Science programming on Television

Last night I settled down to watch what was once my favourite TV show, and is still tolerable – the science series, Horizon. Like much TV on the “main channels” though, it has dumbed down a lot over the past decade or so, and while BBC4 is putting out some really good science shows, Horizon is limping along when it should have been sent to the knackers yard several years ago.

What I liked about the program when I was younger was a mixture of two things.

Firstly, the presentation style was generally a voice-over narration with the scientists talking to camera explaining what they did, along with some suitable background visuals and demonstrations.

The other thing I liked is that it didn’t compromise the science side. While they wouldn’t lose the viewer by showing all the equations, it would try to explain the underlying concepts of what was being talked about in a manner which is accessible to anyone of moderate intelligence.

I always felt that I had learnt something to do with science after each program.

Today though, the program occasionally manages that – but increasingly rarely.

Last nights episode was a perfect example of what has gone wrong with science programs on television. It was presented by Dr Brian Cox, who may be a very good presenter for some people, but I find the style of his TV shows to be deeply aggravating.

Basically, the science could be squashed into about 10 minutes (and it wasn’t that educational either), with much of the program being a glorified holiday show where he drives around the place trying to learn things, that as a physicist he should know about anyway. Why does the camera show us video of him drinking on a plane, or a close up of his take-away lunch? What does that add, other than to remind us what a “normal” guy Dr Cox is?

Worse, is the tendency he has shown in previous programs, and repeated last night to find the most remote bit of rocky desert possible – and then sit down and spout some hang-wringing angst about not understanding something and worrying about it. I don’t want to go on a personal journey of discovery, I want a science program!

On the upside, last weeks episode on Cannabis was a return to classic Horizon – good science, and a voice over narrating the program without a personality led “voyage of discovery” getting in the way.

Lets have a bit more science, and somewhat fewer of the personal journeys of discovery please.

Thanks

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9 Comments

  1. M@

    Got to agree about Horizon. At least they’ve stopped theming every episode around some kind of DOOM scenario (asteroids, giant tsunami, pandemics…).

    There is good science on TV (witness the recent Attenborough doc about Darwin), and Radio 4 also has some decent programming, but it is increasingly few and far between.

    Shameless plug. I do a weekly TV and radio listings for science over on Nature Network: http://network.nature.com/hubs/london/blog

  2. Hear. Blooming. Hear. Horizon used to be one of my favourite programmes for exactly the reasons you’ve said. Its actually quite upsetting seeing those badly acted dramatisation episodes, when all I wanted was talking scientists. Wish there was more stuff on telly about space too.

  3. petoskystone

    i like the programs that involve mishio kaku. he’s on the science channel in the u.s. systems. i just can’t stomach the mush main-line tv shoves. they’re so bad i keep expecting a canned laugh track to accompany the narration. with kaku, he addresses the audience expecting not only intelligence, but to have the same enthusiasm he has for his subject (physics, quantum mechanics, theories of the universe,etc.) !

  4. M@

    Aye, Kaku’s a good presenter and lecturer. But he does tend to begin every sentence with the phrase: “In the future…”.

  5. Rob

    Kaku is a good author too – Brian Greene is another name who comes to mind when thinking of good ‘popular’ scientists in print/on TV.

    Also, I agree completely with comments made about Horizon. Used to love watching the show as little as a few years ago, then for some reason it went downhill and they did an entire series with little/no science whatsoever. There are still a few interesting shows (the mental health one a few months back was good) but these are few and far between.

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