Sunday, May 21, 2006

The state of science TV

I almost never look at mainstream science programs on the TV any more. When I was at school and university I used to regularly watch programmes such as the BBC's "Horizon". Horizon used to be engaging, it contributed to my interest in science and it was part of my science education. When I've caught the program recently I've been disappointed by its decline. It seems like the content for a twenty minute programme is taken and spread thinly to make up an hour. Every five minutes the narrator explains what the program is about, most irritating if you've been watching from the start. While the BBC were doing their download trail, I did discover that the programmes are much better view with a viewer that provides fast forward and fast play (20% faster than real-time with the sound pitch-shifted back to normal).

So what's been going on? I think there are three factors. The first is that broadcasters have decided that science is too hard - it must be dumbed down. The second is that the pressures to reduce the cost of programmes means that less content is made to go further. The final is that it is assumed that everyone surfs - the chance that someone starts watching a broadcast programme from the beginning is small. Hence, weak content, thin content and repetition.

And what about the future? I don't think all is gloom and doom. As TV becomes more "a la carte" and less dominated by channels which must provide 24-hours-a-day programming, the people who actually choose to watch a programme will increasingly be those who actually want to watch it, rather than those who have surfed to it. As a result, the need to continually remind people what the program is about will go away. Production cost will still be an issue, but with the need to fill the available space in a channel's schedule, the need to produce fixed duration programmes should disappear; we'll get 15 minutes of good quality content, rather than 60 minutes of paper-thin content. With quality issue removed, what about the demand? Will there be a demand for good quality science programming? Time will tell, but I am optimistic.

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