How to Keep Talking about Climate Change with Television?

Elke Weissmann

Many of us probably feel that this is a time of crisis: the cost-of-living, the invasion of Ukraine, and so much more. These crises are real and evident, and also clearly taking place now.

Disasters, catastrophes and crises need to be constructed as events to grab the headlines (see for example Bednarek and Caple, 2017), often with an element of surprise. As the surprise wears off, so does the interest in reporting on it. For stories such as the cost-of-living crisis and the invasion of Ukraine, this is a problem. But now imagine having to report on a crisis that scientist grew increasingly concerned about in the 1950s.

Those of us who follow the headlines know that we have to act now to avoid an even worse ‘climate breakdown’ to use the more recent terminology adopted by researchers. Unfortunately, reporters struggle with keeping the topic in the news due to new and emerging crises that appear more timely than climate change. In addition, ‘Upping the Ante’, that is using more alarmist language such as ‘climate crisis’, ‘climate emergency’ and indeed ‘climate breakdown’ does not seem to help news organisations as they create a perception of sensationalism in the readers and viewers, thus reducing the credibility of the news source (Feldman and Hart, 2021).

Television has therefore attempted to find different means of engaging audiences in the topic of climate change. Fans of David Attenborough documentaries know them to regularly bring up the topic, amongst others by drawing attention to declining habitats. Similarly, Monty Don on Gardeners’ World has emphasised both the effects of climate change (the wetness of winters, for example) and what we can do to work against it (avoid peat compost at all costs, amongst others). Other programmes are yet more didactic: Shop Well for the Planet, a BBC lifestyle programme to coincide with COP26 in 2021, ‘instructed’ families in how they can reduce their carbon footprints, giving audiences lots to emulate.

The question of how to communicate both the urgency of climate action and get more people involved in doing something is also at the heart of an Edge Hill research project collaboration with the University of Liverpool, Love Wavertree and funded by the British Academy. This investigates if local television is effective in communicating local climate action to a greater number of people.

So we are asking the public to help us: What TV programme has helped you to make sense of climate change and inspired you to act?

In order to honour your views and celebrate good practice we are giving this year’s Critical Award in Television to the programme that gets your vote.

To vote for the ‘Programme that engaged audiences with climate change‘, scan this QR code:

Or put 179-128-316 into the Vevox App

Visit the CATs webpage to vote in the other categories: Critical Award in Television

Happy Voting!

Dr Elke Weissmann is a Reader in Film and Television at Edge Hill University. Her research interests focus on television, in particular aspects of transnational and convergent television, and feminism.

Is there Value in Television?

Dr Elke Weissmann

On the 27 September, we celebrated the Critical Awards in Television for the first time. The awards are part of larger attempts by researchers and scholars in television to question what we accept as ‘good’ when we talk about television.

The awards – which are a collaboration between the EHU Television Studies Research Group of the Department of Creative Arts, the Institute for Social Responsibility, Critical Studies in Television, the Production Guild and Love Wavertree – aim to take the debate about ‘quality’ beyond the scholarly community and make the wider audience aware of questions of ‘value’.

What do we value when it comes to television?

We know we should all watch the newest iteration of expensive British or American drama, but we would rather curl up in front of the familiarity of our favourite soap.

We know that the news are good for us because they help us in our political decision making, but when it’s all bad news, some of us would rather turn to the comfort of home and garden making and other ‘lifestyle’ programming.

In the year of Covid, the Awards focused on TV that is often overlooked.

The award for comfort TV was voted on by the public. The winner, was Swan Film and Grayson’s Art Club (Channel 4, since 2020).

Similarly, we felt we should celebrate writing and production designing that cleverly used the restrictions of Covid to enhance its drama. There were only two contenders in the end: Keeping Faith (S4C, BBC, 2017-2021) which used the social distancing measures to really emphasise the emotional distances between the characters and Staged (BBC, 2020-2021) which was all about the pandemic and how it affected the two characters, Michael Sheen and David Tennant, who played themselves.  Here, Infinity Hill won with Staged.

However, this year, we placed the biggest importance on the work of keeping staff and crew safe which is part of the job of the production manager. Production managers are highly skilled and highly creative (as we saw in particular this year), but its not a job that a student dreams of when they think of the glamour of television. This is why we decided to celebrate it twice: by giving an award to those professionals who kept television productions going when everything else stopped, and by celebrating the students who managed to produce work despite restrictions.

The winners for this category were Lime Pictures and Hollyoaks (Channel 4, since 1995) who not only performed regular Covid tests on staff, but also trained actors up to do their own make-up, developed strict non-contact protocols in prop and costume and reduced scenes to as minimal a crew as possible. But we also gave the award to Gardeners’ World (BBC, since 1968) which was similarly creative by involving presenters in filming, getting remote-controlled cameras and asking the public to participate in the creation of the programme.

But it was the students that blew us away with their creativity – making use of the Covid restrictions to come up with compelling television in the form of quiz shows, television drama, documentaries and avant-garde think pieces.

From our shortlist of eleven productions, it was Middlesex University, and Joseph Ferris and Isaac Pimm’s quiz show Percentage that took the winning price. As Lyndsay Duthie, the CEO of the Production Guild and judge of the student production award, put it, this was a highly professional and creative idea, extremely well executed.

Congratulations to all winners – and we will be back next year.

View videos of the awards and winners here.

Dr Elke Weissmann is Reader in Television and Film at Edge Hill University and lead curator of the Critical Television Awards.

Photos: Middlesex University students celebrating. EHU Vice-Chancellor John Cater. Prof Lyndsay Duthie, the Production Guild. Host and Edge Hill alumnus, Philip McGuiness.

The Show Still Went on – Despite the Risk Assessments!

Perelandra Beedles

The spread of COVID-19 (coronavirus) had a profound impact on many industries, and the broadcast sector was no exception. As governments around the world imposed various restrictions to try to limit the further spread of the virus, the impact on film and TV production was immediate.

I followed the progress of the UK broadcast industry closely, as they attempted to meet the requirement for covid health and safety measures. Having worked for decades as a Producer and Production Manager I already knew how inventive and hardworking productions teams can be, but it was still impressive to see just how pioneering television crews became; from filming presenters in their homes, to creating storylines which allowed covid bubbles of crew and cast to be formed; it was an exercise in rapid innovation.

The film and TV Restart Scheme (DCMS/Gov) may have helped productions mitigate against issues in terms of insurance, but it was the clear guidelines created by organisations such as the  British Film Commission (BFC) and PACT which offered vital signposting in the early days of getting production back on track.

It was also the moment for production managers to shine. Already used to delivering a centrally orchestrated approach to behaviours, they quickly ​adapted to new Covid protocols, developing ground-breaking methodologies to do so.​ This work was not only impressive in terms of production craft, but also played a vital role in helping the nation survive the challenges of lockdown. Ensuring the public were still able to access engaging, wonderful shows, even on the darkest of days.

Prior to Covid, the Television Research group at Edge Hill University, had already decided to create the Critical Awards in Television. As we all spent longer amounts of times indoors, the need to celebrate television and all it offered us became ever more important; and so it felt entirely right to create a Covid Health and Safety award.

We have invited production companies to nominate the productions they feel were particularly successful in negotiating health and safety for their productions. Voting is still open and the response to this acknowledgement to the demands created by the new H & S protocols has been truly humbling. Production Managers have spoken of the varied and holistic approaches they had to create, as the boundaries between homelife and the production office were blurred.​

From having to teach presenters and their families to self-shoot from home, to reinventing workflows to allow everything to be shot and edited fully remotely, what is abundantly clear is that the UK television industry is open to learn, able to adapt and will always find a way to keep the nation entertained.

The Critical Awards in Television will be held on 27th September at Wavertree Town Hall. We invite you to join us virtually by registering here.

Perelandra Beedles is a Senior lecturer in Television production Management in the Department of Creative Arts at Edge Hill University. Her research is focused on the impact of production schedules on those with caring responsibilities and sustainable television production.

Image: Screenshot from Staged

It’s Official: It’s Not Television That Makes You Stupid

Dr Elke Weissmann

On Monday, 13 September, The Guardian ran a story with the subtitle ‘TV really does rot your brain’. It was based on research by different American health scientists who looked into the relationship between (self-reported) television consumption and decline in grey matter in later life. The great aspect was that these were long-term studies, often starting as far back as the 1980s. The not so great element was that they focused on self-reported television consumption (seldom, sometimes, often) and very little else. When you read the statement of one of the research leads, Kelley Pettee Gabriel, what becomes evident is that it’s not about watching television but sedentary behaviour which television consumption is assumed to be.

So it’s not television, it’s lack of movement which is the actual problem. You could as well say ‘driving everywhere makes you stupid’. But obviously that is not a headline people would trust. However, a headline works that confirms society’s believes about television, a hugely important medium, but one where the technology is based in the home and has become a ‘home appliance’, which we consume in the private sphere and which women consume more. So why does television remain the bad object?

In my own research from 2012 I highlighted that television in the UK only became ‘good’ in the eyes of critics when it could be masculinised, either by the recourse to an imagined ‘creative genius’ of a showrunner or by connecting it to technology such as the internet and streaming services. What that research also implied is that in the UK (and also in the US) television overall remains connected to the feminine (and the working-class).

The value systems that are applied in order to judge television remain those highly established in our society. Valuable is that which is connected to the masculine, the upper or upper middle-classes and often that which is white (unless it is working class and white). Everything else is just labelled ‘trash’, at best perceived as popular culture, at worst as ‘rotting your brain’.

But television is a medium of incredible innovation and of huge importance in our daily lives. Be honest: how often did you turn to television for information, comfort or both during the pandemic? And what role does television play for you in your daily life? Should we not, because we use it daily, celebrate it more?

Well, that was our thinking when we developed the Critical Awards in Television, an award that aims to celebrate that which is often forgotten or overlooked and which we set up in order to challenge the hierarchies described above. Considering the impact of the pandemic on us all, we decided to focus this year on everything to do with the pandemic.

This meant celebrating writing and production design that managed to use the constraints of the pandemic for creative purposes, celebrating those production managers who are in charge of health and safety who have managed to come up with clever ideas to continue producing the programmes we love, and giving an award to the television programme that gave us most comfort.

The last category (the television programme that gave us most comfort) is decided by you, the public, and you can still vote by putting the number 195-874-377 into the Vevox app (voting closes Monday 20 September 2021).

Dr Elke Weissmann is Reader in Television and Film in the Department of Creative Arts at Edge Hill University. Her research is focused on television, transnational relations, and gender and the media.