attenborough \’a-‘ten-,ˈbə-(ˌ)rō\ verb 1. To have animals that you are currently talking about inexorably drawn to you or utterly undisturbed by your presence 2. A cinematic shot where the camera zooms out to reveal that the person narrating the film is sitting right next to the subject they are discussing.
David Attenborough actively attenboroughing
David Attenborough has been influential to my life in many ways. He inspired me to become an ornithologist and his documentaries are what gave me the comfort and solace I needed to finish my degrees in ecology with some semblance of sanity left.
While on recent extended spree of documentary watching (which might speak to my current mental state, but we won’t get into that), I noticed that it seems like the older Attenborough gets the more prolific he becomes. In 2015 alone he wrote and narrated three episodes of Conquest of the Skies where he discusses the evolution of flight, a documentary called Paradise Birds, six half-hour episodes of Natural Curiosities a program where Attenborough delves into the history of our understanding of the natural world, and narrated seven episodes of The Hunt and four episodes of Wild Canada. Two new programs are already announced for 2016.
Of course, I needed to test this hypothesis empirically. Is David Attenborough becoming more productive as a writer and a narrator through time? I looked at the 63 years of documentary films he has made to find out if this is true. In exploring this question, I also learned the disturbing fact that in the early 1970’s we almost lost David Attenborough the natural historian and might have found ourselves in a reality where instead there was only David Attenborough the executive. These graphs tipped me off to the fact that there exists a parallel universe without The Life of Birds where I am not an ornithologist but instead a statistician or a drug addict (or perhaps both).
Hours of documentary film narrated by David Attenborough released each year.
Number of documentaries or documentary series’ episodes written by David Attenborough released each year.
As you can see, my original hypothesis appears to be correct in terms of narration. Using a linear regression model, we find that as the years progress, the total hours of film where David Attenborough acts as the narrator or presenter is increasing significantly (R2 = 0.53, F(1, 61) = 70.8, p < .0001). As of now, you could watch 23 straight days of David Attenborough’s documentaries without re-watching anything (assuming you can find all of his work, but some of it seems to have been lost to time). As a writer, his work has remained more consistent through time with him writing a new major series once every few years or so with smaller projects interspersed in between. We see no significant trend in productivity as a writer over time (R2 = 0.025, F(1, 61) = 70.8, p < .113).
In both writing and presenting, however, there is a noticeable gap in his work as a documentarian in the late 60’s and early 70’s followed by a sudden spike in 1973. I looked up a biography of David Attenborough to see if I could find an explanation for this, and I discovered that this is the point where we nearly lost Attenborough as we know him. In 1965 David Attenborough took a job as controller of BBC2 then in 1969 he became director of programs for both BBC1 and BBC2. 1973, where the graphs suddenly spike, is when he resigned from his prestigious position and returned to being a natural historian. (He did what so many people can never bring themselves to do; to turn their back on a “good job”, a position of importance and power for something different.)
This is not to discount his accomplishments at the BBC. He introduced color TV to the UK through The World About Us and was responsible for signing Monty Python’s Flying Circus. However, he has given so much as a naturalist and writer, and I don’t want to be in a world without that. I hope he keeps making documentaries and this positive trend continues. I’m not ready to see peak Attenborough yet.
To create these graphs, I needed to track down a comprehensive
filmography of David Attenborough’s work, which proved to be
more difficult than expected. Project Gutenburg and IMDb have
good but incomplete records of what Attenborough has contributed
to. I also incorporated information from miscellaneous sources
like filmhistory.org, the New York Times movies and television
section, amazon.com, and PBS NOVA’s website where there are records
of shows not mentioned in my two main sources. Information about
some of his most groundbreaking work like “The World About Us” is
lacking; of the nearly 500 episodes made, he narrated about 50, but
I can’t find anywhere that says when or for which. For situations
like this where he was an occasional narrator but more detailed
information is missing, I assumed his narration was roughly evenly
spread out through the life of the series. For some of his older
programs where there is no information about the length of the show,
I assumed 30 minutes per episode because that was the typical length
of his other shows produced in that era. In trying to compile a
complete list of his work, there are still probably programs I missed.