Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The 'Crockumentary' Beat Goes On ..

Today, I visited the PBS website and watched the NOVA program "Oklahoma's Deadliest Tornadoes" (also including the record year of 2011 events), and was prepared for what I saw - another 'crockumentary' - a science program containing very little science, rehashing things that have been presented numerous times in other programs, making annoying technical errors, showing typical disaster porn, offering weepy interviews with tornado survivors, and presenting speculation instead of substance.  They did the very same thing with the very first tornado program NOVA did in 1985. The real science concerning the 20 May 2013 tornado is far from complete, so how can this program be anything more than superficial?  Simple answer:  it can't and it isn't.

Gary England is a TV personality, who recently announced his retirement from weather broadcasting to become an executive.  He is not a scientist, has never contributed a single shred of meaningful science, and has no qualifications to discuss the science of severe storms.  Nevertheless, he is featured on the show, and interviewed (for several sound bites).  Why is he on a science program?  Answer:  it wasn't really a science program!

The scientists they interviewed for the show - Howie Bluestein, Chris Weiss, Tim Marshall - must deal with the inevitable characteristic of crockumentaries:  they're only allowed to answer the questions posed by the program producers (Pioneer Productions - I've had several experiences with them, and they are consistently incompetent at producing substantive science shows).  The scientists sometimes say things for the camera that are really errors or sound stupid, at least in part owing to issues with the interview process.  I've experienced it enough to make me feel less inclined to get upset by the things real scientists say on camera in these crockumentaries.  In any case, those real scientists represent a minority of the content of these programs.  Real scientists never get a chance to tell a coherent story about the science, but are only there for a smattering of sound bites in the midst of a flurry of meaningless unscientific fluff.

Such programs do the public a disservice and the NOVA series in particular should be ashamed of these terrible crockumentaries.  It would be helpful for PBS to develop a real tornado science documentary that told a science-oriented narrative:  the history of the science (how did we get to the present status in the science?), the current consensus about the science, the topics that are being investigated actively at present, the tools that have been and are being used currently to advance the science, the application of the abstract science to the practical world, and so on.  If that were to require more than one NOVA episode, then make longer!

But it seems that even PBS is more about ratings and glitzy flash than real substance.  If they are so evidently disinclined to produce a real science program, then you can only imagine how resistant commercial TV is to scientific substance (e.g., the Discovery Channel).  Some people are inclined to tell me to 'chill out' about this sort of crap.  Why get upset about what is apparently never going to change?  My response is that if you care about the science, then it should be presented properly and substantively, instead of as mere 'entertainment' for the sake of ratings.  I care about getting things right, and I always will.  Anyone who suggests I do otherwise can take their advice and shove it!  You have a right to accept superficial, error-filled content if you wish, but don't ask me to take it!


Rob Hurkes said...

NOVA/PBS "crockumentaries" are the closest things we have to real information on scientific subjects, and inspire millions of children to take an interest in science even if they don't necessarily become scientists. So while you and I might consider them lightweight, I would rather have my daughter watching a NOVA special than Phineas and Ferb or whatever the hell kids are watching these days.

Unfortunately ratings are important to programs like this, because if they don't get ratings, they get pulled in favor of something else that will get the ratings. Start throwing in detailed sections about descending reflectivity cores, cloud top cooling rates, and thermal couplets and you're going to bore the hell out of 99% of the viewing audience.

Chuck Doswell said...


Thanks for your comment. So the only choices TV offers is NOVA or Phineas and Ferb? What a sad comment on the current state of TV. Is that the best we have because of the actual viewing public's position, or is it because of the assumptions ALL the production companies make that their viewing audiences are morons. "Cosmos" is an example of a commercial success that also included good science. It can be done if someone is willing to do it.

Your examples of science content can be presented in such a way that rather less that 99 pereent are bored. You seem to be willing to concede the false assumptions that (a) good science is necessarily boring and (b) that bad science is valuable entertainment. I don't believe either of those assumptions.

Joel Price said...

Well said, Chuck

George Hrabovsky said...

And if I hear the phrase "tornado alley" another time... As if this explains everything. It also gives the impression that tornadoes don't happen anywhere else. "Tornado alley" doing its thing again today... Of course when we have a EF-5 here in WI that is not tornado alley doing its thing... Like supercells are different here than they are there.