Because the universe is beautiful enough without having to lie about it

Crappy TV

November 12th, 2008 Posted in Bad media

Just a short rant this one. Well, not so much a rant as a request. I’m not being mean, and I hope I’m not being elitist, when I say “please, television executives, will you kindly stop wasting so much money on mindless, insipid and tediously self-indulgent television and actually produce some shows that are worth watching?”

Giving the public crappy TV is like giving children hamburgers every day and hiding all the fruit & veg. Do most kids know that those things are no good, and that they would be much healthier with a better diet? Yes, I reckon they probably do. But they don’t care because their bodies have evolved to want salty, fatty, sugary foods and that urge is a strong one.

Reality TV shows, vote-one-off-a-week competitions and self-indulgent celebrity documentaries are the intellectual equivalent of fries and coke. They are one of the best arguments for not giving the public what they want – surpassed in stupidity only by the democratically-decided Presidency of George W Bush.

OK, so there’s not much we can do about commercial TV, but the BBC – now they should definitely be held to a higher standard.  The BBC is not there to cater purely for the lowest intellectual denominator – they are supposed to provide a level of entertainment that the commercial stations are unable to provide because the commercial stations are completely at the mercy of market forces.

Stephen Fry, as ever, has much to say on this point. You should definitely listen to his almost super-humanly self-effacing podcast. Here’s the episode on broadcasting. Now there’s a man the BBC could afford to pay more.  He’s almost finished his 6-part documentary travelling around America and all I can think is that it’s such a shame he’s had to whizz around the place so stupefyingly quickly without having the chance to get stuck in to any one location.  I would happily submit to a doubling of my TV licence fee if it guaranteed a doubling of Stephen Fry air time. Even better – you could give him some of Jonathan Ross’s £6m per year.

We have a great wealth of intellect and wit in this country, why not celebrate that instead of a parade of desperate, moderately talented wannabes all competing to sleep with Andrew Lloyd Webber?

I think you probably see where I’m going with this. And it’s inevitable, of course: where’s all the good science broadcasting? At the moment all we seem to get is the occasional programme about venereal diseases and embarassing warts, and the odd ‘and finally’ at the end of the news. There is a whole landscape of life-changingly important science in the vast expanse between ‘boffins have discovered’ and the Elephant Man. Where are the documentary series exploring this? Where are the new Carl Sagans? Where is the next David Attenborough?

Ben Goldacre points this out excellently in his new book, “Bad Science” (yet another plug!). He says that the reason why there is so little decent science broadcasting (and writing) is simply because most journalists are humanities graduates without even the most basic understanding of science and no real grasp of its importance in the 21st century. So, we are barraged by highly pretentious programming about Kant and Wittgenstein, about the Tate Modern and that pesky Tudor dynasty; but when there’s a truly life-changing news event coming from science it tends to get drowned out either by the story about Victoria Beckham’s latest pair of shoes, or about the health scare du jour – no doubt accompanied by an analysis from some woefully under-qualified pseudoscientist. And whenever a science story reaches the papers, it’s always dumbed down to the point that it barely resembles science at all.

Yes, I know that I wrote something that sounds pretty much opposite to this viewpoint, just a few days ago. Allow me to clarify everything. My position is the following:  I believe that everyone should have the right to watch whatever they want, if it’s legal. Commercial channels will always tune their output very closely to please the demographics that give them most advertising revenue, but the BBC need not do this.  I’m not suggesting that the BBC completely turn over the airwaves to educational documentaries and I’m certainly not saying that we should ban anything – I’m merely saying that the current state of affairs seems woefully out of balance.

So, anyway, to conclude: we need more science journalists. I will gladly write stuff if anyone wants to publish it. Scientists of the world – write to your local papers and ask why their science journalism is so inadequate. It’s about time that we started skewing the column inches towards what actually matters.

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