrevocably junked and then we realised that we had lost a document of societies that don’t exist anymore and that was our dodo moment, our passenger pigeon moment, when we went, ‘We need to be much more rigorous about this.’ So now archive deletion has to come to the Board for us to do it and none of it is semi-automatic anymore, we think about it very, very hard. How we store it is going to be interesting of course and how we surface it is going to be interesting, but it is a goldmine and it’s a goldmine culturally and academically as well as from the position of making film.

Releasing archive – the issues and funding

The idea of getting, our audience, getting the public to crowdsource metadata into our crown jewels, our archive, is a fascinating idea. It’s finding someone to fund it that I think is the real challenge. It’s very easy in our modern day of cuts and rationalisation and all of that to see that as a quaint, passion project and what’s going to be the result of it? I think there may also be, from a BBC point of view, a concern about verification; you know, how do we know, we’re not Wikipedia, we’re the BBC and people rightly haul us up for being inaccurate whenever we are, if ever we are, so I think there are issues with it. It would be lovely to do and I would just love the idea of, I don’t know, a philanthropist or an academic institution going, ‘Let’s do this.’ I think there would certainly be the appetite to do that, we now have the technology to do it, I think now it’s a case of finding the will and the wallet to do it.

Should the BBC release its archive to the public?

The idea of taking our archive, taking our rushes in particular, our raw footage and releasing it more openly so that people like teachers or students or artists can mess with it and repurpose it is a fascinating idea. For footage that is wholly owned by the BBC that’s a lot easier, because essentially it has been funded, paid for and therefore is owned by the British public. It gets much more complicated when a number of stakeholders are involved, co-producers as we call them, and if I told you that the big blockbuster stuff, your Planet Earths, your Life Stories, those sorts of things, which is probably the stuff that people would want to get their hands on the most, if I told you that the licence fee pays for about 15% of that and 85% of that is actually owned by other people, possibly three or four other stakeholders, there are issues there, because everyone would need to be happy with that. And on the flipside once the stuff has actually been used or reused, which creatively, artistically and intellectually surely is a good idea, if you’re looking at rights where people from other countries may have an ownership of those rights, it’s very difficult now to geo-block, as they say, to keep that in a walled garden known as a territory in the business, because for all our efforts to keep our clips of landmarks, even our official clips, our own official clips within the UK before our majority co-producer, 40%, of the budget Discovery Channel had run Planet Earth for example, some bloke in Russia had already ripped it, put it on YouTube and got 5.5 million views, so it’s a leaky bucket these days. So it makes it more complicated, but that’s not to say we shouldn’t try doing that and we shouldn’t stick our necks out.

Springwatch – getting the audience involved

On Springwatch we’re becoming more and more interested in actually not the audience and the public playing around with our stuff, but playing around with their own stuff and then sharing that with us and we now have our very own show, well, their very own show should I say, Springwatch Unsprung, which is so popular now that we run it… for every hour we run on BBC 2, we run half an hour of Unsprung which is purely made up of audience stuff, either on red button or on BBC 2. So I think let’s not get too proud of our own work, when actually out there people are doing really quite clever things with quite small bits of kit that you can buy on high streets. So absolutely let’s do it, but until the rights situation either breaks, which it might, because it’s a leaky bucket, or is rethought, it’s going to be complicated, because someone is going to say, ‘That’s not your stuff to give away.’

How an experiment with a comedian and live UK nature became a television hit

So back in 2003-2004 as Britain Goes Wild as it was first called and then Springwatch emerged, it was this weird, weird new thing that popped out of nowhere. It was definitely an experiment, there was no doubt about it, but it was driven by a lot of people with quite a lot of zeal for doing quite subversive, wanted to do different things, it had Bill Oddie in it, how weird, having an ex-comedian in it? That was live, it started asking the audience stuff. Nothing much happened, we watched badgers, it didn’t have lions and tigers and bears, it had blue tits and squirrels and things and slugs, extraordinary! And if you write it down now on a piece of paper, it’s a failed commission, I mean there’s no way you would ever do this. So we always dreamed that we could keep doing something like this, but what’s extraordinary is how strong it has become, it’s become part of the national conversation. It’s really weird, people either like it or they like that it’s there, even though they don’t watch it, which is quite odd, a bit like the Queen Mother or something like that, it’s a strange thing it has. And I think what really helped us was (a) we were just enthusiastic about the content, we just wanted to tell people, in that sense we were slightly evangelical, so we would just talk to anyone who would listen. And there’s something very authentic about that, at a time in British television when there was a lot of very inauthentic stuff going on and when we beat Big Brother in the ratings, that made the headlines.

Citizen science and the power of television

I think the greatest legacy of the Springwatch experiment, it’s an ongoing experiment and still feels like an experiment, is the citizen science that we have facilitated, inspired, propelled and powered, because that’s real science. The Springwatch survey, which is why Springwatch is called Springwatch, which we did in 2004, 2005, 2006 where we had a third of a million people gathering data, now it wasn’t us, we didn’t come up with this, this was the Woodland Trust and the UK Phenology Network, really proper, strong scientific bodies who needed big data, but couldn’t get it, couldn’t afford it, but we had big audience. So we got big audience to create big data and we’re very proud of the fact that over those three years we created a data set big enough to be statistically significant; it also informed scientists how to do micro studies to fill in the gaps and really prove the case that indeed our seasons were changing and they were changing by quantifiable amounts. And I think the big moment for the legacy of Springwatch, the first big one where we really realised that something new was happening, was when that dataset that was created by kids and grannies and anoraks and people I will never meet, in a very simple way, that dataset combined with the other scientific studies that went around it, became the piece of evidence that was taken to the European Commission, I think it was in 2007, that changed the European Commission’s mind on how seriously to take climate change and changed policy. And that was by people looking out for frogspawn, ladybirds, swifts, peacock butterflies, simple stuff, bumble bees; that’s people power, that’s legacy and that is what we can do so much more of in the future. That has happened in the last 10 years and that is a game changer.

New media – The Springwatch example

When you look at experimentation and innovation in the media, you have to understand that we live in a mixed ecology, this is big business, these are big audiences, this is high risk. So what you’re going to get is quite a lot of conservatism that says, ‘This works, don’t mess with it, this is getting millions and millions of viewers, let’s do more of the same.’ That’s natural, you’ll find that in any business. What’s important is that we remain subversive, we remain subversive at the edges and particularly outfits like the BBC who can command big audiences and authenticity and integrity, should still do that. Springwatch was a very good example of that and how we’ve been lucky enough to use emerging technology, particularly platforms and ways of increasing and speeding up the conversation with the audience, we’ve been able to use that to innovate, because Unsprung, for example, which is our audience show for the audience by the audience, we started out on red button. Now we wouldn’t have got a commission for that from BBC2, it’s on BBC2 now, but we started it actually on the web on our message boards, then we realised we needed more and so we went onto red button. And that was OK and everyone kicked back and was quite subversive and quite creative, because they thought, ‘No one much is watching.’ And then more and more people watched and then we ended up with three or four hundred thousand people each time and then BBC 2, I remember the time when the BBC 2 controller saw it for the first time and she went, ‘Tim, this is brilliant, this is brilliant, how many are you getting for this?’ And I said, ‘Oh, you know, about a third of a million, we’re quite chuffed about that.’ It’s what Big Brother were getting at the time so we were even more chuffed about that. And she said, ‘I can get you 2 million if you put this on BBC2.’ And I smiled and I said, ‘Well you’re the channel controller, commission it.’ She commissioned it on the spot. So that was an extraordinary way whereby we’d used, if you like, peripheral platforms to play in a sandbox and then that moved back into the mainstream and I think we’ll be able to do more and more of that. And digital’s a very good place to do that, social media’s becoming a very good place to do that. So that’s potentially where we’re going to be more innovative, subversive, because it’s easier to do and then it can escalate back, but that’s the nice thing is we have proved that it does escalate back into the mainstream.

And watch out for, on the BBC, something we’re going to be trying digitally, which is to take the very shoots of those amazing landmark programmes that you see, that you know take four years and all of that, and using what we’ve learned subversively on Springwatch and turning those shoots themselves into digital, live events, so you can actually… Don’t wait four years for the ‘making of’, live it, join it, join us on our adventures we’re saying. That could be very, very interesting, it could open up a whole new aspect of how natural history broadcasters broadcast. Think From Our Own Correspondent for wildlife and environment, because we’ve got, to use the news expression, we’ve got stringers all over the world all the time. All we now need to do is to connect them to our audience and get them to start communicating and we need to find a way of funding that and of broadcasting that in an efficient way, but that’s very exciting, that’s extremely exciting and by the way if anyone’s watching who does the big stuff and wonders whether that would spike all the guns, absolutely not, this is free marketing, because in no way does joining someone on a shoot ever take away from the joy of a fully edited, cinematic product like Life Story or Africa or whatever. More importantly marketing will probably become, ‘Do you remember when they did this last year?’ And you go, ‘How could I forget? I even talked to the guy!’ Well, it’s on on Sunday, what are you going to do? Share, share, share. I saw them do this, it’s amazing. So cynically, it could open up marketing opportunities and all sorts, whereas actually what I think it’s doing is just opening up the world quite literally to audiences where they are and stops that rather paternalistic, ‘I’ve made something lovely for you and now you’re going to watch it,’ which of course you can still do, but people might want to have it a different way.

Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future?

I’ve been lucky enough to see change up close both in the natural world and in the human perception of the natural world and what’s going on there, and I have good days and bad days. Some days I think we are driving very fast in a gas-guzzling car, very fast towards something that we know is a cliff and somehow we think that maybe we will have died by the time it happens or we can somehow blame someone else or if I just don’t think about it, it might not happen or I’ll just let it happen, and that can be quite depressing. But on another level what I see is the human race beginning to wake up; it’s beginning to empower itself, democratise, digitise and democratise; it’s beginning to find a voice for itself. And we had a very interesting conversation, the Executive Producers of the Natural History Unit with the Director-General of the BBC, Tony Hall, and it was an entirely spontaneous conversation, but he still remembers it. I saw him the other day and he quoted it back to me, when we said how invigorating and exciting is it for us sitting here, knowing that the human race finds itself in a very important conversation about how it’s treating its own home, we haven’t found another one yet and yet we know we’re doing something pretty intensely bad to it right now, and that the human race is really waking up to that now, it’s beginning to see the early signs of the bad stuff, but it’s also beginning to realise that it can’t escape the fact that it has done it to its own home.

And at that point which we are now going into, the next 10, 20, 30 years, that conversation is going to get louder and louder and louder, and where that conversation is going to happen is in the media. Now who in the media is one of the, in fact increasingly more authentic, powerful and high integrity voices in the media? It’s the BBC, and I think will become even more so across the world as we globalise, this will be one of the advantages of globalisation, people will realise the Reithian values of the BBC. We call it now global public service, so the BBC is uniquely placed to empower and host that conversation that the human race has to have with itself about its home. We at the Natural History Unit are the people who are providing that voice, providing that insight into that conversation; we’re not telling people what to think, we are showing people what’s going on and we’re showing people what’s at stake and what there is to lose. And therefore those 12 executive producers in that room that day talking to the Director-General of the BBC said to him very clearly, ‘Surely we’re the people now who are tasked, more than anybody else in the world, to start that conversation and continue that conversation and you, dear Director General, need to get behind us.’ And he’s never forgotten that and I think that’s exhilarating to think we might be able to use the new, modern, digital media to empower people. Look at Arab Spring, look at all these examples of where the political game has been changed by the use of media, dare I say Islamic State, doing a very good job at a very bad thing, because of what they’re doing. So what’s our response, because I won’t rest easy on my deathbed if I thought I didn’t pick up that challenge and I didn’t encourage my colleagues and my industry to seize that moment and at the very least have a go. There’s a disaster movie phrase for this which is, ‘It’s a bold plan, but it might just work.’

<End of Interview>




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