In part six of How Television Ruined Your Life, how its notion of informative programming has devolved over the years; from leisurely tours of venerable intellectual concepts guided by boffins like Sir Kenneth Clark and Dr. Jacob Bronowski, to a motley collection of ostensibly “real” fact-bending simulations of supernatural nonsense, grandiose visual spectaculars drawn from dubious prehistorical hypotheses, fatuous online conspiracy bumwash, and thoroughly inane drivel fronted by globe-trotting celebrity presenters.

“TV’s relationship with information has taken fact on a lengthy and unusual journey. Documentaries morphed from high-brow historical lecturing into low-brow, pantomime historical re-mixing… And our taste for experts shifted from knowledgeable, respected academics to tit-witted celebrity puppets. And what about those fact-based dramas? Well this traditional sense of reverence soon got pissed through a tinsel coated hosepipe. Where once the Tudors looked like old paintings, TV now portrayed them like the cast of a sex-crazed 16th century take on Hollyoaks. And the news went from a basic, unemotional explanation of the facts to a non-stop entertainment format sold on the basis of its emotive impact.”


9 Replies to “Knowledge”

  1. I concur with Mr. Brooker actually. As much as the BBC, far and away, still delivers very enlightening documentaries (I once watched one on the history of chemistry!), I find that there is now more emphasis on cinematography and glitzy sequences. Just this week, I watched an episode titled, “Beginnings of the Universe” or some title like that. The catch summary said that Brian Cox would reveal science’s best answers to the important questions. Instead, for an hour, he ended up just going around the world to exotic spots and explaining their history (which is all fine, but this was supposed to feature the best scientific work to explain the big questions). He also spent an inordinate amount of time standing in grandiose poses talking about ‘entropy’ and the ‘arrow of time,’ concepts that you could encapsulate in 5 minutes. The rest of the time, I think with his sultry voice and boyish looks, he was basically geek eye candy.

  2. First off, congratulations on being the only person to comment on any of the six episodes of this program that I’ve posted here.

    What delightful commentary, as usual!

    As much as I enjoy Brooker’s scathing diatribes, truth be told, I don’t entirely agree with his narrative. While it’s certainly true that television has spawned immense amounts of total crap masquerading under the guise of informative programming, it’s also given rise to a tremendous number of brilliant documentary series: Nova, the whole oeuvre of Ken Burns, features on The Passionate Eye, all of the programs on American Experience, and so on.

    The difference it seems, certainly from this non-British perspective, comes from the division between commercial and “non-commercial” (aka “public television”). All of the programs Brooker shits on tend to come from the commercial side of the spectrum (e.g., the faux documentaries and supernatural nonsense populating insufferable atrocities like the dubiously named History Channel), whereas the majority of quality programming is predominantly featured on the “public” side of the ledger.

    Sadly, people seem to prefer the crap, so that’s why we’re deluged with so much completely worthless rubbish. A shining example of the “free market of ideas” in action, I guess.

  3. God, documentaries are such crap nowadays. BTW I note with interest the enthusiasm of corporate media for documentaries on pop cosmology and pop biopsychiatry–all such programs with clever insinuation of neoliberal moral fables. e.g. “What the Bleep do We Know?”

    Do people really prefer the crap? A positive-feedback loop develops when mostly crap is on the air. Then people watch crap, which gets ratings, and leads to more crap. Then the MBA-types at the public broadcasters decide “we need to become more relevant,” and thus produce crap of their own. Result: nothing but crap, everywhere, all the time.

    I’m not one of those people who think the internet revolutionizes everything, but nevertheless a better example of a free market of ideas can be seen in Wikipedia. Consider the superb article already written on the recent fighting at Zawiyah in Libya–much more information than is available on any major media organ, more concisely presented, up-to-date, and citing all its sources.

    One problem is that major broadcast and print media are large, capital-intensive, organizations. That limits participation and accountability. Wikipedia has some capital requirements of its own, but they are modest compared to those, say, of a TV network.

  4. First off, congratulations on being the only person to comment on any of the six episodes of this program that I’ve posted here.

    Brilliant! Thank you! I have not prepared a speech to explain my inordinate dedication to following very good British programming ;). My lack of commenting thought on the Brooker pieces– I blame my procrastination. I have kept up with this series, and I have seen it posted on your blog. Nonetheless, I have been meaning to comment on them, but I just would keep forgetting to go back when I would get busy.

    I think his best episode was pertaining to ‘aspirational television.’ There were so many good points he touched on; I actually would go back and play his observations in that episode. His critique on the fact that aspirational television has fueled the nihilistic pursuit of material excess speaks very well today to the generation that is slightly below me (however, I fully recognize i have such people in my midst as well). What made it especially biting was that he pointed just how
    ‘aspirational television’ was able to conflate material pursuit with personal and existential development. This has effectively reduced the human condition to one dimension in which the nobility and mystery of it is completely robbed and stripped. This has, in fact, given to the rise of the “douchebag.” Such a male species tends to measure their superiority or ‘alpha’ by the how big their muscles are and how ‘blinged’ out they can be, flaunting their conspicuous consumption. They, like many others, have this disguised insecurity fueled by aspirational television and will project onto others to validate their nihilistic, consumerist endeavours. If you a need a funny look at such ‘douchebags,” there is an entire site dedicated to comically mocking these individuals. What is even more telling is when the people they mock write in or trollishly swamp the comment boards only to reveal how unlettered and philistine they truly are.

    The difference it seems, certainly from this non-British perspective, comes from the division between commercial and “non-commercial” (aka “public television”)

    That is good point. I tend to underestimate just how good The Passionate Eye truly is. That really should be expanded. If the Beeb can host a myriad of provoking documentaries (even if the vacuous, glitzy ones occur concomitantly), I think it the CBC would do well to really branch out into other areas. David Suzuki is the household name for science related topics, but I think CBC would benefit by featuring well spoken, engaging naturalists. It must be said, though, that the BBC has to balance this with some of their more ‘entertainment’ content like Top Gear , which I find entertaining, but it does not make especially more enlightened about the automotive world. Curiously, the BBC, in this case with this programme, relies a lot on merchandising and other ways of monetizing the series without having to court advertisers. I would suspect that the CBC struggles with trying to keep up ad revenues and will put up kitschy programming and the antics of Don Cherry to match their revenue targets.

    A shining example of the “free market of ideas” in action, I guess.

    I think this is related to what I spoke above. The spectacle of the ‘douchebag’ and by extension, conspicuous consumption has now achieved cultural relevance via shows like The Jersey Shore , which has served to celebrate more that raison d’être than satirize it. I don’t think it is a coincidence that these behaviours and outlooks are being accepted or codified socially because it has now been proven to be successful in gaining wealth and status (that is debatable i know, but I cannot deny that such people to enjoy a greater standard of living no matter how hallow it is). It is completely attuned with ‘rational egoism’ and the belief that the free market is the most efficient determinant of content, regardless of its measure, relative value.

  5. Roland: I concur with your sentiment in some respects, but am reluctant to paint with as broad a brush as you do.

    In answer to your (rhetorical)question “Do people really prefer the crap?” Well, the most popular shows on TV right now are “American Idol” and “The Bachelor”… so, yeah, I guess they do.

  6. I concur with your sentiment in some respects, but am reluctant to paint with as broad a brush as you do.

    Yeah, I will admit, I do get carried away. I should have been a little more guarded. Falling into the trap of conflating patterns with process is a very common thing.

  7. That comment was actually directed at Roland (hadn’t gotten to your comment yet), but it was good of you to make that admission. I know I get carried away sometimes and have to check myself.

    Subject for another post… The Tyranny of “Little Brother”.

  8. JKG: Part of the reason I post them here is just so that I’ll have a hand reference to go back and watch them again, so I’m being completely self-indulgent in that respect, I guess.

    “Aspirational Television” was especially good… if by “good” one means appalling and sickening, which, sadly, describes most of this horrible, unwatchable programming that’s now become pervasive in the television universe. It’s perhaps unsurprising that its growth in popularity just happens to coincide in lockstep with the steady decline in the actual fortunes and social mobility prospects of its audience over the past 30 years (at least according to economic and statistical findings).

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