Reviews TV

The rise of reality science

BMJ 2005; 330 doi: (Published 19 May 2005) Cite this as: BMJ 2005;330:1216
  1. Deborah Cohen, editor, studentBMJ (

    Over the coming year a batch of programmes featuring human experiments will hit television screens across the UK. Best described as a rendezvous between reality television and scientific experimentation, they are set to follow in the footsteps of such controversial programmes as Cheating in Athens (review BMJ 2004;329: 207) and Torture:The Guantanamo Handbook (review BMJ 2005;330: 543).

    Science programmes, just like all other television genres, follow trends. The new formats have come a long way since the highbrow traditional documentaries featuring “talking heads” that, judging by BBC Horizon's message board (, many scientists remember nostalgically.

    While informative, the older formats often had limited appeal and failed to generate a major debate outside a select audience. Hamish Mykura, head of history, science, and religion at the UK's Channel 4, says that the ultimate aim of broadcasting is to reach a broad audience. “What you set out to do is bring people to a programme, who wouldn't normally be interested in that area. It's important to deliver what is often a detailed, complex scientific topic in an interesting way and when television works best, that's exactly what it does. To say that programmes that are entertaining and informative can't communicate credible science is to completely misunderstand the way that television works,” he says.

    A prime example is Jamie's School Dinners (review BMJ 2005;330: 678). Lobbyists and scientists featured …

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