Feb 092009
Charles Darwin.
Image via Wikipedia

It’s refreshing when you see some genuinely good television.

Refreshing, but depressingly rare. Our screens are flooded with vacuous celebrity talent shows and patently unreal reality programmes. Television schedules crossed the  boundary into the banal a long, long time ago, and with the exception of a few pinpoints of light among the shadows of mediocrity, show no sign of returning to a more cerebrally stimulating norm any time soon. Little wonder that the youth of today are eschewing TV and are spending increasing amounts of their leisure time online, interacting with their peers in all sorts of ways.

As I write this, as if to reinforce the point, a mid-morning re-cap of dancing on ice is flickering across the TV screen in the other room. The off switch really is the only escape.

But despite the tidal wave of mediocrity television still has the power to enthrall and inform.

Last night I had the pleasure of watching David Attenborough present an exploration of Charles Darwin‘s tree of life — a look at the celebrated naturalist’s extraordinary journey as he struggled first to unravel the mysteries of natural selection and evolution, and then to prove his controversial theories to a sceptical world.

Attenborough, naturally, was at his seasoned and consummate best: an inimitable presenter who engages and informs with just the right amount of gravitas, but without overshadowing programme content. Who, you wonder, will take up the mantle of television’s most celebrated wildlife presenter when he inevitably hangs up his microphone? Please television gods, let it not be Bill Oddie!

Picture of David taken at :en:ARKive's launch ...
Image via Wikipedia

One by one Attenborough debunked the objections to the theory of evolution raised by Darwin’s contemporaries, drawing on the fossil record, living examples and, ultimately on that incredible molecule that holds the code to all life on earth: DNA, to unequivocally demonstrate the relationship between every living thing on the planet.

He also pointed out one of the fundamental concepts of evolution: that each incremental step along the way represents a clear improvement: a real advantage to survival that results in species with a particular characteristic being more successful than those without it. Natural selection in action.

By that rationale, while the natural world continues to evolve, television programming is doing the exact opposite. Each new programming formula becomes more obtuse than the last, and the occasional bright spots on the television landscape are fewer, and further between. If Attenborough’s programmes represent the pinnacle — the higher primates of television’s evolutionary tree — they’re being crowded to extinction by the televisual equivalent of amoebas.

So what, you might think….

Well, I believe that good television can be a very valuable medium in the mix available to children as they learn and grow. At its best television is amazing; television informs, it educates, it entertains. It can also act as a hub that brings families together in one location to pursue a common activity. Sitting together in the evening watching a wildlife or travel documentary, or perhaps a well produced drama, brings everyone closer together, prompts conversation and helps introduce the children to concepts, ideas and facts that are outside their immediate sphere of experience. That sparks curiosity, which in turn fans the flames of learning.

But as television continues its atrophication — its anti-evolution, if you like — I’ve noticed the girls starting to lose interest. They’re turning instead to older, and increasingly newer media to satisfy their curiosity. That’s fantastic — but they’re individual activities, and miss that element of togetherness we get as a family sitting around the box enjoying a good programme. So come on television people — pull your finger out and start producing more good telly, for goodness sake!

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