Executive producer Mike Gunton on the making and marketing of Planet Earth II

A decade ago I saw the way Planet Earth transformed the way viewers saw the life and landscape of our planet, now, 10 years on I’ve been part of a team that was given the chance to revisit this rich subject with Planet Earth II.  Big shoes to fill!  

So with some trepidation I woke up the morning after the first transmission to await the reaction.

The response was pretty overwhelming – in a good way – and I’m still slightly scratching my head as to why. But sometimes a piece of television just hits the spot and  becomes an event. 
Here are some stats: The first episode pulled in a consolidated overnight of 12.3 million viewers on Television (41% share) – the largest audience of any natural history launch for 15 years and the second episode actually increased the audience to 13.14m (43% share).
We certainly worked hard on our social media campaign both before, during and after the transmission and it certainly paid off. During the chase between iguana hatchlings and their racer snakes foes, tweeting surged to over 5,000 tweets in the space of two minutes. Our hash-tag #PlanetEarth2 was trending for eight hours in the UK appearing as #1, #3 #7 #11 at one point and also trending Worldwide for five hours – it seems that the social media equivalent of ‘word of mouth’ has spread like wildfire.
Another pleasant surprise  – it’s been a particular hit with younger viewers, attracting more 16-35 year olds than The X Factor. That age group are notoriously difficult to get to watch any TV, let alone factual or natural history.
Sometimes the stars align:  the combination of David Attenborough, the title, together with an earlier slot and following on from ‘Strictly’, even Hans Zimmer’s music, all undoubtedly gave us a boost.
But although the figures are always great to have under your belt what’s more important is the qualitative reaction, and that has been the most exciting. We tried to get the best combination of the awe of Planet Earth with the individual heroic stories of a series like Life, and it does seem to have worked with audience, press and colleagues alike.
The original Planet Earth had the sense of observing the planet from almost a god-like perspective. It was, at the time unique and powerful. In the new series we’re looking at the world in a different way, through the animals eyes:  and now we can run, swim and fly with them.  It’s very involving and I think brings home both the drama of their lives and their relationship with the habitat where they live. That sense of drama and proximity has really captured the imagination of the audience.

It’s a consequence of the extraordinary developments in filming technology that we’ve been able to use. Whether its drones, camera miniaturisation, new gyro-stabilized handheld cameras or remotely operated cameras, we have been lucky to be able to bring them together in this one series to draw back the veil of secrecy that shrouds many of the wonders of the natural world. 

Planet Earth II differs from another important way from the original series in that we felt we needed to explore a habitat that wasn’t featured before – the one built by humanity. So the final episode on Dec 11th is about Cities and the animals that share the urban world with us. I think it’s an amazing film, beautiful and thought provoking at the same time.

Ten years ago Planet Earth seemed to come at the right time, at a point where I think people felt a need to reconnect with the planet. I hoped Planet Earth II might tap into a similar Zeitgeist – one that feels quite important right now – and  judging by the reaction I think it might well have done just that.

Mike Gunton is executive producer of Planet Earth II, which is produced out of BBC Studios’ Natural History Unit

Staff Reporter

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