Archive for bill nye the science guy

Live Day-to-Day

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reality TV, Reviews, TV channels, TV Culture, TV History, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 25, 2014 by Tom Steward

It’s been a long time since American television was purely live but it’s still an everyday part of broadcasting. Amidst the cycle of breakfast shows, daytime chat shows, primetime entertainment and 24-hour rolling news and shopping, there doesn’t seem to be an hour of the day that there isn’t some kind of live TV on the air. We know from experience that live broadcasting can be one of the most powerful, significant and thrilling forms of TV. Live television has been agent and witness to cataclysmic political changes. It made and then ruined Nixon, and then made and ruined him again. We saw the Republicans’ chances of electoral success in 2012 vanish in real time at the GOP conference as Clint Eastwood decided to go off-script and do X-rated versions of his Bob Newhart and Jimmy Stewart impressions. There are other world and universe-changing events witnessed on live TV I should mention – like 9/11 and the Moon landings – but…dude was talking to a chair! There’s no greater potential for surprise, shock and error in television than in a live broadcast, and that unpredictability carries a nervous energy that is utterly exhilarating. And we get it uncensored and first-hand.

I’m reminding myself of what live TV is capable of because, if the past week is anything to go by, American TV has forgotten. Last Monday morning, news anchors on the local Los Angeles TV station KTLA breakfast show reacted to a mid-size earthquake that happened live-on-air by panicking, shouting ‘Earthquake!’ and diving under a desk until it had subsided. Now, I’m not going to pretend that I would have done anything different in this situation, even if I had been trained to keep going. But is there any point continuing to broadcast live if all we’re going to get is dead air, an empty studio and the terrified ramblings of presenters so shaken up by the event they can offer no meaningful information about it? Anchors on the other affected TV stations may have stayed calmer, but they didn’t do much better reporting the earthquake. Deprived of information, hindsight and proportion, presenters on Fox 5 and CBS 2 were left with the remnants of a child’s vocabulary. It was ‘big’. It was ‘large’. Some over-achiever even called it ‘strong’. They might have learned something about the conditions that Fox News anchors work under every day, but we learnt nothing.

If you wanted to watch the television equivalent of muscle-wastage, then you needn’t have looked further than what CNN put on in relation to the search for missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 last week. Either the ‘Breaking News’ button was being used as a coaster for an unwanted drink for the past week, or the network genuinely thought the FBI acquisition of a flight simulator recording from the pilot’s home was some kind of crucial development in the story. Cue hours and hours of wild speculation about the significance of the simulator’s data, even after repeated protestation from the featured experts that conjectures about the pilot’s role in the hi-jacking could be argued any which way. It took former Boeing engineer Bill Nye the Science Guy, who is used to breaking things down for people with the minds of children, to tell us that the only thing we all could do was to guess. At one point, a pilot sat in a flight simulator and took viewers step-by-step through a scenario that he had entirely invented in his head. Not even the ‘Screen of Souls’ had an answer to free them from their suspended animations in a video monitor bank.

CNN imprisons aviation experts in screen bank until flight is found.

CNN imprisons aviation experts in screen bank until flight is found.

Maybe the problem is that news reporting has too big a burden of information for continuous live coverage to carry. If so, then putting on a 2-hour entertainment programme that’s been on TV for years live should be a doddle, right? Well, not if it’s Dancing with the Stars. ABC’s primetime dance competition returned for a new season last Monday night with a re-booted format. But it was the basics of live television that the show tripped up on. The studio audience couldn’t be subdued for long enough to hear the judges’ notes on the dances. New co-host Erin Andrews comes from live stadium sportscasting and you would expect her to be adept handling live TV in the presence of spectators, but she kept overrunning, miscuing and recoiling from the audience’s spontaneous reactions. When live TV runs up against the clock and threatens to fall apart, we get a certain thrill as viewers. But it’s a fine line that if overstepped results in sheer incomprehensibility. It’s one of the qualities that makes TV so much more special than other forms of entertainment; yet live broadcasting in America is languishing. Abused, misused, and squandered, live TV barely deserves the name anymore.

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TV Blinded Me With Science

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, Reviews, TV advertising, TV channels, TV Culture, TV History, TV in a Word with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 2, 2013 by Tom Steward

As if you needed me to tell you, the finale of Breaking Bad was aired on Sunday night. The build-up to this television event was swathed in publicity and hype and the show has been swaddled in blanket praise for some time now. Cyberspace is awash with bloggers and reviewers telling you what they thought about the finale, and I don’t really have anything to add, except to say that if the best shows have the most unremarkable endings then Breaking Bad is in contention for greatness. It seems everyone-including the show’s creator-is at a loss to explain why Breaking Bad has been so successful, especially as later seasons attempted to alienate viewers with their unremitting darkness. Another recent television event might help us understand.

Ricky Tomlinson in Controversial Last-Minute Casting Change For ‘Breaking Bad’ Finale.

Last week, eponymous host of 90s’ educational children’s TV show Bill Nye The Science Guy (for British readers think a hipster nerd Johnny Ball) survived the first elimination of ABC’s ballroom competition Dancing with the Stars despite a performance roundly panned by the judges, although if they’d changed the style of dance to ‘David Byrne’ it would have been tens all around. Nye was rescued by the popular vote after his Nutty Professor-themed dance to 80s cult movie soundtrack classic ‘Weird Science’ went viral. Despite an injury-enforced exit from the show this week, Nye’s routines remain this season’s hottest properties. The common denominator in these two unlikely successes is science. Is it pure coincidence or serendipitous discovery and are American TV viewers blinded by science?

Bill Nye channelling David Byrne.

It seems bizarre that in a country where the mere mention of healthcare can cause the government to shut down, science is such a popular commodity. Yet again and again American TV shows flashing their scientific credentials like phosphorus in a Bunsen burner are more likely to succeed. For years, House, a medical show about diagnostic research, beat out the competition from doctoperas like Grey’s Anatomy. Regardless of genre, shows slanted towards the scientific are bound to come out on top. CSI, the most popular cop show on TV, is about forensic scientists and recently there’s been a string of TV hits based around specialists consulting on criminal investigations such as Lie to Me and Perception, the latter beginning each week with a neuroscience lecture.

Perception, a class in TV!

It’s true that the conversations you’ll see about Breaking Bad in the press and social media probably won’t mention the show’s scientific content, except perhaps as a joke (‘kids now want to take up chemistry’ etc.) but it can’t simply be ignored either. Chemistry, physics and biology feature most typically as a way for the characters to get out of a corner, so Walt’s knowledge of the dissolving qualities of various acids helps him dispose of a body and a home-made car battery prevents Walt and Jesse dying in the desert. In this sense, science figures in much the same way it did in MacGyver, where the protagonist’s knowledge of physical sciences was a resource for removing jeopardy when only everyday items were at hand.

Breaking MacGyver.

But science in Breaking Bad is not simply a MacGuffin (or ‘Macgyvfin’) but the trigger for the entire programme. In the Pilot episode, Walt reminds us that his cooking of an unusually high-purity meth product, his route into the international drug trade, is just ‘basic chemistry’. It’s his culture’s treatment of scientists that puts him in the dilemma where meth-cooking is a viable option in the first place. While the more business-savvy of his former research colleagues soar to unlimited wealth, the true scientific genius is forced to take a severely underpaid and unfulfilling high school chemistry teaching job which can’t make up the numbers once he needs costly medical treatments. In turn, each character’s fate becomes tied to how much they know about science.

The Science of Good Television

Following a week in which the talk about American TV was centred on two scientists, Walter White and Bill Nye, I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to suggest that there’s some sort of cultural fascination with science at play here. I’m not naïve enough to think that the viewing public is interested in using TV to get a scientific education but they’re certainly fond of watching scientists and having the paraphernalia of science on their screens. Maybe Americans are dying to have educated experts telling them what’s going on, something conspicuously lacking in TV news and reality, or maybe there’s something attractive and compelling about TV scientists that makes people want to follow and support them, regardless of their failures and flaws.

 

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