Some musings on TV documentaries

While I only briefly covered Matt Wedel’s recent brush with the TV documentaries, I do have a store of things I’d like to discuss at some point about them with my “science communication” hat on. I often lay into the print and online media on here and less so for the TV crews if only because being in China (and before that Germany) I don’t get much of an opportunity to see them. Secondly, I find it hard for them to capture my attention – I can read through a few hundred words on dinosaurs in a couple of minutes and get a good impression of the piece and often it’s about something new so there is new information there. With a TV show, it can be an hour long and tell me nothing I didn’t know 10 years ago, so regardless of its quality, I’m likely to get bored.

However, I do pick up enough clips online, and I do see shows when I’m in the UK (and get the odd DVD), and I do speak to both colleagues helping out on the shows and with the people making them. I’ve done various background bits for a couple of series and am friends with a documentary maker in the UK, so I suspect I have the bases covered as well, if not better, than most. Even so, it can be hard to form a proper critique of this kind of thing as it’s fundamentally hard for me not to view something with my researcher hat on. I’ll spot most of the even incredibly minor inconsistencies and the major ones will annoy me, even if 99% of the audience misses it. Bearing all that in mind, here’s my little manifesto.

1. There seems to be a mistaken belief that *any* audience cannot hack / does not want real information. By this I mean everything is watered down to the point that there is very little genuine information being presented. You’ll be told that T.rex was 12 m long, or that it lived 65 million years ago but little else. There seems to be a massive inbuilt assumption that people will be put off by being taught something. Except of course that this is silly.

Now, I don’t pretend that some people will be turned off, and that the show has to reach as big an audience as possible, but really, will *most* people stop watching if there’s little content? Even though I have not seen it, everyone in the world cites ‘Cosmos’ as an example, and to that I can add ‘The World at War’, and ‘Civilisation’ from the UK archives, plus while admittedly often ‘information light’, every single Attenborough series ever, and pertaining to dinosaurs specifically, the various “Walking with” series were quite information heavy (if rather disguised). People went in their millions to see the power-point science film “An Inconvenient Truth” and “The Deep Blue” was also seen by millions, and even the entertaining (though admittedly information free) “Microcosmos”. So, bearing this in mind, is it *really* true that people either a) don’t want content, or b) will not watch a show with content? I think not.

Furthermore, one might expect that you would draw in new viewers and keep them watching for whole series. Millions watched the “Private Life of Plants” which features grass growing, literally, yet apparently even having tyrannosaurs fighting is not flashy enough.

2. If you are going to convey information, make it accurate. This is real bugbear of mine and while Matt’s experience is the worst I know of, it’s annoying in the extreme. I am sure the audience will be excited by having a rampaging dinosaur on the screen and many of them will be impressed with a skeleton in the lab so get the basics right OK. Get the name right, the length, the age. And don’t exaggerate. Or make stuff up. Or treat speculation as fact. People *will* be impressed and even awed that we have fossils showing tyrannosaurs could bite though whole bone, fighting dinosaurs, fossil feathers that can reveal colours and patterns, healed bites from predators, and more. Use this stuff. It’s real, and it’s cool. We have some astonishing evidence of some amazing things that we *know* dinosaurs did, so show it, rather than taking an unwarranted extreme of a vague bit of speculation and making a centrepiece out of it.

Similarly, it’s no more expensive to film / borrow a backdrop of a Cretaceous-looking background than a modern one, so don’t put your Triceratops on the Serengeti. Equally, there’s no need to make Triceratops look ‘better’ or more real. Is it really any cheaper to get the horns and the frill wrong, than it is to get it right? No. So get it right. The animal will look the same to 95% of people, sure, but will be correct, which is better. This is a documentary right?

3. On that point, please have a clear idea of what you are making. If you want your show to be a trashy dinosaurs fighting show then fine, do it, but please don’t pretend it’s a serious examination of palaeontology. On Ask A Biologist we get *endless* ‘who would win in a fight between….’ questions and we try to answer them with some science (bears are much bigger than tigers, lions have a mane to help protect them) but we always point out how rare (or impossible) these interactions are. OK, you want / need to attract and audience, but trying to ‘calculate’ the winner of a face off between a spinosaur and a stegosaur is dull and pointless from a scientific perspective. Cool? Probably. Science? No.

Equally, if you do want to make something with a high level of accuracy and relative intellectual appeal then do so, but don’t then compromise it with pointless effects and outrageous claims. In short, stop trying to have it both ways. It is possible (see WWD), but don’t hamfistedly try to smash the two together.

Well, I could probably go on for quite a bit longer but I don’t want to bore, so I’ll cut it short. In essence, have an idea of what you want to make, keep things accurate (no matter how minor) through out the speculation for good science / evidence (which can be just as exciting) and don’t thing the audience is dumb / uninterested. Yes, you have to get your audience (and by extension advertisers to make your money back) but this need not mean pandering to a fictional audience of idiots. People watch these shows to learn and be entertained and if you remove or distort the science then you are either ignoring or deliberately distorting fully half of the two reasons people might tune in. Worth thinking about I hope.

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5 Responses to “Some musings on TV documentaries”

  1. 1 David 26/12/2009 at 1:12 pm

    Have you seen “The Truth About Killer Dinosaurs?” What did you think of it?

    • 2 David Hone 26/12/2009 at 2:36 pm

      Nope, sorry, missed that one entirely. I’ll go take a look on YouTube though and see what I can dig up.

      • 3 David Hone 26/12/2009 at 3:09 pm

        Well I’ve watched a few clips and it looks pretty good. A fair bit of real information in there explained well and accurately. It did tend to cut between the animations too quickly which was annoying, but it looked pretty solid (based on three 5 minute clips).

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