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Krishan Arora - Earth in Vision

Updated Friday, 15th April 2016
Krishan Arora, consultant producer and former BBC commissioner, discusses the issues around commissioning environmental programmes in both the UK and abroad - including the once-upon-a-time industry reluctance to use the word "environment" - and outlines the ethical issues surrounding making archives open to the public.

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Krishan Arora

Krishan Arora is a consultant and producer. He is currently the International Content Consultant for Australian public channel SBS Television. He was previously at the BBC in London, first as Commissioning Executive for specialist factual documentaries and then as the Independents Executive, responsible for the BBC’s strategic relationship with the Indie sector across all genres. He has worked as a programming exec for European public channel ARTE, and produced many documentaries for UK and international channels through independent company Antelope and now for his own company Mixing Media.


Earth in Vision Project

Wildscreen, 20th – 23rd October 2014


I’m Krishan Arora, I’m a consultant for SBS Television, which is Australia’s public channel, second public channel, and I’ve previously been a BBC commissioner in the specialist factual area and also a documentary producer.

Environmental programmes: A limited audience?

I think the issue with environmental programmes is that unless they engage and make people want to do something about it, they’re often programmes that are preaching to the converted. I remember one film which I think is important for the general environmental debate and actually the general debate of the role of film making in the environment, which is called Age of Stupid, which I can’t say I commissioned but I was there at the inception of and had a little part to play in getting it on the BBC, but it had a much broader role out in the world and out in both the environmental and climate change community, and I think those sorts of films, beyond traditional broadcast, are just as important in the environmental … let’s call it, television bit.

Environmental programmes: Getting commissioned

No, I think the real challenge was that in television programming, so above the level of commissioning, for many, many, many years the ‘E word’, the environment word, was just out of bounds. Nobody wanted it. They said, ‘It’s boring, it only appeals to a certain level of people, it’s all miserable scare stories, there’s nothing positive about it, it’s never entertaining, we don’t want it.’ And often people would use natural history to smuggle in broader environmental messages, or at least that would be the point of the show or the film, but if you said to the Channel Controller, ‘This is an environmental film’ it probably wouldn’t get green lit.

I mean things have changed. I’m talking about a period in maybe up to five, ten years ago. There was then a moment where we all got more energised about the environment. I have to say I think that moment’s passed again and it’s becoming harder to get those sorts of films away. That’s a very generalist perspective of how I think it is.


Environmental programmes: How to get a commission

I think it’s about finding the right way of telling them. I can think of a film made by a Bristol company that went out I think in the Natural World strand on BBC earlier this year, which I think was called Africa’s Giant Killers and it was about a pride of lions …I can’t remember, I think it was on the Serengeti anyway, which because of drought, and the programme said this right at the beginning, it said, ‘The rains didn’t come. There’s been drought. The animals haven’t been coming to the water hole. The lions’ natural prey haven’t been turning up to the water hole because of climate change. So therefore the lions are having to go after larger prey.’  And then the behaviour part of the film kicked in and it was about lions taking down elephants, which was behaviour that hadn’t been filmed before. Now do you know, for most people watching the programme and what they’ll remember of it, it will have been these amazing scenes of lions attacking elephants. Maybe, you’d hope that they’d take with them the idea that this came because there was drought, the rains had failed, why did the rains fail? And you’d hope that they’d be inspired by that film to go off and find out about it.

I don’t think you’d commission that as an environmental film; you’d commission that because it’s a really good story of never before seen, unseen animal behaviour.

Post transmission: Taking the story further

I don’t think it’s to do with widening out the story telling, it’s about how people just straightforwardly comment on something. We’ve all got the experience of putting up a post on Facebook and then the conversation of people making comments goes in a different direction. Nothing to do with the thing we posted, and that’s great. That’s what these things should be there for, and if people use Africa’s Giant Killers, just with that example, to then talk about climate change in Africa, that’s great. I don’t think you need to change the programme actually. You just need to open up the field of debate and allow, or encourage people to talk about it, or say … ‘Do you remember the bit in the first minute where we told you there was a climate change issue? Well here’s something else you can find out about that. Now we want to go off and talk about it.’ But you do need something to attract them to the issue, and if that’s lions attacking elephants, use that. There might be others, I’m not saying it has to be animals, there might be other ways of bringing them in, but use whatever attracts people to congregate and talk to each other.

Releasing BBC archive to the public: What’s the potential?

I’ve often thought actually ‘archives’ is a really inappropriate word ‘cause it makes all of this material seem … it’s just one of those words that makes it seem dusty and old and not interesting, when actually it’s just pictures and those pictures can be, certainly in stuff shot in the last ten years is all going to be high definition, all of this stuff lasts and looks as if it was shot, or a lot of it looks as if it was shot yesterday. And for an audience now, young, old, a digital audience, it’s just pictures. Many people … or some people, use Google images as their default search; many young people use Instagram as their default social media, they take pictures or they search for subjects through pictures. Or YouTube, my kids search on YouTube, because if they want to find out about something, they’ll get a piece of video and that’s what’ll explain it to them. And we need broadcasters, producers, everybody is in this world and we have to confront it while, just like the music industry, making sure that the content has a value, or that the value of the content is respected and there’s still money in the system to pay for the creation of it. And the problem, of course, in the digital field is that if you say, ‘Hey, it’s all free, everybody can use everything’ then they go, ‘Well why should we ever pay somebody to make it?’ And you go, ‘No, no, no, that’s not the deal! You’ve still got to pay for the creation of it, but then you can use it afterwards.’ People won’t get that if you make everything available for free. You’ve got to make some of it to then encourage them to use it, to pay for it.

I mean that’s a broader digital… that’s the problem with all digital content. You can’t give it all away because then people won’t see why they have to pay for it. You have to give some away to then make a point why they should pay for it, whether that’s music or pictures, Google images, images you find on Google, anything. The unspoken contract is that people will need to pay for it; somebody has to pay for it somehow.

Releasing the BBC archive: The ethical issues

I think it’s a real challenge. The ethical issues are a real challenge because programmes are made, we’re talking about programmes not just shooting footage but actually making programmes, they’re made with often a really precise set of rules. They’re done in collaboration with organisations, they’re done at a certain moment in time, people talk to you because you say, ‘I’m filming this interview with you,’ or ‘You’re giving me access to this area of nature, because I want to say this.’ And they agree with that, or not … but they’ll agree with that and then let you do it. If you then use that footage or if that footage is then used by somebody else for other purposes, they will feel that contract of trust has been betrayed, and I think it is a real issue. People will be using material for …I don’t know, the world ‘political’ is a bit of a broad word but they’ll be using it for reasons that weren’t intended by the original filming of it. You could say, ‘Well there’s nothing you can do about that, so you might as well embrace it’. Sometimes there will be consequences which might stop that material being shot in the future. In other words the person who gave you access to whatever it is, or gave you the interview, might say, ‘Hey, I didn’t expect to see myself in an anti-vivisection campaign film. That’s not the context in which I gave you that interview so I’m not going to talk to anybody from television anymore.’ That’s an issue. There may not be anything we can do about it, as people are going to rip those things from online sources wherever they find them or from broadcast, they’re going to do it anyway. Maybe a broadcaster’s role is now becoming more about trying to moderate and own those debates, knowing that that material is out there. They should become the home of those debates.

Environmental programmes: The future

I think the themes side of it, I think everybody has to be aware of the urgency of making change now, of changing … our attitude to consumption I suppose is basically what it’s about. And I don’t think within broadcasters it is seen as a priority. I actually remember coming to a session you ran in Cambridge about ten years ago, which the BBC was invited to brainstorm around how we can make environmental issues popular and we can put them in terms of popular television. We came up with some possibly fun ideas. I don’t know if any of them made it to screen. I somehow doubt it. But we can’t just make that a … it can’t just be a fun, nice to have thing. I think broadcasters have to change their priorities, simple as that actually. I think they have to say our public service is not about reaching the biggest audience with something fun and entertaining. Our public service is about protecting the planet and the resources on the planet. We are in some way a steward of that and we need to do something about it. But until you get buy-in from somebody at the top of a broadcaster it won’t happen. It just won’t happen. I mean the person at the top of the BBC has made a decision, Tony Hall, Director General, has made a decision about arts programming and said the BBC should be the guardian of the nation’s culture, it should be about arts programming. There are partnerships, new websites, more money going into some would say highbrow culture. Why couldn’t such a decision be made about environmental programming?

Climate change and environmental programmes: Can they get commissioned in the future?

Broadcasters and film makers in this area have got a great opportunity obviously to put a message out to hundreds of thousands, millions of people, and particularly in this area to do it globally. I think it would be wrong though, if they focussed on high-end natural history film making as the only way to do it. In the end the thing that you want, you want people to get these messages as an everyday thing, not to have to go to a special programme or a special presenter to learn about it. So it’s about getting these in magazine programmes or ordinary observational documentaries, as I say, not to talk about the environment as some global thing that is not connected with your life, but to talk about things that matter to you. I mean recycling is something that matters to many people, still quite hard to make it entertaining I think, although some people have tried, but you need to find ways of making it important for people’s everyday life, and then if you can do that you’ve got them. They can then go off and find what the bigger themes are behind that, the more global themes. It’s about bringing them in, giving them the … I’m trying to think of a way of describing it... A point of access or a door, leaving the door ajar so they can come in, they don’t feel threatened by it, they don’t think they’ve got to have a PhD to know about these issues, but that it’s just part of their lives and the programmes that they normally watch. And that’s … as everybody gets sensible on this if that’s the right word, to these issues, it’ll come naturally. We may need to find a new language and a new vocabulary for words like environment and global warming and climate change, so that people feel able to do it and feel that it relates to them.

Planet Earth: Optimist or pessimist?

I don’t like the word pessimistic actually because you all feel that you want to do something about the world or leave something to your children or not leave the world in such a mess.

<End of Interview>


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