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Representing Climate Change: An Industry Perspective (Panel 5)

posted on 2024-06-28, 08:34 authored by Elke WeissmannElke Weissmann, Jess Moore, Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt, Zoe Fuad

Critical Studies in Television Conference 2024

Jess Moore (Glasgow Caledonian University)

The writing and development of SDG-related TV shows.

I am a PhD candidate at Glasgow Caledonian University and a working scriptwriter and director. My PhD considers scriptwriting techniques and screen drama related to the themes of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals with a focus on SDG 5, Gender Equality and SDG 13, Climate Action (more information below). While completing my PhD, I also have several TV and film scripts in development, and I am actively working towards getting several film and television projects into production. I would like to present my findings to date on the TV case studies I am examining, and the development of my own SDG-related TV scripts, and the journey to commissioning and production.

Using an Arts-Based Research (ABR) approach and a qualitative methodology, my PhD explores how scriptwriters can incorporate the themes of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) into screen drama with a particular focus on SDG 5, (Gender Equality) and SDG 13 (Climate Action). The significant size, influence, and global scale of the Creative Industries means there is potential for them to contribute not only to SDG 8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth) and SDG 9 (Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure), but also to achievement of the themes of the other 15 SDGs. My PhD focuses specifically on-screen drama, which makes up a significant proportion of television revenues and consumer screen time. I am using elite interviews, case studies of TV programmes and films, and a self-reflexive analysis of my own creative process and journey to commissioning and production.

The contemporary case studies I am considering include After the Flood, Schitt’s Creek, Mr Bates vs The Post Office, Grey’s Anatomy, Don’t Look Up, The End Where We Start From, Geostrom, Delhi Crime, Extrapolations and a number of others. I am conducting elite interviews with writers, directors, show runners and producers. The output of my PhD will be a script, NO MAN’S LAND, which was written as part of HOT HOUSE, Climate Spring’s BBC Writers and BFI-backed climate change script development lab, and, additionally, a show bible and academic commentary.

Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt (Princeton University and Glasgow Caledonian University)

Disarming Empathy in a Climate-Based Television Series

My paper will explore how scholarship on empathy, contextualized within the framework of the United Nations’ climate action goal (SDG13), can contribute to the development of a scripted television series. It aims to critique the use of empathy in dramatic storytelling and consider potential alternative models that effectively help communicate the UN’s climate action goal. To the best of my knowledge, no academic paper has ever examined the efficacy of empathy in climate-themed TV scriptwriting. Eliciting an audience’s empathy has generally been considered one of the main goals of narrative persuasion, yet several prominent writers and scholars have been vocal critics of empathy and its ability to activate change. Empathy seems particularly unhelpful when used in TV series grappling with the suffering caused by climate change. Most recent climate-based TV series tend to focus on disaster scenarios and dystopian futures. By sharing climate victims’ overwhelming experience of pain and suffering, audience members tend to experience “empathic distress” (Singer & Klimecki, 2014 p. R875), which refers to an aversive response to the suffering of others and can lead to exhaustion and burnout. It also makes audience members feel like little to nothing can be done to combat climate change and can cause them to withdraw from their experience with the subject matter to protect themselves from excessive negative feelings. In other words, the more empathic distress we experience from climate-based TV series, the less likely we can respond or change our behavior towards acting on climate change.

I therefore want to investigate and propose alternative models that aim to influence audiences to respond with less empathic distress and more compassion to act against climate change. In doing so, my inquiry will question whether empathy is enough to inspire action against climate change, or does it let audiences off the hook or even paralyze them? Instead, should TV writers strive to replace their aim of increasing their audience’s empathy with something more effective like increasing their audience’s compassion? And if so, how can a TV series best use compassion to inspire action? To explore these questions, I will conduct an extensive literature review followed by qualitative, semi-formal interviews with the leaders of climate story-focused organizations including Good Energy, the NRDC’s “Rewrite the Future” campaign, RARE, albert, and the UN’s “Entertainment and Culture for Climate Action” (ECCA) Assembly who all are coming up with alternatives to the gloom and doom paradigm surrounding climate change in film and TV. I will also research concepts beyond the realm of TV series (both climate-based and not) that eschew empathy such as rational compassion, representative thinking, Brecht’s Verfremdugseffect (“distancing effect”), effective altruism, and longtermism. All these sources will help me craft a compelling model for other writers, filmmakers, commissioners, activists, academics, and institutions interested in creating a climate-based TV series that harnesses and/or transforms empathy into compassionate agency.

Zoe Fuad (Brown University, New York)

Animated Visions: Rewiring Onto-Epistemology for Climate Action through Television

This paper explores how animated television can reshape our onto-epistemological understanding of the world, particularly in the context of the climate crisis, and offers an innovative exploration of how animated mediums can contribute to addressing the United Nations' SDG 13: Climate Action. Drawing from new materialist scholars like Karen Barad (2007) and Indigenous thinkers such as Vanessa Watts (2013), Zoe Todd (2016), and Topa and Narvaez (2022), I argue that our current environmental predicament stems from Cartesian dualisms. These dualisms separate humans, non-humans, and inanimate objects, fostering extractive and exploitative practices. I focus on the animated series Scavengers Reign (2023) as a case study. This mainstream Western TV show not only reflects the political ideologies of its era but also showcases the transformative potential of animation in visual media. Through a close reading of the show's visual techniques — specifically its use of 'animetism' and 'cinematism' (Lamarre, 2009) — I illustrate how Scavengers Reign employs Eastern animistic storytelling styles. Animetism, employed in Scavengers Reign, uses camera techniques and open compositing to emphasize the audience's separation from nature. This approach contrasts sharply with the 'cinematism' prevalent in most Western television, which immerses viewers through closed compositing and bullet-eye viewpoints; it draws upon the unique tools offered by animation, positioning the audience as co-inhabitants rather than dominators of the animated ecosystem, challenging Western televisual norms of control and domination (Virilio, 1989).

Further, the show's use of long takes and wide shots induces a sense of awe in viewers. This cinematic choice counteracts anxiety-driven responses, reorienting viewers towards a relational mode of seeing that is crucial for addressing the climate crisis. Here, the neurobiological impact of reshaping vision becomes a pivotal element, as proposed by Narvaez and Topa (2009). Additionally, Scavengers Reign subverts traditional narrative structures through its non-human-centric plot and 'puzzle box' storytelling (White, 2023). This method diverges from linear, anthropocentric narratives, encouraging viewers to understand and integrate into natural systems rather than dominating them.

Finally, I assess the show's critical reception, examining how well it succeeds in imparting new ways of interacting with the world. Reviews from sources like IGN and The New York Times reflect a resonance with feminist and Indigenous perspectives, highlighting the show's capacity to teach viewers to engage more harmoniously with ecological systems. This analysis contributes to a broader understanding of how media, particularly animated television, can play a crucial role in redefining our relationship with the natural world and addressing the climate crisis through innovative onto-epistemological frameworks. Rather than one-time solutions or short-term goals, this method of visual mediation and worldview rewiring pushes an audience to change the very way they inhabit the world around them: from small decisions to the big. This reorientation is pivotal to addressing our mounting climate change crisis.


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