Does television have to be either shallow OR deep?
Danes on TV. Photo by Laertes.
Will has been putting up some interesting posts at Nomadic Thoughts. He’s been following Guns, Germs and Steel on National Geographic. He’s been arguing that just because a presentation is made on a television programme it’s not automatically going to be awful. Rather it requires the presenter to adapt the material to the new medium. This is something I whole-heartedly agree with and why I have such trouble writing up ‘papers’ after conferences. I don’t give papers, I give talks – they’re spoken so they should be written differently to something that is meant to be read as a text.
Will argues that low-density television is valuable in itself, which is a reasonable viewpoint, but with digital television I’m not sure it’s an either/or matter as to how these programmes are presented.
I remember watching Walking with Beasts on the BBC. I had Hepatitis at the time, so my memory is a little hazy, but I remember there were around four tracks you could watch at the same time. The general transmission was Kenneth Branagh who’d say things like “Wow! Look at that Big Furry Thing!” as a large creature came lumbering towards the camera. If you pressed the red button, you could watch the same visuals but hear Hannah Gordon say “This is Humungous Megabeasticus, it ate the small furry animals which grazed on the plains of North America.” Press for track three and you’d have picture in picture, with a bloke saying “Here’s a fossil of Humungous Megabeasticus that we found in Kansas. As you can see here, in its stomach, are the fossilised skulls of an animal we identified as Furricus Smallicus.” Track four was something about how you’d animate Big Furry Things for the programme. The whole thing was on the digital channels, so it could be viewed on half-hourly rotation and you could if you had the patience, or a slightly dazed outlook on life, watch the same programme with different audio for two hours.
DVD offers the same opportunities as digital television. You can watch Lord of the Rings for instance, with yak tracks from the Director, Writers, Actors, Film Crew and some unfortunate soul they dragged in from the street. I don’t know the full list I haven’t listened to them all. But imagine what you could do with a history programme. You’d have the standard audio. Then the writer’s commentary. Then perhaps another track with more discussion from the writer. Perhaps another with a few eminent historians saying what they agreed or disagreed with. A similar option should be available with digital broadcasting. Rather than having shallow or egghead programmes you’d have multi-layered programmes which would grow with repeat viewing and, as anyone with satellite knows, there’s an awful lot of repeat viewing.
I must admit I haven’t read the book. It’s on the list of books I should read along with Third Chimpanzee and Collapse. For an alternative view on Guns, Germs and Steel there’s an entry at Savage Minds. Ozma seems to think the ecological determinism is a bit simplistic, but the need for a reply would suggest that the television programme is doing a good job in communicating the message.