UPDATE (12/6): AP reports that Discovery has decided to air the full climate change episode! The series will premiere in the U.S. on March 18. Set your DVRs.
For the past few weeks, we've had to wait patiently while our friends across the Atlantic enjoy the BBC's seven-part Frozen Planet series on life at the poles, which won't air in the U.S. until the new year.
This sequel to Blue Planet and Planet Earth -- two of the greatest programs to have ever come through my television -- took four years, dozens of cameramen, 28 helicopters and 2 ice-breaking ships to make. The effort has been described by producer Vanessa Berlowitz as perhaps “our last chance to record these astonishing wildernesses that have existed untouched by humans for millennia and that, within a century, may change beyond recognition.”
Series narrator Sir David Attenborough, who has previously been reluctant to discuss the human environmental footprint in his films, spends the final episode “on location, talking to the camera in his own measured words about shrinking glaciers, warming oceans and the threat posed by man-made global warming,” according to The Guardian.
But now we learn that after earning "massive ratings" from Planet Earth and collaborating with BBC to produce the sequel, the Discovery Channel will not air the climate change episode of Frozen Planet in the U.S. due to a “scheduling issue.”
The Arctic is called ground zero for global warming because it's heating up faster than anywhere else on the planet, and changes there can further amplify warming and push up sea level against the world's coasts. U.S. Geological Survey scientist Steven Amstrup says “the Arctic is a different world than it was in 1980 when I first started going up there.” While we've read reports and seen data about the changes, it's been difficult to really grasp since the region is so unfamiliar and so rarely depicted in the media.
Which is why Frozen Planet would seem like an ideal opportunity for us to learn what is going on up there -- an indispensable opportunity, really, given the scale and distinction of this project. The decision to nix the final episode feels very “heads in the sand,” even if Discovery incorporates some “elements” of the climate change discussion into the other episodes, as it reportedly plans to do.
Not to mention that there is precious little science on the Discovery Channel these days. Yesterday Discovery aired four hours of “American Chopper,” a reality show about guys who build motorcycles; seven hours of “Auction Kings,” a reality show about people selling old stuff; and two hours of “Cash Cab,” which, OK, I don't really have a problem with. But what exactly is the “scheduling issue?” To cut 15 percent of a one-time production of the highest quality for one of those shows is simply incomprehensible.
Give us the science, Discovery, we can handle it.
UPDATE (11/17): Chris Tackett at TreeHugger, which is owned by Discovery Communications, was able to talk some people at the Discovery Channel about this and it sounds like the U.S. version of the series will have a different narrator, just as Sigourney Weaver was substituted for Attenborough in the version of Planet Earth that aired here. Therefore, it would be incongruous to include the seventh episode, in which Attenborough speaks on-camera. Despite this, “the vast majority” of broadcasters around the world still decided to license the final episode, according to the BBC.
Dr. Mark Brandon, who served as a scientific consultant on the series, told The Carbon Brief that there's a reason the BBC put a climate change discussion into its own episode:
To tell a BBC 1 audience about the poles you have to accept that we live in a world where most people do not recognize that the Arctic is largely ocean with a few metres of sea ice cover, whereas the Antarctic is a continent covered with ice kilometres thick. With this parameter in mind, how do you get across the difference between the largest seasonal change on the planet and the observations of longer term change? It's a confusion that is deliberately made by many commentators. Telling the story in its own episode will help viewers see the difference between climate change and the natural seasonal cycle. Overall it will help viewers to see the importance of the climate driven changes being observed.
If only Discovery would air the Attenborough version. We like Attenborough! And we'd love to see the whole story.
UPDATE (11/30): Discovery announced that Alec Baldwin will narrate the series for the U.S. broadcast.