Good Energy, USC’s Media Impact Lab Release New Study on the Presence of Climate Change in Scripted Entertainment
Good Energy, a non-profit story consultancy, has shared its research study on the absence of the climate crises in scripted entertainment. Completed in partnership with the USC Norman Lear Center‘s Media Impact Project, this study establishes a baseline for acknowledgment of the climate crisis in TV and film scripts written from 2016 to 2020.
Anna Jane Joyner, founder and CEO of Good Energy, says, “We started doing this study around this time last years so it’s been a year-long effort doing the research, getting data, and crafting it together in order to see what it means.” “We expected low numbers when we started it. It is quite remarkable that only 2.8 percent of all scripts analyzed did not include any climate-related keywords. This is a phenomenon that literally everyone on the planet is experiencing, in both intimate and collective ways. This was affirming of the value of our work and why it’s important that we do this.
Erica Rosenthal, director of research at the USC Norman Lear Center, says that her team has been studying the prevalence of various health and social issues in entertainment for over 20 years, per the media impact project’s mission. She says that there is very little research about how climate change issues are presented in entertainment and what audiences are interested in these stories. “There is also very little research about the impact climate stories may have on audiences. This is something we are looking at and will be investigating in future research with Good Energy .
The team analyzed approximately 37,453 TV and film scripts from this five-year period, by developing a script database of transcripts and searching for terms from their list of 36 climate-related keywords.
Rosenthal says, “We measured the frequency that those search terms appeared and then we did some breakdowns in order to understand which genres they appeared in and what networks are addressing climate most often in their stories. If a script that mentions climate change keywords is actually addressing steps people can take [themselves],” Rosenthal said.
Today, the research is available in an open-source PDF on both USC’s and Good Energy’s websites. In addition to analyzing scripts, the teams surveyed over 2,000 and learned that almost half of them would like to see climate change acknowledged more in scripted entertainment and that another notable chunk of people are open to seeing this more often.
Showtime had the highest number of climate mentions among cable networks. But a greater proportion of NatGeo episodes (14.6 percent) included climate mentions than any other cable network, due to the series Mars. The streamers were led by HBO Max (6.4%) in the likelihood that climate mentions would occur, while Netflix had the highest number of climate mentions possible due to its sheer content.
Joyner states, “I think what really surprised is the fact that audiences believe they care more about climate change than the characters on television [and in film] do.” “And it was also striking to me that when climate disasters show up in television and film — droughts, heat waves, wildfires, monster hurricanes — they’re only connected to climate change in a script 10 percent of the time. When the fossil fuel industry comes up in a script, it’s only connected back to climate change like 12 percent of the time. These are two areas where scripts should make more of the connection .”
According to data, most audiences don’t remember climate change being in scripted entertainment. The two most prevalent examples that audiences did give as examples of films with climate elements, however, were Day After Tomorrow and 2012, “a disaster movie Mayan apocalypse story which has nothing to do with climate change,” Joyner adds.
People are more likely than ever to take action if they see it in entertainment, especially if they see the actions having an impact. Rosenthal states that even if storytellers don’t talk about climate change in any way, they can show these actions in terms of energy conservation being [normalized].”
The Good Energy team is planning to do another round of data analysis next year looking at scripts from 2021 and 2022, and will likely repeat this research process every two years moving forward to see how narratives are shifting, if at all. In the meantime, Good Energy is also launching a “climate lens” workshop, where they are working with approximately 150 writers to help creatives in the entertainment industry uncover how to establish characters that are experiencing climate change like we are in reality, and use a “climate lens” as a framework for approaching a story’s arc more broadly.
“We found through qualitative research that when we say ‘climate story’ or ‘climate storytelling,’ it gets misconstrued because people think that we’re asking them to write a whole new kind of story or [create] a whole new genre, but what we’re really saying is, regardless of what genre it is or what the story is if it’s taking place today or in the next 100 plus years, that climate change is already a part of the story,” Joyner says.
CBS’s Madam Secretary, on which Joyner served as a consultant, had more mentions of climate change alone than any other individual broadcast network; 7.5 percent of the show’s episodes included at least one climate mention.
The Good Energy team supports individual productions and works with streaming platforms and networks to integrate the climate conversation into their productions.
“The goal is not to preach to the audience, but to work with them to create more accurate and authentic stories about climate change. Rosenthal states that it’s not about preaching to an audience but about reflecting their values. “Our research shows that audience members want to be able to build relationships with characters who share their values, concerns, fears, and beliefs. But they don’t feel like existing characters share their concern about the climate crisis; it’s something people don’t talk about and as a result, we don’t see it reflected in entertainment.”