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Climate change is our reality — so why wouldn't it appear on reality TV?

In the car racing show <a href="https://www.extreme-e.com/" data-key="401"><em>Extreme E</em></a>, electric SUVs try to outpace each other in remote parts of the world hit hard by climate change. Above, the <em>Extreme E</em> drivers pose for a photo on the Russell Glacier in Greenland.
Zak Mauger
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Extreme E
In the car racing show Extreme E, electric SUVs try to outpace each other in remote parts of the world hit hard by climate change. Above, the Extreme E drivers pose for a photo on the Russell Glacier in Greenland.

When Recipe for Disaster premieres on the CW Network next month, it'll dish up plenty of the sugary and salty ingredients viewers have come to expect from cooking contests on reality TV. The show pairs professional chefs with a friend or family member who is hopeless in the kitchen. The contestants will "compete to make spectacular dishes while battling ridiculous disasters."

But the show's producers also mix in the reality TV equivalent of lean proteins and veggies. Recipe for Disaster will feature chefs who cook with sustainable ingredients, compete to win meat and dairy-free cooking challenges, and even tell a joke about climate change being responsible for the sudden tropical rainstorm that soaks them as they try to cook.

On <em>Recipe for Disaster,</em> contestants must "make spectacular dishes while battling ridiculous disasters." It premieres in August on The CW.
/ Alameda Productions
/
Alameda Productions
On Recipe for Disaster, contestants must "make spectacular dishes while battling ridiculous disasters." It premieres in August on The CW.

Lately, the creators of everything from celebrity gabfests to car racing competitions — the realm of so-called "unscripted TV" — have been finding ways to slip information about human-caused climate change and sustainable living onto our screens.

Data from Statistica shows roughly a third of U.S. adults between 18 and 64 currently watch reality TV. But Recipe for Disaster executive producer Cyle Zezo says even though climate change is very much part of everyone's everyday reality, reality TV executives themselves have long shied away from the topic.

"A couple of years ago, if you'd brought up talking about climate on screen, people would think it was crazy and they wouldn't even touch the subject," Zezo told NPR at the recent Hollywood Climate Summit.

But Zezo said attitudes have started to shift toward featuring climate change on shows.

"When you talk to buyers now, maybe they don't exactly know how to do it, but the door is more open to it," he said. "And I'm excited to follow that where it goes."

Scenes modeling sustainable behaviors or highlighting the impact of climate change have been cropping up lately in shows as diverse as the paranormal reality series Ghost Adventures, (in one episode, an anthropologist suggests climate change might be responsible for the unexpected sighting of a massive unidentified sea creature); talk shows, such as Jane Fonda's appearance a few months ago on The Kelly Clarkson Show; and the business startup contest Shark Tank (for example, Gwyneth Paltrow buys into a sustainable diaper company).

According to a University of Southern California study shared with NPR ahead of its fall publish date, nearly 30,000 mentions of climate change-related keywords appeared across every category of unscripted TV between last August and this February.

"That included home shows, food shows, docuseries, even sports," said Erica Rosenthal, director of research at the university's Norman Lear Center, the group behind the study. "So that was really a surprising and exciting finding."

An unlikely climate change reality star

One unlikely example of the new openness to climate change programing is the car racing show Extreme E.

In the series, electric SUVs try to outpace each other in remote parts of the world hit hard by climate change. Season one included a race in Greenland that passed by a retreating glacier.

The show also includes many direct mentions of the term "climate change," such as, "In climate change, everyone needs to win, or we all lose." Last year, according to the producer's audience growth report, the show reached 135 million viewers across the globe.

But unscripted shows like this one that center climate change as a topic — or even mention the term directly — are still relatively rare.

"What we're seeing is plenty of fleeting mentions of terms that are climate-adjacent," USC's Rosenthal said. "But not necessarily explicitly climate change."

Rosenthal said the most commonly used terms in the study were "vegan," "vegetarian," "insulation" and "solar."

"The term 'climate change' itself represented just 4% of all of the keyword mentions we came across," Rosenthal said, though he added that the term did make it into the top 10 of the keywords the study covered.

This baseline analysis of unscripted TV was created as a follow-up to research published last year on scripted TV and movies. As with this previous study, the new findings are based on the analysis of show scripts. This means it excludes most non-verbal references to sustainable behaviors or climate change depicted on screen, such as, for instance, Recipe for Disaster's use of compost bins on set.

"When people are talking about climate change and global warming, they're talking about it through other ways," said University of Colorado Boulder environmental studies professor, Max Boykoff.

Boykoff, who studies the intersection of mass media and climate change, said he's not surprised that unscripted TV producers tend to sneak climate change-adjacent material into their shows, rather than address the topic head on.

"Unscripted television is a way to get into the homes of people who otherwise may not take interest in climate change," Boykoff said. "Those who otherwise may see it as yet another set of challenges that they just don't want to have to deal with."

But Boykoff said producers need to be bolder, since the medium has the power to reach so many people. Using that influence only to focus on small behavioral changes isn't enough.

"Climate change is a collective action problem at a global scale," Boykoff said. "We ought not get caught up in just using a mug instead of a paper cup and thinking that we've done our job."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Chloe Veltman
Chloe Veltman is a correspondent on NPR's Culture Desk.