Here's a Wild Reason To Watch More TV

Researchers find that watching nature documentaries makes people more interested in plants—a potential boon for counteracting the staggering loss of plant biodiversity.

a photo shows a woman wearing a green dress adjusting a small retro tv

iofoto / Getty Images

Chances are you can name a few animals that are facing extinction. But what about plants? With some 40% of plant species under threat of extinction—and given humankind's reliance on the plant world—one might think there'd be more urgency around protecting them.

Yet in the United States, for example, plants receive less than 4% of federal funding for endangered species, despite comprising 57% of the endangered species list.

Alas, much of humanity suffers from “plant blindness." Defined by botanists Elisabeth Schussler and James Wandersee, plant blindness is "the inability to see or notice the plants in one's own environment," which leads to "the inability to recognize the importance of plants in the biosphere and in human affairs."

Given the current state of the planet and the nonchalance with which many of her stakeholders consider the natural world, what we desperately need is some way to engage people to care about such matters. And especially to increase awareness about plants.

Now a paper published by Oxford University Press might have found a way to do just that. How? By watching nature documentaries.

Having noticed that nature shows like Planet Earth II, Blue Planet II, Seven Worlds, and One Planet increased viewers' interest in the animals on the shows, the researchers set out to discover if nature documentaries could do the same for plants. Ideally, this could increase audience engagement with plant conservation programs and spark a greater appreciation of nature and ecology.

Promo photo of plants for BBC green planet program


For the paper, they focused on The Green Planet, the 2022 BBC plant-focused documentary narrated by Sir David Attenborough. The show was watched by nearly 5 million people in the United Kingdom. It features numerous and diverse (and wondrous!) plant species, particularly those from tropical rainforests, aquatic environments, seasonal lands, deserts, and urban areas. The program doesn't shy away from environmental concerns and highlights the dangers of invasive monocultures and deforestation.

To figure out if the documentary engaged viewers enough to want to learn more, the researchers looked at people’s online behavior around the time of the broadcast. They noted which species appeared when on the show and then looked at data on Google Trends and Wikipedia page hits for those same species before and after the episodes of the documentary aired.

As explained by Oxford University Press:

"The researchers here found a substantial effect of Green Planet on viewers’ awareness and interest in the portrayed plant species. Some 28.1% of search terms representing plants mentioned in the BBC documentary had peak popularity in the UK, measured using Google Trends, the week after the broadcast of the relevant episode. Wikipedia data showed this as well. Almost a third (31.3%) of the Wikipedia pages related to plants mentioned in Green Planet showed increased visits the week after the broadcast. The investigators also note that people were more likely to do online searches for plants that enjoyed more screen time on Green Planet."

“I think that increasing public awareness of plants is essential and fascinating," said the paper’s lead author, Joanna Kacprzyk. “In this study, we show that nature documentaries can increase plant awareness among the audience. Our results also suggest that the viewers found certain plant species particularly captivating. These plants could be used for promoting plant conservation efforts and counteracting the alarming loss of plant biodiversity.“

The paper, “Making a greener planet: nature documentaries promote plant awareness,” was published in Annals of Botany.