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Netflix Teams Up With David Attenborough to Take Over Planet Earth

The streaming service is claiming dominion over the natural world by partnering with Attenborough, the 92-year-old BBC broadcaster who’s been the preeminent voice of nature documentaries for decades

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

I can’t help it; I love Sir David Attenborough’s voice. It’s breathy, calm, authoritative but uninsistent, somewhere between the voice of a golf announcer and the voice of a loving god. It’s as essential to the many BBC nature documentaries the 92-year-old broadcaster has narrated in a career spanning almost 70 years—the Planet Earth series, The Blue Planet, more or less the entire modern canon of super-high-def classics—as the slow-motion whales and majestically saturated seawater. You get the sense that, like the creatures Attenborough has spent his career describing, it’s evolved over eons to flourish in its unique environment. The male marsh wren was formed by natural selection to build its nest in the shape of a little dome made out of sticks and grasses, and Attenborough’s voice was formed to say, Poor fellow! Another hard day at the office, when a gust of wind knocks the nest down.

If you’ve ever seen one of Attenborough’s documentaries—if you’re alive and have ever been awake after 11:30 p.m., odds are you have—you don’t need me to explain any of this. You probably love David Attenborough’s voice already. Your mom loves Attenborough’s voice. Barack Obama loves Attenborough’s voice. Every stoned sophomore at the University of Southern California loves Attenborough’s voice. The entire United Kingdom, where Attenborough has been voted the most trusted person alive, loves Attenborough’s voice. Here’s how legendary Attenborough’s voice is: His brother, the late actor Lord Richard Attenborough, is the guy who said “Welcome to Jurassic Park” in Jurassic Park, yet it’s David’s voice that swims into your head when you think about improbable creatures in the jungle.

There are skeptics who say we should be careful about loving Attenborough’s voice too much. Environmentalists don’t universally endorse the BBC nature-documentary industry, which, some argue, consistently understates the scale of environmental devastation. All the pristine natural vistas on these shows—the 4K panoramas of steaming tropical canopies, the lush yellow plains full of thousands of migrating wildebeests, so breathtaking on your 65-inch TV—can breed complacency, because they make you think, wrongly, that the world is still full of unblemished wilderness. I have a little bit of experience with supposedly wild places, and one of the things I’ve learned is that very often, pristineness is a trick of the camera. Pick the right angle and you’re in an ancient forest; an inch to the left, there’s the superhighway. And though every Attenborough-voiced documentary includes a conservation message, these are generally vague and a little pro forma. Attenborough dwells more on the beauty of the world than on the dangers it faces; when he alludes to the need for “action,” he seldom specifies what sort of action is needed, or why. He has said that he thinks too much environmental advocacy will be a “turnoff” for viewers.

I don’t know, though. Maybe this is just a sign that I’m a terrible person, but I don’t watch Attenborough-voiced documentaries expecting a perfectly faithful representation of reality. For me, the value lies partly in the illusion, or in the ambiguous place where the illusion touches reality. I know the world is wrecked; I live in the world. Not at the level of advocacy, but at the level of spiritual survival, I crave the experience, however fleeting, of a world that isn’t. That’s what I get from shows like Planet Earth. Maybe it’s iffy as a documentary technique. Maybe it’s even a little bit of a scam. For an hour at a time, I feel like I’m in the world of 600 years ago. It’s a fantasy, but it’s also real. At least kind of real. At least real enough to take solace in. The ocean is clear and blue. David Attenborough is saying far beneath the sun-dappled surface of the waves, a mighty hunter roams, and while it’s possible that this is making me complacent, what I feel is that it’s helping me get by.

I’ve been thinking about David Attenborough because of the news that Netflix, in a bid to disrupt the, uh, Earth space, is producing its own nature documentary in collaboration with former members of the BBC Natural History Unit, the division that makes nature films. Its ultimate quarry might even be Attenborough himself—he says he intends to keep working on BBC series, but he’s already narrating one Netflix show, Our Planet, which will be released in April. “BBC fights to stop David Attenborough being poached,” a recent headline in the Guardian reads—a rich choice of words, given the subject. You can imagine Attenborough himself narrating the saga of Netflix closing in like some kind of mutant horrorwolf on the taiga:

For the mature streaming service is a fearsome predator indeed. Freed from the pressure of competition with traditional broadcast television, whose territorial range has collapsed due to changes in its ecosystem, the streaming service has its pick of prey. Few indeed are the writers and producers who can resist falling before its speed of foot, its sharpness of claw, and its preternatural, indeed almost incomprehensible, bank account.

I have panned a high-resolution camera across the landscape of my emotions, and what I have discovered is that I feel weirdly anxious about this news. It’s hard to say why. Netflix has always offered the big Attenborough docs in the U.S.; it’s where I discovered them in the first place. In that sense, nothing is about to change. If you believe in the influence of corporate culture, though—in the idea that the high-level priorities of an institution shape the output of that institution at lower levels, that its tone is felt all down the line—it gets more ominous. Something of the basic character of the BBC always seemed to make itself felt in the style of its nature shows, with their imperial patience, their grand remove from the churn of the content factory. What does the Netflix version of that formative influence look like? I keep picturing Reed Hastings standing in front of a podium, saying, “We have user data indicating exactly which antelope is going to own the cultural conversation in 2021.”

At the same time, there’s something about Netflix’s relationship to pleasure, the way it treats entertainment as a kind of impersonal byproduct of analytics, that seems like a terrible fit for the atavistic directness of the Attenborough docs. So often, the experience of using Netflix gives you the slightly creepy feeling that you’re in the same house as enjoyment without ever quite being in the same room. All the shows you’re interested in watching must be a few horizontal lists up or down from wherever you’ve scrolled in the interface. The show you are currently tolerating will surely grow riveting if you give it two or three more episodes. The show never does get riveting, and you never quite find the right list, but you still feel positive that there’s a lot of great stuff somewhere on Netflix. After all, everyone subscribes to Netflix. Everyone talks about it. It must be essential for a reason, even if the reason, much of the time, remains bizarrely out of frame.

That’s an exaggerated account, obviously. Netflix has made shows people feel passionately about. (There’s Stranger Things, for instance, and I’m told House of Cards has a dedicated following among the evil.) But it’s broadly true. And Planet Earth and its siblings aren’t about giving the viewer just enough to keep them watching. They’re about immediate, overwhelming beauty and pleasure. When they arrive, they’re meant to be epochal events. It’s hard for Netflix to make anything feel truly epochal when there’s only one box at the top of the app and Quentin Tarantino’s $86 million Lady Bird Johnson biopic isn’t going to win the Golden Globe for Best Picture—Musical or Comedy by itself.

Above all, though, Planet Earth and Blue Planet are deeply human productions, works made over many years by crews of committed experts and artists, people who aren’t beholden to algorithms or viewer-data breakdowns. In fairness to Netflix, it took 600 crew members and four years to produce Our Planet. And Netflix’s original film Roma is nominated for Best Picture at Sunday’s Academy Awards (even if it kind of came across as an AI trying to recreate Fellini). But the default Netflix approach to content creation seems to be that you need a really loud bang in the 17th minute because otherwise 22 percent of people will remember that CBS exists. The core impulse of the service seems, in other words, like an example of what I turn to David Attenborough shows to escape—the idea that the purpose of life is to be efficiently converted into data that can then be efficiently converted into revenue. I hope I’m wrong in thinking that none of this bodes well for some hypothetical Planet Earth III. But the ecosystem of Planet Earth, like that of planet Earth, is fragile, and—as Attenborough himself might say, five seconds before the closing credits—it must be protected before it is too late.