Written by TV


So Horizon’s been back for a new series on BBC Two for the last few weeks, and I’m sorry to report that things really haven’t got any better. It seems that you’re just not allowed to do serious science on television any more. I’m not saying it’s terrible, but it just seems to be covering the areas that other documentaries are already doing. It really does feel that the change in editor of the series has brought around a more populist agenda.
Let’s examine the evidence. So far this series there have been three episodes in this run:
My Pet Dinosaur – what would have happened if the meteorite had missed. Or perhaps just an opportunity to put more CGI dinosaurs on the screen. OK – so they kick off with a populist example, but this is really “what if” science. How about you tell me about things that are happening rather than those that aren’t? I can watch Primeval if I want to get a dinosaur fix.
Prof Regan’s Beauty Parlour – examining the science behind beauty products. A worthy exercise, albeit one that actually belongs on BBC1 popular science programme. Except BBC1 doesn’t have a popular science programme… or any science programme at all.
The Elephant’s Guide to Sex – examining artificial insemination and IVF among animals. Again, there’s science in there, but this is a populist subject that really doesn’t belong in the Horizon strand. And there’s that terrible programme title that’s supposed to somehow titillate, yet makes me actually want to avoid watching the programme.
Mad But Glad – is there such thing as a mad genius? Nick has Tourette’s, and I’ve got to ask, is there a disease anywhere in the medical dictionaries that’s had more documentaries made about it than Tourette’s syndrome? It’s being examined all the time! Channel Four, Five, BBC1 had a piece about a sufferer only this week on Inside Out. That’s twice in a week for heaven’s sake. Can we at least have programmes about Cancer or Heart Disease – diseases and illnesses that are going to make a difference to more people rather than ones that just make good telly?
Next week it’s Moon For Sale, examining mankind’s return to the moon. I’ll withhold judgment until I’ve actually watched the programme, but it’s noticeable that none of the programmes so far have taken an ideas that might actually challenge the audience in their subject matter. Dinosaurs, rare illnesses, IVF in animals, beauty products, the moon. Where are the really tough subjects?
And let me just say that the website’s been seriously downgraded. Like too many BBC sites at the moment, it’s an absolute mess. You used to be able to look up past episodes and read transcripts. That seems to have disappeared which is not only a shame, but an utter disgrace. The information already exists in a web-friendly format so just leave it up there. Is the BBC short of webspace? Is there a lack of bandwidth? Actually no. The information is there, but it’s just hidden away. You need Google or similar to root out the older programmes.
Instead, there’s a Flash-based monstrosity built around the idea that the only additional information anyone’s going to want to have after an episode is a replay of some video. At the very least give me some Further Reading or background information. Yes, there is a non-Flash version, but there really is very little background information, and you just know the production team must have collected a lot more than what we had distilled into the programme.
You do get a Pick of the Archive, currently featuring a wonderful interview with Richard Feynman from 1981, but that really just seems to rub salt into the wounds. Where are today’s interviews with world-leading physicists? There’s no way that Horizon in 2007 would interview Richard Feynman today if he were still alive. Not unless he was working on face-transplants or examining how likely it were that aliens were invading (to take two more stories from the last series).
Horizon has always trod a line between “human interest” focused science stories and more hard-science based editions. This is never more important than now, with fewer people in this country really understanding what’s going on in the scientific world and fewer students wanting to take those subjects at degree level. We need to enthuse and educate the audience, not pander to them.
Horizon can still do ground-breaking and important stories like Global Dimming (link via Google incidentally, since that part of bbc.co.uk has been hidden away from the current website – you just cannot link to past episodes from the site as it stands. Look – a programme transcript), but they’re much fewer in numbers.
I think that the decline must be the fault of two people, the controller of BBC2 and the editor of the series. Currently that controller is Roly Keating, and the editor of Horizon is Andrew Cohen. John Lynch is director of BBC Science and a former Horizon editor. He also made some great editions of the programme including the one on Fermat’s Last Theorem with Simon Singh (can you see the current series tackling mathematics). But between them, these people need to take responsibility. BBC Four programmes aside, the forty-two year old Horizon is the last bastion of science on mainstream television if we exclude nature which is excellently catered for. Channel 4 has very occasional episodes of Equinox which are similarly populist, and that’s just about it.
Years ago, BBC1 used to have a programme called QED which tackled very populist subjects with a greater degree of human interest appeal to them, and very good it was too. But the fact that this no longer exists does not mean that BBC2 should be filling in the gap. Still, even QED existed at a time when there was a Tomorrow’s World too.
My plan for the BBC would be this. Bring back Tomorrow’s World in an hour long, single film format. Two series of six episodes a year should be fine. These would tackle human interest and popular stories like IVF, possible Cancer cures, Robots, MMS, the power of next gen games consoles, the Superbug, etc. Use a popular intelligent presenter to make them palatable to a mainstream audience. Then take Horizon a bit more upscale and make programmes that tackle difficult subjects – and I only mean the kinds of subjects that make the cover story of New Scientist each week. Nothing too demanding.