It’s a jungle out there and one in which different species must develop highly innovative strategies to compete for the scarce resources. Although on this occasion the jungle happens to be YouTube, the competitors are its wildlife videoclips, and the resources are the viewing figures, the evolutionary process appears to be operating in a more or less familiar manner.
The brute at the top of the food chain is the BBC. This had been crashing about in the primordial forests of television, where it had acquired all of the characteristics that ensure its supremacy today. The immense cinematic visuals – the stirring cinematic music – the far-flung cinematic locations – and all capped with a rasping voice-over from Sir David Attenborough or from some other thespian with that stilted, Listen-with-Mother diction that they all use. It is probably correct to speak of cinematography here, since amongst makers of wildlife documentaries the BBC Natural History Unit is by now the closest thing that there is to Hollywood. It resembles Hollywood in its size, its dominance, and its amassing of technical prowess.
If Sir David is this organisation’s head then its power has undeniably gone to its head. I have always suspected that he is consciously modelling himself on God in the Garden of Eden. There was a grand and stiffly paternalistic quality to this presenter long before he was actually elderly (he is now ninety-four). I have never seen him filmed in a city or on any landscape where there are human habitations. I believe that I might have once glimpsed him on a boat. He otherwise teleports freely and all-knowingly around the planet’s unspoilt places, appearing in jungles and swamps to interestedly inspect the creations. Hummingbirds tumble friskily into life when they catch sight of him. “Quick, the boss is coming – look busy!”
In the days of terrestrial television, any other broadcaster that had tried to screen natural history had always looked like they were peddling an obviously ersatz product. Since 2009, the BBC Earth brand has been used to monetarise the corporation’s natural-history output, on the internet and outwith the UK. Perhaps the BBC had thought that it could breeze onto YouTube and strut about majestically and dwarf all of the other channels sheerly by virtue of its status in television. Yet the BBC Earth channel is in fact remarkably puny considering the resources that are at its disposal.
There is immediately a question about whether BBC Earth should even have a presence on YouTube. Defenders of the BBC typically regard it as a law of Nature that any broadcasting that is funded by a compulsory licence fee will be high-minded and high-quality. It is implied that if there was no licence fee then the commercial sector would impose unrestricted vulgarity upon the population. On YouTube, however, the licence fee is being suddenly used to compete with some of the most publically-spirited and least commercially-minded of content creators.
In the ideal that lies at its heart, YouTube is a democratic forum that empowers amateurs in all senses of the word, from filmmakers who are simply having a go to experts who are freely sharing their knowledge. The BBC has nonetheless muscled in on this platform with a moneymaking strategy that is as crassly villainous as any to be devised by Donald Trump.
Almost all of BBC Earth’s material is cheaply recycled from old television programmes. For example, on the day that I wrote this, two of the last ten posts on the channel were filmed in 2015, two were from 2014, three were from 2007, and the remainder comprised raw footage from webcams. Although virtually no new content had been created here, the BBC had still bagged over nine-hundred-thousand pageviews and a vast slice of the advertising revenues that are obtainable from recently uploaded wildlife videos.
In order to make its natural-history assets work their hardest, the BBC needs to circumvent an infuriating paradox. Those viewers who repeatedly and lucratively click on videos of beautiful animals are rendered, by virtue of their sentimentality, the most likely to be horrified by what Nature actually entails. What makes this paradox all the more devastating is that I am not sure that it even really exists. It is merely an assumption that BBC Earth has come to wrap its entire business model around. If the BBC ever decided that its audiences were in fact enormously intelligent, it would no doubt promptly discover them to be enormously intelligent.
The solution to this paradox cannot be to break with Nature. After all, it is the BBC’s perceived knowledgeability about this subject that entitles it to issue constant videos of kittens and koalas under the misapprehension that they somehow represent a portal to the natural world. BBC Earth has to be always mindful to keep manuring these roses with science. Or rather, to pay enough lip service to the reality of Nature to excuse the rest of the channel’s rampant escapism. To achieve this, it occasionally commits to a self-denying manoeuvre such as “Monitor Lizard Decomposition Time Lapse,” which had contained so much reality that I was unable to get through more than a minute of it. This lizard has malodorously given its life to let a thousand cute and fluffy creatures scamper freely.
Quite a lot of the channel’s output is indeed dedicated to showing the antics of domestic pets. What is so offensive here is the blatancy of the hypocrisy. BBC Earth behaves as if it is disclosing valuable insights into pet psychology, when it is really just wretchedly wallowing in the photogenic. It is rather like Cadburys trying to reassure its customers that there is a nutritional upside to gorging themselves on Creme Eggs.
One also grows annoyed at the slyness of the anthropomorphism. A hamster will, for example, be spoken of as if it is some sort of plucky, ingenious super-robot, with its sensors carefully sifting the incoming data from all around it and allowing it to make precision judgements. The narrator will never say exactly that the hamster is conscious but the hope is clearly that this impression will drift over the viewer. The viewer is meant to identify with the hamster as an equal. They are deterred from ever genuinely empathising with it and discovering it to be nothing but a bundle of mindless reflexes.
Elsewhere, there is outright censorship or an evasion of Nature’s nastiness, brutality and shortness. In “Tiger vs. Boar,” the feverish camerawork only clumsily disguises the fact that the quarry is already insensible when the tiger pounces on it. Several comments below speculate that the meeting is “staged” and there appears to be now a learned distrust towards these scenes amongst many viewers. Something had evidently happened during the kill that the editors had felt a need to omit. Maybe the boar’s squeals of terror had been unbearably harrowing. In any case, it is more usual for the hunted animals to escape just in the nick of time. Or else the fatalities tend to be a boar or a wart-hog or some other dreary and visibly unintelligent creature whose death is never going to stop the world for very long.
The narrator will apologetically explain that the tiger or leopard has not eaten for several days, to garner sympathy for them if the kill is successful. Killing is only ever the solemnest chore for these predators. The cats are always exhibited as though they are Olympic athletes, with their rippling muscles and noiseless concentration. Once they have engaged with their victim, time slows down and the combatants are swirling dreamily through the air. The camera hones in to focus insanely on bloodied fur or an upturned hoof or some other chance, incidental item, so that you are left with no coherent picture of what is occurring overall.
These hunting scenes are thus so larded with clichés and mannerisms that they end up appearing as choreographed as a ticketed bullfight in a stadium. At times, this artificiality is pursued to such an excess as to become almost kitsch. The massacre of the sardines in “Best Scenes From The Hunt – Part 2” is a particularly egregious example of this. It could be a ballet, with the sea-lions, tuna, sharks, and dolphins all joining the spectacle like dancers being coordinated in waves from the wings. It sounds like a ballet as well, with the accompanying three-hundred-piece orchestra being presumably all installed on a nearby fishing boat. We surely know that if we had been there, watching this event, it would have looked and sounded nothing like this preposterous gateau that the BBC has turned it into.
By contrast, there is a refreshing matter-of-factness to the violence between animals that is shown on the TierZoo channel. Ripping away the BBC’s layers of suspense and manipulation makes you realise just how easy it is to remain unemotional about the deaths of animals. If you are seldom personally involved in violence, you might have forgotten how calamitously undignified it normally looks. TierZoo has a clear preference for amateur footage, where there is no opportunity to conceal the innate slapstick quality of death in the animal kingdom. Lavish martial-arts sound-effects are added but the results still look greatly more honest and realistic than the BBC’s content.
Several of BBC Earth’s defects come to be remedied in BBC Earth Unplugged. This was set up in 2012, as a kind of BBC Earth without the electric guitars, and it was meant to air material that had been created exclusively for YouTube. Today, it predominantly recycles material from the “BBC vaults” much as BBC Earth does. It has fewer than a million subscribers but its videos seem altogether livelier than those on BBC Earth, perhaps because it continues to be more attuned to the online circumstances that it finds itself in.
Proceeding lower down the food chain, zefrank1 currently has 3 million subscribers whilst TierZoo has 1.9 million. With over 7 million, BBC Earth can boast of more subscribers than either of these competitors put together, though its individual videos receive substantially fewer views. Unlike the BBC, zefrank1 and TierZoo both use Patreon and advertising partnerships to monetarise their content. This spares them from becoming wedged under the dead hand of YouTube’s notoriously unforgiving advertising regime.
zefrank1 is the YouTube channel of the American performance artist Hosea Jan “Ze” Frank. He has been a YouTuber since 2006 although “True Facts,” an initially intermittent wildlife slot, was launched seven years ago. “True Facts” has now largely taken over the channel. zefrank1 was paused for four years in 2014, bizarrely considering how unique a product it was, but it then resumed as if it had never been away. I cannot think of any YouTuber of an equivalent status who is restless enough to have withdrawn from the platform for so long and popular enough to have picked up again without any dip in viewing figures. The TierZoo channel is two years old and it is made by Patrick Lacey, a recent microbiology graduate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
zefrank1 and TierZoo upload far less frequently than BBC Earth but all of their content is so fresh that the BBC’s material looks dopey and arthritic by comparison. Front of house, both of these channels are having fun as a strict policy, but around the back their videos are densely researched. Each strikes a canny balance between being sharply educational and mindlessly entertaining.
The starting-point for “True Facts” is an impersonation of Morgan Freeman’s voice-over from the 2005 nature documentary March of the Penguins. There might be a transatlantic disconnect here. British viewers will wonder why Ze Frank has skipped Sir David, who comedians in the UK have been fondly doing impressions of since the 1970s. Indeed, the early “True Facts” episode on Morgan Freeman – the only one to be not about an animal – grovels before him with a worshipfulness that British viewers will think applies altogether more naturally to Attenborough’s omniscience. I guess that we have different Nature gods on our respective sides of the Atlantic.
After watching several episodes of “True Facts” you might not remember that it was ever once associated with Freeman. Ze Frank has ultimately invaded and colonised his host, rather like one of those fungi that transform certain ants into zombies. As “True Facts” fell deliriously in love with its own voice, that voice began to change, becoming deeper, grander, sillier, and ever more lyrical. Each episode of “True Facts” picks a typically little-known organism and then comments over montaged footage of it, ostensibly with a sniggering, frat-boy humour. This commentary is in fact always strangely rhapsodic and intense, and greatly more viable an art form than its laddism might suggest.
It can be a bit like beat poetry, in riffing on its own surrealism and making startling imaginative leaps. There is also the “meta” aspect that is now innate to comedy on a platform as informal as YouTube. Ze Frank is perpetually unimpressed by his own script and he is always scolding Jerry, an off-screen researcher who is as incapable of answering back as the animals that are being profiled.
Here is a snippet from the very first video:
…it eats this way because the mother Echidna has milk patches on her skin instead of nipples. Which makes me very glad that we have nipples. Milk patches would be embarrassing. Especially if they were on your face. Then again, so would nipples.
In contrast with how BBC Earth tries to manipulate its viewers into empathising with the featured animals, in “True Facts” this identification only ever serves to demonstrate the sheer distance between us and them. We are required to picture what it would be like if we possessed the exotic anatomy, the cannibalistic sexual practices, the “nine-inch corkscrew penis” and the whimsical toiletry habits of alternative species. Learning about the breadth of evolutionary game-plans that are available will ultimately confirm the miraculous scale of life on Earth. “True Facts” makes our universe seem bigger and bigger.
“True Facts” had enjoyed a kind of one-night-stand with the BBC in 2013. The two videos, both on desert moles, had been conducted through the servants’ entrance of the Unplugged channel. It looks like Ze Frank and the BBC had deleted each other’s numbers from their phones shortly afterwards. Still, Ze Frank often collaborates today with specialist photographers, scientists and academics, both to obtain footage of the profiled animals and the latest knowledge about them.
Imagine that you are forty-seven and that you have devoted your career to studying the skeleton shrimp and that you now spend most of your days stranded in a laboratory in their sorry company. The shrimp’s numbers coming up for a “True Facts” video will redeem the undeniable futility of this existence, allowing you to share your life’s work with over a million people.
Incidentally, the baroque music that warbles comedically in the background of these videos is an overture, reportedly by G.P. Telemann, that has been donated by a serious classical performer named Tom Moore. When you listen to this music by itself, you are surprised not only by its beauty but by how you have always known that it was beautiful and never realised it. Telemann is not credited and it could be instead imitation Telemann. In an irony that is thoroughly characteristic of zefrank1, this master composer could have only finally achieved the peak of his influence in videos about obscure snails and shrimps in which his name is mislaid or his music pastiched.
Unless the pun is intended, the “Tier” in Tier List is not the German for “animal” and this channel is instead running with a gaming metaphor. The natural world is conceived of as a vast multiplayer computer game. Each video profiles species of creature as though they were “builds” with comparable “stats” for prospective players to pour over.
You can see that it must have taken a couple of seconds to think up this metaphor and that the whole show is being still rolled out from its single stroke of genius. Although one cannot gainsay that TierZoo offers a reliably fascinating perspective upon the natural world, its central metaphor stretches only so far. Animals are liable to look rather two-dimensional if they are viewed as fighters in a computer game. TierZoo focuses on the gritty combat skills of the planet’s fauna whilst he downplays the importance of their reproductive strategies. For example, the channel repeatedly features clichéd footage of gigantic dinosaurs slugging it out in forest clearings, when it is now theorised that species such as the T-Rex had chiefly devoured juvenile dinosaurs, which had accordingly swarmed in phenomenal quantities.
Even so, part of the enjoyment of the channel is observing how its particular approach will deal with each new animal. You fall into the same trap that occurs when you encounter a bravura film critic who holds unpredictable opinions, so that you soon want to collect their assessment of absolutely every movie. What will TierZoo think of the octopus? How will the waterbear be rated? There is still such a clattering crowd of animals on the planet that, as with zefrank1, the channel’s application is inexhaustible.
In the comments below the “True Facts” videos the adulation of Ze Frank is of an intensity that is scarcely seen on YouTube. It is rather like Ze Frank has reconnected with how pop stars were idolised in more innocent times. Viewers are often reduced to repeating his jokes in awe, so that the comments section becomes literally a cavernous echo chamber. Each video typically gets several hundred downvotes, though I cannot recall ever seeing a single negative comment. TierZoo enjoys much the same reception and I have never witnessed anybody venture significant criticisms of the show.
So YouTube’s nature documentaries are not a static genre but one in which the innovation can never stop. New evolutionary strategies are constantly needed, in order to guarantee survival and dominance. What is currently stirring in the undergrowth? Who will make the next breakthrough?
[Apologies about an error in an earlier draft. Ze Frank has, of course, covered ant mutualism.]