Science on television in Wales (when did you last see…?)

Angela Graham ponders the non-existence of science on Welsh television when it is plentiful in other media






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“Is there any?” is the response I tend to get when I mention this subject. Indeed it is hard to think of Welsh-produced Science programming over the last twenty-five years which is neither Natural History nor Ecology. When did you last see, not news items, but programmes on ITV Wales, BBC Wales or S4C that dealt with other aspects of science? Medicine gets a look in though usually as part of a sociological package.

Is there no science in Wales? Is that why it doesn’t reach our screens?

Is the audience incapable of understanding science? BBC Wales does provide an excellent weekly radio series, Science Café “exploring the science and technology stories making the headlines, and the latest in Welsh scientific research”. So, clearly, there is science going on and the audience can understand even without pictures to help. Yet there is no televisual equivalent.

Perhaps science just isn’t popular with the audience. Hardly the case, given the success of network shows such as Stargazing Live and Bang Goes The Theory.

It is S4C which last year ended a very lengthy dearth of Welsh-language science programming by screening Corff Cymru , a series that blended archaeology and physiology. A second series is currently shooting, this time about the senses and the brain. This year the channel showed Dibendraw, serious science for an early evening mid-week family viewing slot. That is bravery of the highest degree in telly terms. Yet the series has just been re-commissioned.

Or perhaps the Welsh don’t see themselves as a nation of scientists and therefore don’t mind hardly ever seeing themselves as scientists on TV.

And it isn’t that television is no longer the go-to medium for knowledge about science. An IPSOS Mori poll shows that the public gets the majority of its knowledge about scientific advances from television.

Does the absence of science on Welsh TV matter? An Inquiry report of October 2013 commissioned by the Science Advisory Council for Wales states that the future of STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) in Wales depends on increasing the talent pool which would lead to “new companies, and a strong skills base to attract further STEM employers to Wales”. It calls for “A scientifically engaged and equipped society in Wales so that all citizens can make informed decisions for themselves and their community.”

The report goes on:

“At every meeting of the Science Advisory Council for Wales (SACW) we hear of world-class work going on in industries and universities in Wales. Advances, the Welsh publication which showcases research and developments in science, engineering and technology, is full of success stories, reported in plain English, but the publication is aimed at industry and university staff primarily. This work does not seem to reach the general public through the media. The BBC Radio Wales programme Science Café’ deals with new research in Wales but we are not aware of any television programmes that do so. … We think a greater awareness might boost the future supply of scientists by encouraging interest in science careers and uptake of STEM subjects.”

So is it the fear of a numerically small audience for a ‘regional’ show that puts commissioners off? And to what extent should they shoulder the burden of encouraging interest in science as a career?

The relationship between science and the British public is not static. It reflects ideology as well as influencing it. It is intimately linked to our social experience. The relation between science and the moving image changes too. In film the emphasis early in the last century was on applied science, often with state institutions or commercial enterprises as funders. The Thirties also presented science as the cure for social problems.

The BBC became a major mediator of science to the public. In the fifties the stress was on the benefits of technology and of bringing the viewer ‘into the lab’. The Cold War foregrounded the negative potential of science but also the possibility that technology would revolutionise society for the better. Gradually the idea of Science as a Culture in itself gained ground and, more recently, the notion that science could (should?) be fun. Holding that Culture to account, critiquing it, happens infrequently on contemporary TV.

Timothy Boon, historian of science broadcasting attempts to sum up the current trend,

“The majority of the science television that we have today… either… parallels science by revealing the natural world in quasi-scientific terms or else it represents the technological promise of scientific research. It has neither the focus on the culture of science typical of 1960s television, nor the passionate commitment to social improvement of the social relations of science model, nor yet the sceptical overview of Crucible or Pandora’s Box.”1

It is important that we realise how science is being mediated to us now, in our time. But here, in Wales perhaps we are at a more basic stage, trying to work out what can be expected from the TV service for a nation which is linked to a UK-wide network. Is ITV Wales in this debate, given that it sees itself as already going beyond its obligations in the service it offers? The channel’s CEO, Phil Henfry, in the recent RTS AGM, said that in order to grow ITV’s spend in Wales, “Come with ideas!” and he claimed that there is “an appetite” to make network product.

For BBC Wales maybe the feeling is that the Corporation gives science a good deal on the network where volume of viewers can attract adequate budgets, and that, in an era in which even the Director General acknowledges that English language provision for Wales has suffered an ‘erosion’, the BBC here has enough to do making up lost ground never mind plugging a gap that has spanned a generation already. Or maybe not.

To bring scientists, TV producers and commissioners together to examine aspirations and challenges about science and TV in Wales I’ve initiated an event under the auspices of the Royal Television Society, Cardiff University School of Journalism, Media and Culture and Science Made Simple.

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1. Timothy Boon: Science, Society and Documentary in The Documentary Film Book, 2013 ed. Brian Winston

Angela Graham is a TV producer who teaches documentary-making part-time on the MSc in Science, Media and Communication at Cardiff University. Tonight's event will be held at 7pm at Cardiff University School of Journalism. (http://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/science-on-television-in-wales-tickets-11706328945?aff=efbevent)