Making Animals Public: the Changing Role of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in Building Public Value and Interest in Wildlife Documentary

The aim of this project is to critically evaluate the ABC's changing role in building public value and engagement with animals through the genre of wildlife documentary. For many years wildlife documentary has been seen as quintessential public service content. There is no question that the ABC's Natural History Unit, set up in 1973, played a key role in making animals educational, entertaining and often national. Through an innovative collaboration between media scholars and the ABC this study investigates exactly how the ABC has built public awareness of animals' environmental and cultural significance and the national benefit of this; how this has been affected by changed production models; and how the ABC should manage the intellectual property (IP) of its extensive wildlife archive for the public good in a converged environment.

Researchers: Professor Gay Hawkins, Dr Ben Dibley, Mary Jane Stannus (Head of Content Services, ABC)

Funding: Australian Research Council (opens in a new window), Linkage Project

Partner: Australian Broadcasting Corporation (opens in a new window)

Period: 2014-2017 (continuing)

A row of 13 kangaroos drinking water from a river.

Photo credit: David Cook, Red Kangaroo (Macropus rufus) - "Someone's missing" (opens in a new window), Flickr, Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0) license.

Animals are everywhere on television. Whether it is wildlife documentaries, childrens’ entertainment, science programming or the news, audiences are invited to engage with animals, to feel the pull of their diverse public performances. While animals on screen are far from new, the proliferation of animal content on small screens has transformed how animals are known and encountered, generating unique modes of televisual animality. This content has also transformed human involvement with animals, provoking new attachments and public interest in them. Just as television has made animals public in very particular ways, it has also made new publics that have learnt to be affected by them.

This project investigates this dynamic relation between making animals public and making publics using the example of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s (ABC) rich archive of animal television. The central focus is on how animal content has changed over the last 50 years and how ABC animals constitute a distinct genre of public making. That is, a process where publics are called into being and invited to engage with animals in terms of what they are and why they matter. In this process animals can emerge as anything from natural to hilarious to terrifying to political. The point is that making animals public does not automatically make them political; it does not necessarily invite progressive political engagement with them. The public and the political are not synonymous. In many instances making animals public on television has had anti-political effects in the sense that it either reinforces human sovereignty or limits forms of ethical involvement with them.

By investigating diverse content on the ABC this project aims to assess the nature and impacts of changing representations of animals on TV and changing processes of animal public making. Using a series of case studies the key questions it pursues are: how do the socio-technical practices of television actually make animals public, who is invited to gather around them, and what political effects do these modes of engaging with animals generate? One of the key effects we are concerned with is whether the rise of televisual animals on the ABC has extended political and ethical concern for animals and their environments and if so how? While much has been made of the ABC’s ground breaking role in building public awareness of environmental change, animal ecologies and conservation – especially through its internationally famous Natural History Unit – there has been little empirical documentation or critical assessment of exactly how this has happened and with what impacts. Has making animals public on the ABC changed what we understand by ‘animals’ and the ways in which we are implicated with them? In what ways do the conventions of different TV genres enable or foreclose possibilities for significant political engagement and stranger sociability with animals? And what of the animals themselves, in what ways do they resist or embrace the practical complexities of being captured for TV and the demands of attracting audience attention and interest?

Thanks to extraordinary access to the ABC’s Natural History archives we are able to investigate these issues over time and examine the multiplicity of public realities and knowledges that animals on TV have constituted: from scientific objectivity, to the unique Australian environment, to controversial victims of gross exploitation.

The outcomes of this study, which is being done in partnership with the ABC, will be a book under contract to Sydney University Press’ ‘Animal Publics’ series and an accompanying website featuring much of the rare archival footage that is examined.