David Attenborough & the Birth of Documentary

In 1965, David Attenborough was given full control of a new experimental television network called BBC2. He was given a large budget and asked to develop any programming he wished. He had an idea that went against the conventional wisdom in television programming at that time. It was generally believed that the audience had a very short attention span and that it was impossible to hold its interest for more than half an hour except through a storyline.

Attenborough saw that for the first time in history it was possible to show people different concretes in the world in a short time and show them the meaning behind them. “The Ascent of Man” with Jacob Bronowski was born. The program was thirteen hours in length and divided into long episodes of one hour each exploring the history of human civilization. The success of the new format stunned everyone, and Attenborough, who was now the Director of Programming at the BBC, continued to produce more such documentaries.

But Attenborough, a natural scientist at heart, was getting increasingly nervous. He knew that the most exciting project he could conceive of was to do for the living world what Bronowski had attempted to do for civilization; he could not risk anyone else scooping him on that project. To the utter astonishment of all of his colleagues, he quit one of the most coveted positions inBritish broadcasting to roll up his sleeves–and jeans–andstep into the swamps of the Amazon to start filming “Life on Earth.” Life on Earth, for which over 1.25 million feet of film were exposed in over thirty countries, was seen by more than 500 million people in more than a hundred countries.

Two characteristics permeate David Attenborough’s work: first, his sheer joy of learning about this world, and second–which is rarer among others who have followed in his footsteps–a striving to achieve a conceptual grasp of his subject by connecting different concretes.

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