‘Stars of Science’ shine brightly in the Arab World: Reality TV with a difference!

Reality TV with a purpose: Stars of Science on Pan Arab TV network
Reality TV with a purpose: Stars of Science on Pan Arab TV network

“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.

Stars of Science rising over the Arab world
Stars of Science rising over the Arab world
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

The other side of Reality TV: When Cicadas kill innocent people…

I have nothing against reality television. It’s a TV programming format that, according to Wikipedia, presents purportedly unscripted dramatic or humorous situations, documents actual events, and features ordinary people instead of professional actors.

In fact, I’ve 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.

But everything has its sane limits — and evidently these were exceeded in the recent controversy involving a British TV production company that stands accused of starting a ‘flu epidemic that left four people from a tribe of isolated Peruvian Indians dead and others seriously ill.

Matt Currington (in photo above, on the right), a London-based documentary maker, has been blamed for triggering a “mini-epidemic” in the village of 250 people which led to the deaths of three children and one adult of the Matsigenka people, who live in the isolated Amazonian Cumerjali area of south-eastern Peru.

The 38-year-old was employed by Cicada Films as researcher when he travelled to the area with a guide last year to scout for locations for the World’s Lost Tribes series, which airs on the Discovery Channel.

Here are some extracts from the story that appeared in The Guardian newspaper in the UK on 27 March 2008, written by its environment correspondent John Vidal:

The regional Indian rights organisation Fenama, government officials and a US anthropologist working in the region said in statements seen by the Guardian that a two-person crew working for London-based Cicada Films had visited groups of isolated Indian communities despite being warned not to. Fenama said the film team travelled far upriver and provoked an epidemic. It accused them of threatening the lives of Indians and called for Cicada Films to be barred from entering the area again.

It is understood the company was scouting for a location to set a TV show for Mark Anstice and Olly Steeds, in which the two British presenters would live with a remote tribe, in exchange for gifts. The company has already filmed episodes in New Guinea.

According to the Peruvian government’s protected areas department, Cicada was given a permit to visit only the community of Yomybato. It expressly prohibited visits to uncontacted or recently contacted Indians. “The Cicada team entered [remote headwaters] which are part of the strictly protected zone,” it said.

Read the full story: British reality TV crew accused as flu kills four in isolated Peruvian tribe

In case you think this is some left-wing or liberal conspiracy, read also The Times London story: TV researcher brought fatal flu to Amazon tribe.

The American anthropologist, Glenn Shepard, who met the film team on location, said he had urged them not to make the trip to the Cumerjali settlements, “where people were vulnerable to western illnesses”. “Reality tv seeks ever more dangerous, remote and exotic locales and communities,” he said.

Stephen Corey of the international tribal rights organization, Survival International, agreed. “There has been a whole rash of bizarre and extreme programmes on tribal rights. The key issue here is sensitivity which is not often a priority for television companies,” he said.

Survival International news: British TV company accused of bringing ‘epidemic’ to isolated Indians

British TV company deny allegations about Peru visit

Image from Survival International Image from Survival International

According to Survival International, Cicada Films previously caused controversy with a documentary about an expedition to visit Indians in Ecuador, which allegedly provoked an attack from uncontacted Waorani Indians.

But Cicada is certainly not alone when it comes to exploiting marginalised people in the global South in the course of film-making. And reality TV is not the only format of TV film making that often oversteps the ethical boundaries in search of a ‘good story’.

As I have been saying for sometime now, documentary film-makers and TV news gathering crews are equally guilty of many excesses, lapses and gross abuses all perpetrated in the name of media freedom.
Aug 2007 blog: Wanted – Ethical sourcing of international TV News

Nor is this sinister trend entirely new. I opened a September 2007 blog post with this bizarre request: “Can you help us to film a child’s leg being broken?” This was made by a visiting Canadian TV crew in the 1970s to my friend Darryl D’Monte, one of the most senior journalists in India and former editor of the Times of India.

This was in connection with a brutal practice that was believed to exist in India, so that forcefully maimed children could be employed as beggars. When Darryl was outraged, the film crew had shrugged off saying: “It’s going to happen anyway”.

December 2007: “Hands up who’s poor, speaks English – and looks good on TV!”

Film-makers and TV journalists roam the planet exercising their license to protect and promote the people’s right to know, and in the public interest. But this privileged position is grossly abused when they allow the end to justify their highly questionable means.

Commenting on TV’s latest crime against voiceless people, India’s Down to Earth magazine (30 April 2008 issue) says:

“These forays of reality tv perpetuate an imagery conceived by a 19th century alliance of anthropologers and photographers, that of tribals in their “innocent” state. It’s another matter these images were taken after the tribal groups were ravaged by colonialism.

“Today in the era of digital images when computer games mimic real wars, it might be hard for even the most naive eye to believe what it sees. But tv casts an enormous sway over audience perception and digitization has, in fact, aided it. We know of the images, not the circumstances in which they were taken. We believe them though they might be contrived. That’s why reality tv is dangerous.”

Read Down to Earth leader: Television has new stars