Does television have to be either shallow OR deep?

Danes on TV
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.

Anyhow I strongly recom­mend read­ing Will’s thoughts on the series. Episode One, Episode Two and an inter­view.

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.


When he's not tired, fixing his car or caught in train delays, Alun Salt works part-time for the Annals of Botany weblog. His PhD was in ancient science at the University of Leicester, but he doesn't know Richard III.