Climate change is one of the biggest political hot potatoes of the modern day. Identified by the United Nations as “the defining issue of our time”, it would logically follow that the subject receives significant airtime on our television screens. After all, a problem that is so colossal it affects all of us, so urgent as to require immediate action and so serious as to have potentially irrevocable consequences should surely be deserving of coverage by the broadcast industry.

However, a recent study instigated by Albert, the sustainable arm of the TV and film sector, reveals this not the case. After analysing a year’s worth of subtitling data and scanning for important environmental words and phrases, the study showed that climate coverage falls far short of what might be expected. This raises interesting questions about how the issue is represented on our screens and what the industry may do to shine a brighter spotlight on the subject in the future.

Trawling the archives

The report, entitled Subtitles to Save the World, was commissioned by Albert and conducted by Deloitte UK. Using a year’s worth of subtitling archives from four major broadcasters spanning 40 different channels, the researchers were able to gain access to data from 128,719 programmes aired between September 2017 and 2018. For the purposes of this report, news programmes were not included.

The researchers scanned these datasets for the prevalence of keywords and phrases associated with environmental issues, separated into five distinct categories: Climate knowledge, Energy, Food, Resources and Travel. Furthermore, they also scanned the records for the frequency of unrelated terms, some of which are topical and others completely arbitrary, to provide a frame of reference for their findings.

Surprising results

In total, terms related to the environment were mentioned a cumulative 17,894 times in the space of a year. “Climate change” itself was one of the highest scoring phrases with 3,125 mentions, second only to “vegetarian” with 3,550 mentions. Other relatively high scorers included “vegan” (2,907) and “recycle” (1,973), while “carbon offset” (11) and “hybrid car” (22) were the least-mentioned terms in the study.

Taken in isolation, the fact that “climate change” received almost 10 mentions per day might seem like reasonable exposure for the issue. However, it pales in comparison to some of the terms used to obtain a benchmark for the research, such as “government” (170, 258), “Brexit” (68,816) and “Trump” (38,825). Even non-topical words like “dog” (105,245) and “cake” (46,043) received far more airtime than all of the environmental terms put together. The fact that “climate change” was on a par with words such as “zombie” (2,488) and “urine” (2,000) speaks volumes about mainstream media coverage of the issue.

Lessons to learn

Rather than being an indictment or criticism of the broadcast industry, the survey is intended as more of a yardstick which illustrates the current level of exposure given to environmental issues on TV. It can provide the groundwork needed to better understand the issue and our position in relation to it, as well as aiding the creation of incentives to address it.

Albert is of the firm belief that all TV genres have a part to play in helping society transition to a more sustainable version of itself and encouraging people to take their environmental responsibility into their own hands. This could potentially be achieved via increasing coverage of the subject to make it a culturally-accepted reality; however, the Deloitte study shows there is still some way to go in achieving this goal.

Allied with Albert

At Green Tomato Cars, we have been heavily involved in helping the TV and film industry become more sustainable for over ten years. After taking on our first broadcast client (Sky) in 2006, we have gone from strength to strength in creating and implementing superb sustainability-focused initiatives, such as double-setting offsetting all of our emissions to offer our customers a truly zero-emissions service, as well as complying with ISO 14001 standards.

We have recently forged a partnership with Albert, which has granted us access to senior creatives and operational leads in the UK TV production world. This has not only allowed us to modify our approach to better suit the needs of this important customer base, but also feed into the decision-making process of TV and film production companies through offering our advice and expertise. In this way, we are committed to cleaning up the British broadcast industry and beyond, for today, tomorrow and the future.