May 15th, 2013
We’ve all been raised with the notion of TV as evil, and yet … not only is crime down in our country and violence on the decline worldwide, but now the Breakthrough Institute folks offer up TV as a significant factor in the decline of birth rates in India and thus famine. With so much non-misery in the world, how is anyone supposed to tell a good story?
THIS is exactly the reason I’ve been such a fan of USC’s Hollywood Health and Society project for the past few years. This is what they work towards — effective messaging through mainstream television shows including soap operas (which are believed to have played a significant part in Brazil’s drastic reduction in fertility rate). Rather than ridiculing the medium, they acknowledge it’s power and reach, and try to work within those constraints. Now here’s an article by Martin Lewis of the Breakthrough Institute that concurs with their approach.
THE NON-HUNGER GAMES
For those of us who were kids in the 1960’s, we grew up with the news of world famine as a routine occurrence. When I was five years old over 15 million people died of starvation in China. Which I guess was why all of us were told at the dinner table to eat our food and not waste anything because of, “All the starving children in China.”
Given that today China practically owns us, that concept now is kinda borderline funny.
Famine used to be so prevalent. It’s yet another shifted baseline — so hard to recall those times, and now the bigger problem in many countries is obesity.
The guys at the Breakthrough Institute, led by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, have written yet another excellent essay (I’ve become an increasingly big fan of their writings) which points out, among other things, the non-evil role of television in this transition.
CHANNELING THE BOOB TUBE
Television has always been vilified. I remember my father calling it “the boob tube,” and David Halberstam in his landmark book, “The Powers That Be,” gave the definitive history of it’s decline from the early years of optimism about it’s civic role to the depths of the Beverly Hillbillies and Gilligan’s Island (also known as the golden years to some of us).
But there’s a less obvious and immediate role of television, which is that it both reflects the current state of living as well as potentially sets trends in whatever direction it heads. The good folks at the USC Norman Lear Center for Entertainment Studies realized this more than a decade ago and began a partnership with the Centers of Disease Control to insert their public health messaging into the most widely watched television shows — particularly the narrative fiction shows.
It’s called the Hollywood Health and Society Project, Sandra Buffington has been the Director since its inception, and she gave a great interview to Dave Roberts of Grist in 2011 which he titled (using my father’s favorite term), “How to get the boob tube to tell the truth about climate change.”
MICHAEL CRICHTON WAS RIGHT
At the core of all this is the media world. Which makes me think of one of the most meaningful experiences I had in the making of my movie, “Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy,” in 2007. I traded roughly 40 emails with legendary science fiction author and massive climate/environmental skeptic Michael Crichton over the course of four months.
I gave him a little bit of pushback over the nuttiness of his climate skepticism and his bizarre comparisons of discredited Danish statistician Bjorn Lomborg with Galileo (say whuut?). His “State of Fear” book was terrible (he forced me to read it or end the conversation) and he produced a single photo of a meteorological “station” in a wooden box mounted on a telephone pole next to an incinerator can that might cause it problems, which he felt was sufficient evidence to dismiss all of NASA’s climate data for North America.
But the one very valid point he made is that the media world is driven, not by the truth, but by storytelling. He certainly knew what he was saying with this and in the years since I’ve managed to absorb it more deeply. What he said was the truth. If there is such a thing as the truth. And it’s probably the driving dynamic behind this line in Martin Lewis’s fascinating article.
MARTIN LEWIS: “I find it extraordinary that the massive global drop in human fertility has been so little noticed by the media.”
Declining human fertility doesn’t make for a very interesting story. Not nearly as compelling as “population explosion!”. So, indeed, why should the media be interested?