In Depth

Peabody Award Winners: Discovery Channel, BBC, ‘Planet Earth’

“Awesome, spectacular, humbling, exhilarating” is how the Peabody Awards committee described “Planet Earth,” a co-production of Discovery Channel and the BBC that could well stand as the last, best record of a disappearing natural world.

Produced by Alastair Fothergill, who previously documented the earth’s oceans in “Blue Planet,” the 11-part HD series “Planet Earth” was filmed in 62 countries, using 40 camera crews in 204 locations, with the production crew spending about 2,000 days in the field over a five-year period.

Speaking by phone from the BBC Natural History Unit in Bristol, England, Mr. Fothergill admitted he and his crew had no idea how successful the “Planet Earth” series would be.
Gauging that success, he said, “is the hardest thing to do. We thought we had worked really hard and filmed some extraordinary things. Then the night before it aired in the U.K., I had my people there and we thought, ‘We’ve done our best, but who knows how people will respond?’”

As it turned out, people responded rather well. “It’s one thing to have people watch, but to achieve the kind of ‘water-cooler results’ we got, both in the U.K. and then in America—nothing prepared us for that,” Mr. Fothergill said, adding that success came in the U.S. “after it hit ‘Oprah.’ That was what made the difference.

“She has an ability to reach all these people through middle America. It’s different in the U.K., where [BBC] regularly gets 20% of the population. But in the U.S., where there are hundreds of channels, people who never watch nature shows were watching. It’s been an enormous success in the States.”

The crew was able to get footage of a number of animals, their habitats and hunting skills, some of which had never been captured on film. Mr. Fothergill used a Cineflex Heligimbal mounted under a helicopter to film African hunting dogs and a pack of wolves chasing caribou.
Though he was moved by a number of the animal behaviors he witnessed, Mr. Fothergill said his personal favorites were in the “high Arctic: the polar bear images, and a baby polar bear emerging from its den.”

The polar bear is not used to make a statement in the series, but Mr. Fothergill noted the lack of comment might be just as powerful, as “the polar bear has now become the symbol for global warming.”

His worldview was somewhat altered by the making of the series, he said. “It just made me realize [the earth] is an amazingly beautiful place. We worried about criticism for only showing the good things, but it made me realize what a beautiful and fragile world it is and how important it is to film it.”

The “Planet Earth” DVD is narrated by David Attenborough, who did the original televised narration in the U.K. (the U.S. TV version featured Sigourney Weaver) and has sold more than 2 million copies—another unexpected and welcome surprise for Mr. Fothergill. “In a sense,” he said, “the TV series was almost an advert for the DVD.”

Mr. Fothergill is already at work on a new series for the Disney Nature label documenting the history of the North and South Poles. The series, “Frozen Planet,” is set to debut on Earth Day 2011.