Discovery Channel’s Africa

The Discovery Channel and the BBC have joined forces to produce a new seven part series entitled, Africa. The series is four years in the making and brings together stunning footage of the landscapes and animals within the continent. The first episode focuses on the Kalahari Desert, while later ones will capture the wildlife in others regions spread throughout Southern, Central, Eastern and Northern Africa, with later episodes titled (you’ve guessed it), “the Congo”, “the Cape” and “the Sahara.”

The narrative style of the series is both informal and informative. The series is narrated by Sir David Attenborough, who is a kind of institution in this kind of programming. Attenborough provides a laid back voice as he projects the thoughts of the animals. For example, when he narrates the leopard contemplating a warthog for lunch, it’s a “bad idea,” and then the camera pans to the leopard looking for an easier target for its lunch. The soundtrack and narration allow us to identify more easily with the film, and both instill tension, wonder, and relief in the small triumphs and battles played out among the animals. Though most of the drama created between animal encounters is welcome, it is sometimes overwrought (already some viewers have accused the show of manipulating them), as demonstrated with this line, “In the Kalahari, you have to take your food wherever you can get it, even if that means becoming a cannibal.” (This was regarding armored crickets eating an injured fellow.) The statement makes it seem that insects devouring each other is more pronounced here than in any other environment, which isn’t so.

Discovery Channel

Even while the series seeks to make you feel as if you are becoming more intimately connected to the wild, it also tries to create a distance, invoke an alienness and instill an ancientness to the region. This tactic is perhaps best borne out in the intro to the series. The logo AFRICA flashes across a globe in what looks like the start of a movie trailer about an otherworldly encounter. In the first episode, “the Kalahari,” Attenborough describes the mountains and deep valleys surrounding the desert as, “land buckled and scarred by a volcano,” that boasts the “oldest piece of crust on the planet.” Or when it comes to the underground fossil aquifer, caves, and the fish that swim beneath the desert, it all “may sound like science fiction.” The film even ventures into “local myth” to describe the phenomenon behind what are termed “fairy circles” before providing us with the scientists’ best guesses, which are still just guesses.

But plying potential audiences with expansive vistas, mystery, exotic landscapes, and ancient holdovers is what seems to be the time worn formula when presenting Western audiences with most things African. It will be very interesting to see what Discovery and the BBC do with the last two episodes, the “Making Of Africa” and one that will tackle the future of Africa’s wildlife. As, in their words, “the greatest and most iconic wildlife continent is at a tipping point. The animals of the next generation will face very different challenges than the ones met by their ancestors—and the animals themselves must adapt to the new landscape and changing relationship with humans.” Despite this description seemingly able to apply to the entire world, the series creators seem most eager to save the animals of Africa. But perhaps this is most natural, I’m sure their jobs depend on it.



Emily Wood

Emily Wood holds an MA in African Studies at Indiana University at Bloomington.

  1. Also quite telling that a series simply called “Africa” is exclusively about mythical landcapes and animals. Would any other continent’s peoples be ingored in such a manner?

  2. I wondered the same thing – where is the episode about the people and the rich cultures that make up this beautiful continent?

  3. Great review. I’ve been watching it here in London, and I agree with your reading. It isn’t bad TV, nor is it irresponsible, or that manipulative, and is clearly trying to tell a ‘new’ story of the African landscape and wildlife, other than just those of lions and elephants (although they are now under fire for filming an elephant dying but not saving it…)

    My contention with the programme comes from the absolute all out avoidance of place names. I can see why- they don’t want to get national specifics, instead opting for ‘East Africa’ or ‘Kalahari’, but I’m always wondering where exactly the volcano is, or the salt lake. It seems at odds with its microscopic intentions – to view life even in its most minute forms – but then trying to be completely general at the same time. There is a paradox between their images and their narrative.

    For the average viewer, the programme will do nothing to dispel the myth of Africa as a country, for consistently referring to it as a homogenous whole, however, it might also serve to tell some wildlife stories that we haven’t heard yet. I’ll wait and see and write something at the end of the series.

    1. In the program’s defense and from a completely wildlife standpoint (which is what this series is about), animals do not observe human borders.

      I would love to see a program about African cultures and diversity. But, this is from the makers of Life and is a documentary (and a stunningly excellent one from a visual standpoint) on wildlife.

  4. It airs at 10pm Eastern time on discovery channel you can also find it on online streaming tv channels… Yes I am also interested in how they handle the last two episodes

  5. “Africa” is the 2nd documentary series released in the past 2 years by the BBC narrated specicifcally by Attenborough specifically about nature and wildlife. Last year there was a whole series entitled “Frozen Planet” which was about how nature and wildlife adapts to the harsh conditions in the artic and antarctic. This was shot in a similar way with each episode ending with how certain parts of that particular episode were filmed. Before that the BBC released a different and unrelated series called “Human Planet” also narrated by Attenborough but this time it was specifically about people, (obviously). Both of which I recommend although they were also criticised for misleading the viewers.

    I do agree however that they should specify exactly where they are filming because it does not do much as you say for Africa’s image of being a single country. Perhaps they did this because they are focusing specifically on the various ecosystems that exist on the continent and actually it shows us that Africa is not all savannah and lions but there are mountains and deserts and swamps etc. What’s more, the series shows us not only the traditonally “majestic” lions, elephants and giraffes but also, a more brutal and sinister side to wildlife in Africa such as the shoebill and the aforementioned carnivorous grasshopper. It is, as most Attenborough series are, fascinating and informative and last week’s episode of the drought in Amboseli showed the effects of climate change in a brutal manner which hopefully rang true with viewers (I write this as I am slowly poisened by the record-breaking pollution that has recently taken over Beijing).

  6. Discovery Channel believes Africa to be a country. But I believe this to be innocuous, meant in the same way we refer to fifty states as “America” or when one refers to “Europe”, “Asia” or any other term that is familiarly inclusive of all the components.

  7. Just saw this on TV. A wonderful program but Forrest Whitaker is the narrator – not David Attenborough – maybe Attenborough wrote it but Forrest Whitaker definitely narrated it. I loved his narration and how they told about the different animals.

    1. “Africa” was made by BBC & Discovery, and, as they did in Planet Earth, the script and narration was changed from documentary rock-star David Attenborough to someone who sounds more American. Forrest Whitaker narrates “Africa”, Sigourney Weaver narrated “Planet Earth”. Discovery thinks Americans won’t watch documentaries narrated with an English accent.

  8. Are you kidding me?! Africa is a CONTINENT of 53 countries, you MORONS!! And if the Discovery Channel is going to do stories on Africa, then where is the stories of “political unrest” in both Egypt and Libya. TWO COUNTRIES IN AFRICA!!! Shame on the Discovery Channel!!!

    1. @Anthony Ogans: You’re telling us it’s a continent? BTW, why would you specifically want stories of “political unrest”? In any case what happened in Egypt and Libya was vastly different–in the first an unfinished revolution in the second a civil war. You’re not helping your course when responding to Discovery Channel’s nonsense.

  9. Actually the AFRICA show should be narrated by Charlize Theron and the music soundtrack by Dave Matthews. 2 AFRICANS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  10. It doesn’t sound like Sir David or Forrest Whitaker …… the series but who is that speaking???

    1. When will the Discovery Channel and the BBC go further into the African landscape and do a story on the political upheavel in Egypt and the turmoil in Libya? Those are African countries also!!

  11. The spend millions $ to capture great photography the ruin the viewing experience with endless, discracting on-screen advertisements for “Moornshiners”…go figure!

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