Appreciation of science vital for future

19:04, Oct 23 2012

June 30, 2012, was a sad day in the history of New Zealand broadcasting.

It marked the demise of TV7, the last remnant of informative television in the wreckage that is New Zealand state broadcasting.

We now learn that Television New Zealand's current affairs programme Close Up, already heavy on entertainment and light on information, will trivialise news even further.

Prime-time TV is a parade of broadcasting flim-flam: reality-TV piffery and violent dramas. This abuse of broadcasting time should be of national concern for the following reasons.

The BBC's flagship science programme is called Horizon and has been screening since 1964. Its mission statement is: "To provide a platform from which some of the world's greatest scientists and philosophers can communicate their curiosity, observations and reflections, and infuse into our common knowledge, their changing views of the universe".

No commercial TV station chief would ever utter such words. The irony is that Horizon has attained a level of commercial success that any hard- nosed TV chief could only dream of.


BBC's Horizon is not from the school of "golly gee whiz" science, it is sober, serious and hugely informative. The important point is this: it is truly inspiring and one doesn't have to be a scientist to appreciate it.

As a boy, I watched the show, but understood very little of the science. However, I was profoundly impressed by the distinguished scientists being interviewed each week, talking about their specialist fields.

Recently, an editor of the show related how he had lost count of the number of letters from professors of physics who wanted him to know that it was BBC's Horizon that had first sparked their interest in science.

The show began in 1964, when the BBC decided to throw commercialism out the door and experiment with television in the form of a new channel, BBC2. Because of the licensing fee, the BBC did not have to rely on advertising income.

Sir David Attenborough, the controller from 1965 to 1969, bravely commissioned a "highbrow" 13-part series on the history of art, called Civilization, presented by Sir Kenneth Clark. It was a worldwide success.

This was followed by The Ascent of Man, another 13-part series, this time written and presented by Jacob Bronowski. The programme "traces the development of human society through its understanding of science". Again, this was another stunning international commercial success that made the BBC millions.

When the straight-jacket of commercialism is removed, experimentation and innovation are allowed to blossom.

BBC2 was responsible for bringing many new programme ideas to the screen. One example was, Not the Nine O'Clock News, a comedy presented in the style of the evening news. This was screened at the same time as the very serious main evening news, the Nine O'Clock News, on BBC1.

Not the Nine O'Clock News launched the careers of Rowan Atkinson and New Zealander Pamela Stephenson. At the time, no commercial channel would have anything to do with such a bizarre show with so many unknown comedians. It was phenomenally successful.

The regrettable side of chasing shallow commercialism is that a generation is missing out on the inspiration, wonder and sheer pleasure that a really good and serious science programme such as Horizon can provide.

This is important because the future economic wellbeing of New Zealand depends on science, the trades and engineering.

The days of unskilled workers finding easy employment in New Zealand are disappearing quickly. Unskilled work can be done vastly more cheaply elsewhere.

New Zealand's future lies in computing, computing applications and making things that have function, which the rest of the world wants to buy.

Primary industries have been spectacularly successful for New Zealand, but the meat and dairy industries are not big employers, so we really need other industries.

Generating wealth in this country is extremely important, since wealthy governments have the money to improve healthcare and education, pay pensions and help society's less fortunate citizens.

As Greece is finding out, if the government's coffers are bare, life very quickly becomes desperately miserable.

The aim isn't to turn television viewing into a classroom, but the domination of dramas and reality TV is doing nothing to nurture and grow the nation's latent productive intellect.

TVNZ must become far more innovative, show some metal and inspire us with some serious science programmes, and get our youngsters motivated to do more with their lives than chase an oval ball around a paddock.

Taranaki Daily News