Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Ow! My brains!

Have you ever seen a film called Idiocracy? It was a minor hit in 2006, written and directed by Mike Judge (King of the Hill, Beavis and Butthead etc.), but has since become a bit of a cult film. The central premise is that the world is going to get stupid. Really stupid. Because all the smart people have the good jobs and spend all their time climbing the corporate ladder, they don't have time for lasting relationships or kids. Meanwhile, the dole-scrounging, uneducated 'trailer trash' are popping kids out in their millions. There eventually comes a tipping point where the population hits intellectual rock bottom and society collapses. By 2505, everyone lives on junk food because the crops won't grow - mainly because they're being watered with chemical-filled soft drinks rather than water ('Water? You mean the stuff in toilets? Eeuuw!') - and the most popular TV show features a man called Chavez who gets whacked in the cobblers every five seconds or so. It's called Ow! My Balls! Into this tragic new world comes Corporal Joe Bauers (Luke Wilson), the subject of a 2005 US Army experiment in suspended animation. He finds himsef the smartest man on the planet but, rather than being hailed as some kind of saviour, he is derided for 'talking like a fag' and being 'tarded' because he doesn't see the value of a judicial system based upon monster trucks and flame throwers.

Does it kind of sound like the way we're going? I honestly expect Ow! My Balls! to turn up in the schedules soon. Let's be honest, Jackass is already halfway there. But funny as that is, it genuinely worries me that it's the slippery slope to an Idiocratic future. Don't get me wrong; I'm no genius and I don't even have a degree. I have a very modest brain. But I am already fed up with television programmers treating me like some kind of moron. And I can only assume that they believe that you lot - their audiences - are all morons too.

What else explains the terrible dumbing-down of documentary series? Once upon a time wildlife shows, for example, were brought to you by a knowledgeable, charismatic presenter who visited parts of the world that you never probably will and who then amazed you with footage of extraordinary plants and animals. As you watched, their well-scripted, intelligent voiceovers would add even more insight and wonder. Their passion and enthusiasm rubbed off on you. Jacques Cousteau. David Bellamy. Tony Soper. The inimitable David Attenborough. Wonderful, inspirational television. But now it all seems to be whizzy CGI and snappy music video effects sequences and some currently popular celebrity reading a script over the top. It's just not the same. And as for the repetition ...

And as for the repetition ... doesn't that drive you mad? Every ten minutes or so, the narrator does a recap of what you've seen already. It's starting to get me down, it really is. I watched a Discovery Channel documentary on Sunday that promised to be a fascinating look at new evidence that T Rex may have hunted in packs. It was an hour long programme. It should have been 10 minutes at most for all of the factual evidence it offered. Despite my temptation to flick channels, I stayed with it until the end, mainly because I was counting how many times the fact that 'we can learn much about the running speed of a juvenile T Rex by looking at ostriches as they have similar legs.' Eleven times. That fact - actually, it's only a supposition - was mentioned 11 times in a 50 minute programme. And they recapped after every one of the six commercial breaks. Astonishing. It seems to be a practice that originated in the USA but it's well and truly infected our channels now. I'm a big fan of Heston Blumenthal but his otherwise enjoyable Channel 4 'Feast' series makes us all endure a three minute recap after EVERY commercial break. I understand that this is to inform channel hoppers who come across it by accident but it's insulting and deadly boring to those of us already watching. And, anyway, surely the thing to do is to make the start of each segment so damned interesting that you stay hooked to find out what's going on? Are programme makers really that insecure of their product? They don't do it for drama series do they? Oh hell ... I might have given them the idea now ...

I look through the TV schedules and I despair. Compete for the meat. Peter Andre - The Next Chapter. It's me or the Dog. I'm sure they have their audiences and that they are entertaining. And why not? Television shouldn't just be about education. But add to that the seemingly endless (and doubtless cheap as chips) property shows, antique shows, scaremongering 'you will die on holiday/in your kitchen/on the road' type programmes and anything featuring Peaches Geldof, Paris Hilton and Jeremy Fecking Kyle and the schedules start to become unbalanced in favour of the cheap and tawdry. But I'm not finished. We haven't yet added the reality shows featuring celebrities half the public have never heard of dancing, cooking and torturing insects in the jungle. And I've reserved a particularly feculent corner of Hell's septic tank for all of those fly-on-the-wall-what's-the-bloody-point-of-this? shows about airports, trucking companies, motorway police and dieting. Many so-called documentaries are more about shock than education with hugely overweight or deformed people on display. It's fat porn and freakshows. Even big-hitter shows like The X Factor Auditions are basically nothing more than a TV sanctioned opportunity for us to gawp and laugh at the clearly deranged and occasionally mentally ill. Oh look at the silly woman having her unrealistic dreams destroyed! Ha! That man with the weird eyes thinks he can sing but he can't! We're better than this surely? Don't we deserve better TV?

We can't all like every TV show and the world would be a boring place if everyone had the same tastes. But there must be balance. When Lord Reith announced the arrival of the BBC he promised that its mission would be to 'Educate, inform and entertain'. Wouldn't it be great if the TV channels all stuck to that and educated, informed and entertained in equal measure? I'm sure what Reith imagined were programmes like Life on Earth, QI, Lark rise to Candleford, Sherlock, Luther .... So why then are the schedules so top-heavy with 'popular' science dross, endless soaps and reality shows and utter shite like Don't scare the hare?

I mentioned dumbing-down. How about this for a great example: Horrible Histories is a truly excellent kids' show that makes history interesting and entertaining. I salute it! It's brilliant fun. And, as I say, it's for kids. But now the BBC have cobbled parts of it together with links by Stephen Fry and put it on Sunday evenings so we can all learn from it. Yes, you and me and all the other thickie adults who need a reformatted children's show to teach us something about Romans. Maybe that's not the BBC's intention. If I'm reading the situation wrongly, I apologise. But that's what it feels like to me. I'm 50 years old this year and I really don't need a catchy heavy metal spoof song to understand the Viking way of life.

I was prompted to write this blog by the news that yesterday the TED Talks website celebrated its fifth anniversary and a staggering 500 million views. TED, if you've not found it yet, is an organisation dedicated to encouraging us all to think. They hold conferences and shows and invite a staggeringly diverse range of people to deliver short 20 minute talks on their area of expertise. All of these videos are then posted to the TED website for us to watch for free. And they get over 100 million viewers per year. Staggering. But guess what? TED offered their talks to the BBC and they turned them down as being 'too intellectual'. Really? I challenge you to watch any of their talks and not understand what's going on. Look, I've even posted one of them below for you to watch. It's actually the most watched of all of the TED videos and, ironically,it's of Sir Ken Robinson decrying the education system that stifles creativity and aims for the lowest common denominator:

I despair.

1 comment:

Mikey said...

An early Harold Pinter TV play pulled 16 million viewers.

If you ran the equivalent today - some sort of Mark Rylance job or something - it would be hidden away on BBC4 and would be lucky to pull 16,000.