In these darkened days of Delivering Quality First, cutbacks and the rising, thrashing tides of reality television, BBC1's Frozen Planet is revelatory. A timely reminder of the BBC at its best, it's a showcase for public-service broadcasting: epic in scope and poised with grandeur, its calm authority and elegant images are a mid-week salve, a bulwark against the shrill catcalls of the weekend fare.
And, thank God, we're paying attention – 9.7 million of us, according to Barb. That's more than the Saturday evening audience for The X Factor (9.6 million), which should surely give us all some hope to cling to. Frozen Planet takes us close to a landscape that few of us understand and rarely consider: a third of our planet, crucial to maintaining the earth's eco-systems, which remains shrouded in ignorance. We need these images. But news this week that the series has been curtailed to aid international sales has been met with sharp criticism, environmental groups decrying the BBC's move to market the seventh episode, the only one to deal explicitly with climate change, as an optional extra - and one that the key polluting countries, including the US, are unlikely to see. The BBC's defence stresses that this episode is different – that, being presenter-led, it causes issues for dubbing and audience reception that the other six did not.
Yet that's the problem. In backloading the scientific observation to a bolt-on finale, its warnings are eclipsed by a dangerous message of climate change as a fringe concern, an afterthought shrugged to the graveyard shift so as not to mar our entertainment. In packaging the uncomfortable and oh-so-inconvenient truths so neatly into a single hour, the BBC has made them all too easy to ignore. "Thanks for the warning. I will know now to avoid the last one," says one below-the-line commenter on the The Daily Telegraph's website, but at least we have the option to watch it. When broadcasters shy away from controversial programming – or assist others in doing so – they aren't just doing their viewers a disservice but neglecting a duty to present the world as it is, not just as we might wish it to be.
Frozen Planet is beautiful, stunningly crafted television, but a slightly neglected opportunity. We need these images, sure, but more than this we need to know what they mean and why we soon may not be seeing them again. Otherwise, what are we watching beyond a cosy stream of Disney narratives, of anthropomorphised animals eating, mating, playing and fighting? We get enough of those stories on Saturday nights.
Christian Cottingham is a Multimedia Journalism student at Sussex University