BBC Brand In Meltdown Over Polargate

  • Date: 13/12/11

BBC feels the commercial chill of ‘fake’ documentary: Fake allegations are potentially hugely damaging for the BBC, which licensed the most recent series of Frozen Planet to 30 networks around the world.

The BBC moved yesterday to protect one of its most valuable international brands amid claims that scenes shown on Sir David Attenborough’s acclaimed series Frozen Planet were filmed in a Dutch animal park and not in the wild.

Eight million viewers saw images of a polar bear caring for her newly born cubs in scenes that were juxtaposed with pictures of the Arctic. The fact that the cubs were filmed in a man-made den in Holland was only revealed in an accompanying clip on the BBC’s website.

“Beeb faked Frozen Planet” claimed a front page headline in yesterday’s Daily Mirror, a story that was widely followed up. The paper quoted Sir David’s commentary accompanying pictures of the cubs, in which he said: “But on these side slopes beneath the snow new lives are beginning. The cubs are born blind and tiny. An early birth is easier on the mother.” On the BBC’s website viewers marvelled at how the camera crew had apparently got so close to the new borns.

The allegations are potentially hugely damaging for the BBC, which licensed the most recent series of Frozen Planet to 30 networks around the world. Natural history brands have become crucial to the BBC’s commercial arm, BBC Worldwide. The popularity of Frozen Planet has also been linked to a surge in interest in adventure holidays in the Arctic.

Yesterday Sir David went on ITV’s This Morning to justify the way the footage was obtained. “It’s not about patience; it’s about safety,” he said. “Safety of the polar bears and safety of the camera crew. If you had a camera in there, the mother may have killed the cub or the camera man.”

In a further effort to limit the damage, the BBC argued that the television script had been written in a way that did not mislead viewers. “The commentary accompanying the sequence is carefully worded so it doesn’t mislead the audience and the way the footage was captured is clearly explained on the programme website,” said a spokeswoman.

The Independent was told that natural history viewers had told the BBC that they did not like the “flow” of programmes to be interrupted by details of where sequences were filmed and asked for such information to be given online. On the BBC website, the programme’s producer, Kathryn Jeffs, explained that it would not have been possible to acquire pictures of the new-born cubs in the wild. “The problem for us is that they do it underneath the snow in these dens of ice,” she said. “There is absolutely no way that we can get our cameras down there – it would just be completely impractical. Even if we could, we would not want to disturb the polar bears by getting that close. This was not part of the story that we could leave out of Frozen Planet.”

But critics of the BBC’s presentation of the footage claimed that the web clip was not easy to find and would not have been accessed by many television viewers. John Whittingdale, the chairman of the House of Commons on Culture, Media and Sport Committee, said the circumstances of filming should have been included in the commentary.

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