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New Horizons

The web offers hope for those disappointed with science on TV

Alom Shaha 14 January 2007

Under cover: Physicist Dr. Tara Shears suits up for Shaha's lens (find out more)

'Human interest' is going to get more viewers than scientific discovery – hence the abundance of 'science' programmes about disfiguring medical conditions

Editor’s note: Don't miss Alom Shaha's newest venture: Labreporter, an online venue for high-quality, web-friendly science documentaries. Shaha aims to build up an archive of films illuminating scientists in labs around the world and the work that they do. Labreporter launches tomorrow with two of his short films, one about a scientist working on the Large Hadron Collider project (see the image) and the other about the challenges of doing science in Kenya.

Are you one of the people disappointed with the standard of science on TV? Perhaps, like Ben Goldacre, you were enraged by the faked “experiments” on SKY’s Brainiac. Or you agree with Paul Andrews that Horizon has resorted to “fictional science” and mourn the time when Horizon was, in the words of Andrews, "cutting-edge, analytical and...even scientific”. Personally, I miss my weekly hit of Tomorrow’s World and yearn for the days when Equinox was a regular slot on Channel 4.

Last year, I got a glimpse into why scientists and TV don’t always get on when I attended a “Meet The Scientists” event for people in TV. Organised by the Wellcome Trust, the evening took the form of a speed-dating event. The idea was that scientists would move round the room “pitching” their research to TV producers who would then decide whether or not to make TV programmes about it.

The evening started with a talk from a senior BBC producer who told us what TV producers supposedly look for in an idea for a science programme. I won’t go into the details of the talk, but I will tell you that he offered The Boy Whose Skin Fell Off – a recently aired Channel 4 documentary on Dystrophic Epidermolysis Bullosa – as a great example of the genre. Many of the twelve scientists I “dated” found his talk patronising and none of them agreed that The Boy Whose Skin Fell Off was in any meaningful sense a “science” film.

Some of the scientists I spoke to were depressed by what they saw as a growing trend for sensationalist “freak shows” on TV in place of any attempt to deal with factual breakthroughs in science. It can be argued that there was some science in The Boy Whose Skin Fell Off and even in programmes like Born With Two Heads, but consider this: the Association of British Science Writers’ Awards did not bestow its annual “Best Television Programme” award last year because the judges thought none of the nominated programmes was good enough even to make a shortlist. One judge, the geneticist Robin Lovell-Badge, said: “We were presented with “science” programmes with virtually no science in them. Whenever there was the possibility of unpicking a little, highly relevant science…the programmes ran away to non-science as fast as possible”.

As far as I know, no one has done an exhaustive survey comparing the science programmes of today with those of yesteryear (although I was at a meeting at Imperial College where it was suggested that something like this might make a good subject for a Science Communication PhD). Yes, there were some great science programmes made in the past and yes, there are some shoddy programmes being made in the name of science today, but programmes like Life Before Birth, Rough Science and anything by David Attenborough continue the tradition of great science TV.

However, things have changed since the days when we had only four or five terrestrial channels. In the multi-channel age, viewing figures are everything and “human interest” is going to get more viewers than scientific discovery pretty much every time – hence the abundance of “science” programmes about disfiguring medical conditions. This is a reality that TV producers and commissioning editors have to deal with and may mean that scientists will see less and less of the kind of science programmes that they would like.

One commissioning editor at the Wellcome event, someone who has the awesome power of deciding what millions of people see on TV, even suggested that science was a niche subject, “like extreme sports”, and that perhaps the only place for it was on the internet. Whilst comparing science to extreme sports may be facetious, she may have had a point about the web being the best place for science TV. There are already signs that television as we know it won’t exist for much longer and watching video via the net will replace gazing at the old CRT in the living room.

Whilst we don’t have the web equivalent of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos yet, a few minutes on Google will deliver everything from videos of genuinely awesome (awesomely genuine?) science demonstrations and news about cutting-edge research to short films about CERN. Search hard enough, and you’ll even be able to download entire episodes of legendary shows like The Ascent of Man (they’re even easier to find if you’re willing to pay).

So, for those of you who can’t be bothered to look for yourselves, I’ll close with a few links to some science videos on the web. And if you don’t like any of those, you can always try making your own – all you need is a video camera and an internet connection.

Research Channel is a broadband TV channel featuring international research stories

ResearchTV features films about cutting-edge British science

The Royal Society has a video library of lectures and events

• YouTube has numerous science-related videos. One of my favourites is this great demonstration of a Reuben’s Tube, a classic physics demonstration

• See real versions of the experiments Brainiac famously faked

• Arguably the most-watched science-related video on the net

2006 Year in Videos from New Scientist

Seed magazine regularly features video reports