Fragmentation could damage TV’s educational role, warns Brian Cox

The fragmentation of television could jeopardise the medium’s essential ability to educate its audience, warned broadcaster and scientist Brian Cox, speaking at IBC this morning. 

In a keynote speech titled ‘television’s expanding universe’, Cox said that television was the “most powerful cultural medium” in terms of influence and that broadcasters therefore had a responsibility to introduce its audience to new ideas.

“The fragmentation of television – the idea that you can have hundreds of channels so you can watch exactly what you want to watch – I worry about that, because it seems to me to ghettoise the audience,” said Cox.

“I don’t want a society where if you are 15 years old you can sit in your bedroom and watch the computer games channel 24 hours a day, because I want that 15 year old to be exposed to ideas. Obviously the education system does that, but in the past traditionally television has done that,” he added.

Cox said that the ability for viewers to be able to “stumble across ideas accidentally” should be protected, but said determining how to do so in the future was a social question.

“I challenge the idea that the ultimate goal is choice…It’s about informed choice. Societies function by having people be exposed to ideas and learning,” said Cox.

“Despite what Margaret Thatcher said, there is such a thing as society and we in this industry are one of the most powerful bits of glue that glues it together.”

Asked about the danger of the increasing commercialisation of public service broadcasters and academic institutions, Cox said that though there has been great innovations from the private sector,  there is a “danger” if the only motive for broadcasters is based on return to shareholders.

“If the way you run your university is based on shareholder return then I think you miss a very important point, which is that education and the generation and distribution of knowledge are foundational in societies. You cannot take something so important and leave it entirely to the market.”

Cox added that there was evidence to suggest that the BBC’s year of science in 2010, which it ran to coincide with the 350th anniversary of the Royal Society, played a key role in increasing the number of science, technology, engineering and mathematics applications to UK universities.

“To me it’s obvious – it’s not surprising, because everybody knows that television is the dominant cultural force, it still is,” he said.

Brian Cox’s new series for BBC2, called Human Universe, is due to start broadcasting next month.

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