Q: when can a game show be an academic study?

May 10, 2002

Harriet Swain considers the ethics of the increasing involvement of scholars in fly-on-the-wall TV programmes, while Alex Haslam and Steve Reicher argue that any risks are far outweighed by the potential benefits.

Tomorrow will see a new "television event". In Test the Nation: The National IQ Test , the BBC will devote an evening to setting memory, observation, logic and word tests, and collecting and analysing answers from viewers via the internet. Three days later, The Experiment will be televised. It involves analysing the psychological responses of two groups of participants placed respectively in the roles of "guards" and "prisoners".

These are the latest in a series of programmes to rely on some kind of academic input, from psychologists analysing Big Brother or Castaway contestants, through historical consultants on The Edwardian Country House or The 1900 House, to scientists being challenged to make soap on a remote island in Rough Science . Meanwhile, the backbone of the television schedules is now general knowledge. Quizzes such as The Weakest Link and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? have been the big ratings success stories of recent years. Whereas prime-time television audiences were once glued to Gladiators , the muscles they want to see flexed these days are, it seems, mental ones.

Is this something academics should: welcome as a way of promoting their profession and learning in general; reject as an example of dumbing down and exploiting academic expertise; or recognise as a fact of life but treat with caution?

The British Psychological Society has decided to ask its audience. It has set up a working party on the relationship between psychologists, ethics and the media, and it will publish an article in The Psychologist raising some of the issues discussed and asking for responses from BPS members. It then intends to draw up guidelines on how to deal with the new media pressures.

Stephen White, publications and communications manager for the BPS, says:

"The role of academics in television has changed. You used to find the odd programme where an academic would be a consultant, but it is now much more widespread. The idea of every programme having a lot of researchers working on it has changed, and they are using external people more and more."

He says this raises problems about, for example, the amount of editorial input academics have and whether they want their names attached to programmes that they may believe are scientifically incorrect.

David Miller, a member of Stirling University's Media Research Institute and author of a complaint to the BPS about psychologists' involvement in Big Brother , says some kind of action is urgent. He is scathing about academics who take part in "humiliation television". In this month's Psychologist , he writes: "The problem is that commercial priorities (in this case those of the TV and advertising industries) have displaced the scientific pursuit of knowledge, and the psychologists involved are just along for the ride, there being no question that they could stop the Big Brother juggernaut if they thought it damaging to the research subjects/game-show participants."

He is equally dismissive about the idea that the plethora of quiz shows and programmes professing to communicate academic knowledge might reveal an encouraging public interest in intellectual matters. "The quizzes are made ridiculously easy, and in the other programmes they simplify stuff so they can get more viewers," he says. "They don't do it to educate, they do it to make money. If people learn anything about the work, it is very much a byproduct."

Colin Cooper, senior lecturer in psychology at Queen's University, Belfast, who set the IQ tests for Test the Nation and made sure they matched up to standard IQ tests, concedes that the entertainment value of the programme will be far higher than its scientific value. He managed to "sneak in a few things that interested me" - participants will be asked questions designed to explore the link between intelligence and genetics, height and the number of accidents they have had. But any analysis of the answers will be affected by the fact that the programme will not involve a random sample.

Nevertheless, Cooper insists that it is quite different from a quiz show in that it does not entail any factual knowledge and, he believes, this means that people taking part will come out of it with a fairly accurate idea of whether or not they are more intelligent than their next-door neighbour. In addition, it will publicise an area of research that he believes has been neglected.

So do academics become involved in television programmes for: a) research purposes; b) publicity; or c) money?

Mike Bullivant is a course manager in the Open University's chemistry department and a presenter on the BBC2 series Rough Science , which has just returned for another series. For him, the value of publicity is paramount. "One of the primary objectives for me and for the science faculty of the Open University, which funds the series, is to get bums on seats," he says. "It is an attempt to get people interested in science and develop an interest in our courses."

The show cannot push this message too obviously because of television guidelines on product placement. But the OU is confident about getting its messages across because it is in control. The university came up with the idea, the money and some of the staff to make the series, which is part of a move away from esoteric early-morning OU programmes to prime-time slots.

Being in control is the secret to a successful relationship with television, according to Alex Haslam, professor of psychology at Exeter University and one of the academics who set up The Experiment , to be televised on Tuesday. He says that he and Steve Reicher, from St Andrews University, always insisted that it would be a programme about the process of doing the science, and argues that without the financial input from the television company the research would not have been possible. "For a long time we thought we had something interesting to say about this topic," he says. "If you take your role as a scientist seriously, you have a duty to do something about that."

The programme has allowed them to collect reams of data, which they are still analysing and which will, they hope, open issues to broader debate. "It is easy to get idealistic about these things," he says. "There is a responsibility to communicate science in a way that is democratising."

This meant that they had not only to do "good science" but be seen to be doing it, which, Haslam says, was very stressful. It also meant that they had to recognise the particular needs of TV. In some cases, for example, events that were fascinating scientifically had to be left out of the programme because they were uninteresting televisually. "The laws of television do not allow certain things to happen and, at the end of the day, this is not going to be reviewed by scientists but by television critics," he says.

Peter Collett, a former Oxford University psychologist and adviser on Big Brother , says that although the fly-on-the-wall programme did provide material that was interesting scientifically, it was of limited value because psychologists were not in at the design stage and were therefore unable to control how it was collected. "We recognised that entertainment came first and science came second," he says, adding that he anticipates psychologists playing a more prominent role in the design of TV programmes in future.

Haslam draws a strict distinction between his television work and those of psychologists such as Collett on these grounds. He and Reicher were employed as consultants on The Experiment , for which they received a small fee, enough to fund more research. "The primary motivation was always the opportunity to do the science," Haslam says. "If I were on Big Brother , I would want a lot of money because I am not getting anything out of it scientifically."

There is no doubt that in the vogue for brainpower TV, questions of cash are rarely far away - whether it is universities' need for "bums on seats" and the money that comes with them, academics' need to raise money for research or a better lifestyle, TV companies' push for viewing figures and lucrative advertising, or contestants' wishes to use their grey matter to win £1 million. The connection was demonstrated graphically when the government spent £1 million promoting the University for Industry as a sponsor of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? on the grounds that "the show regularly demonstrates to more than 8 million viewers across the country the link between knowledge and the potential for wealth".

Has this interest in knowledge as entertainment made us more intelligent? Perhaps the only answer is to tune in tomorrow and test our collective IQs.
Details: www.bbc.co.uk/testthenation

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