“I believe that every TV programme has some educational value. The cathode ray tube – and now the plasma screen – is a window to the world.”
So said Sir Arthur C Clarke, inventor of the communications satellite and one of the greatest science communicators of our time. He knew what he was talking about: he was not only a prolific and well-loved science writer, but also a genial host of popular science programmes on TV that made his a household name (and face) around the world.
I have sometimes wondered if he would still have endorsed the television medium so enthusiastically if he saw some of the reality TV shows that have become a staple of ratings-craving broadcasters in recent years. This obsession with reality TV – which presents purportedly unscripted dramatic or humorous situations, documents actual events, and features ordinary people instead of professional actors – has sometimes appeared like a race to the bottom.
I’m all for trying out new formats, and been telling my friends who are factual film-makers that we can learn a thing or two from the recent successes of some reality TV shows. I’m delighted, therefore, to hear about Stars of Science, a new reality TV show being beamed across the Arab world, where brainy youngsters compete to produce the best invention.
The weekly programme, which started airing on 16 pan Arabic TV channels from end May 2009, differs from existing reality shows: it will not emphasize and showcase the best voices, appearances or dance abilities, and instead seek out the best brains and problem solving skills.
Throughout the five weeks the first series will air, young participants (aged 21 to 30 years) will have the opportunity to develop their inventions from mere ideas on paper to actual products that can be mass produced and sold worldwide. Throughout this processes, cameras follow their every move, capturing their successes – as well as their failures – as they are confronted by the many challenges that come with creating new technologies.
This show has an interactive format. During the final episode, to be broadcast live from Aspire Sports Academy in Doha, Qatar, on 26 June 2009, will have the two finalists given the opportunity to launch their product. Viewers will vote by SMS and telephone to decide the winner of a US$300,000 grand prize.
The programme attracted more than 5,600 applicants from across the Arab world, from among whom 100 were selected to vie for the 16 positions on the air.
The newly inaugurated Science and Technology Park in Doha is hosting the reality show. State of the art workshops, classrooms and lounging areas have been built specifically for the show. The innovative programme is the initiative of Qatar Foundation for Education, Sciences and Community Development, who aim to “endorse a healthy competitive spirit, encourage creativity, team-building and innovative careers amongst the youth in the Arab world.
“The show has deliberately eschewed the cruelty of booting out losing candidates: instead, they are invited to team up with successful competitors,” says British journalist Ruth Sutherland, writing in The Observer, London. “Stars of Science encapsulates the huge faith Qatar puts in research and innovation; the contrast between it and our version of reality TV also says something about the arrogance of assuming western cultural values are automatically superior…”
Added on 27 June 2009: Watch Al Jazeera International’s news story on this series:
TV contest promotes Arab entrepreneurs
Al Jazzera: Audience offer opinions at ‘Stars of Science’ contest