Way, way back boys and girls, there was a man named Newton Minnow. He was an official of the Federal Communications Commission, a regulatory body charged by Congress to do various things. Mr. Minnow made a speech to some association of TV producers, at one of their meetings. He was pretty critical of it all. In fact he called American TV, with a very few glorious exceptions, ’a vast wasteland’. This phrase went into general language and was applied in other contexts by people who wanted to get a dig in at somebody else’s operation by calling whatever it was ‘a vast wasteland’. TV folks were not happy with the indictment, because by their standards American TV was phenomenally successful. Mr. Minnow meant that US broadcasting was vapid, dull, insipid, uninspired, at times frankly boring and at other times close to degrading. What is that song? “If they could see me now!” Poor Minnow, were he to re-appear, would find every one of his strictures raised to the power of ten. Now a new book examines one aspect of the Waseland: the amount and kind of broadcasting devoted to explaining science to the public. It sounds quite interesting. One of the themes explored is the tendency to include Zap! and Bang! into science programming,either in the form of Things That Go, well, Bang, or as speedy, colorful graphics which end in a big explosion. There is quite clearly a tendency to go with explorations of erupting volcanoes, potential mega-disasters, asteroid impacts, tsunamis, earthquakes and similar spectacular events. The science often gets reduced to a commentary on how, why or when the spectacular event can unfold. OK, maybe. But I think making scienceTV, is very difficult. And the surprising thing is that so much of it is so good. Finding analogies in our macro world for processes on the molecular or quantum levels must be pretty tough. It’s almost as tough as translating that analogy into a program, without doing violence to the facts or creating a parade of equations and talking heads.If anybody asks me, the main thing wrong with science on TV is that there is too little of it and too much Pseudo-Science. Ancient astronauts? Mayan Death Calendar? No, sorry. I sometimes watch one of those while fixing supper but I almost always lose my temper and start shouting at the TV set. You’d think I’d learn. So, keep it up the real science TV, fellas. It’s tough, but you’re getting better. And shoot down an Ancient Astronaut for me, preferably into the Bermuda Triangle.
Science on American Television: A History
Marcel Chotkowski LaFollette University of Chicago Press: 2012. 296 pp. $45