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Is TV exploiting academia?

TV used to be considered to be a tool to inform as well as entertain, although it appears to have shifted away from that mission in recent years. And even when it tries, it is a source of controversy – the Society of Authors (SoA) has seen a rise in complaints from members about their work being used in TV shows without credit or payment, and it begs the question of exactly how contemporary TV should deal with academia.

Lyndsy Spence, a historian specialising in the lives of aristocratic women, has described how the makers of Channel 4’s Secret History: Churchill’s Secret Affair asked for her help after discovering her book The Mistress of Mayfair. It looks at the life of socialite Doris Delevingne, and includes passages about her affair with Winston Churchill. The producers reached out to her and asked for her help – feeling that her research would be used anyway, she agreed to help in exchange for thanks in the credits. Modest enough, but there was no credit – the show’s producer later termed it “an oversight”.

Spence noted that she had spent “several hundred pounds” accessing archives for her book, creating a “treasure map” that producers can access. Nicola Solomon, chief executive of the SoA, says there have been complaints ranging from scholars being left out of a programme’s credits, to cases where entire books have been used as the basis for shows. She told the Observer that it is a perennial problem, but that complaints have been becoming more frequent: “Our members really feel they should be asked and remunerated for their time.”

there’s a growing trend in TV documentary series to focus on celebrity hosts, either exclusively or by pairing them up with an academic in order to make the show more accessible

There must be something insulting about being an expert in British royal history, yet finding that the BBC’s choice of a host when discussing the subject is Danny Dyer (who got the job after his appearance on Who Do You Think You Are? turned up a tenuous royal connection). The show was pitched as a way to explore the lives of Dyer’s ancestors, although historical information was a bit thin on the ground. The man is not a natural TV historian – when discussing Eleanor of Aquitaine, he asked “was she a looker?”, and his genius reflection on a longbow: “Long, innit?”

In the rare event that academics are actually allowed to speak, they’re normally banished to late night BBC4

I don’t want to single out Dyer, but there’s a growing trend in TV documentary series to focus on celebrity hosts, either exclusively or by pairing them up with an academic in order to make the show more accessible. There are exceptions, of course – look at professors like Brian Cox or Warwick’s own Michael Scott – but it seems to be that TV executives think a recognisable face is needed to make difficult subjects engaging to the public. In the rare event that academics are actually allowed to speak, they’re normally banished to late night BBC4. There’s a conscious shift away from this too, however – Cassian Harrison, the editor of BBC Four, has said that shows where individual presenters impart their knowledge are too “static” and no longer excite audiences.

Putting academia on television is difficult – by its very nature, it relies on specialised knowledge, rendering the pool of talent able to present it and the likely viewing audience small. However, academics are keen to share their knowledge (why do what they do otherwise?) and Nigel Hetherington, an archaeologist who founded a consultancy representing academics and expert contributors, noted that they are often under pressure to make their work more accessible. Expert knowledge can resonate – look at the iconic 1969 documentary Civilisation, which saw Kenneth Clark discussing the history of Western art, architecture and philosophy since the Dark Ages. It was unashamedly expert, yet reached an unprecedented number of viewers for an art series, and is highly regarded to this day. Academia is certainly not moving to primetime, but that doesn’t mean there is no place for it.

There is room for expert documentary content on TV – Netflix and Amazon are spending big money on it, and hopefully other broadcasters will get behind it too. We have seemingly everything on TV, so why not some well-made, educational programmes which could actually teach us something?

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