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Not fit for television

January 16th, 2006

Dr Petra

When we turn on the TV and see an ‘expert’, we assume that person is a carefully selected specialist.

But that isn’t how it works.

Frequently TV experts are those who look a certain way, will deliver the message programme makers want, or whose agents have got them included.

But what about those who’re not seen on screen?

A few months ago I was approached to be in a TV documentary. After hearing the topic of their documentary I explained it wasn’t really my area, but I recommended a number of people who’re respected authorities in this area. Unusually within academia they were also happy to talk to the media.

Time went by and I heard no more from the TV company, until last week when they sent me a list of questions to answer and a date for filming.

Then they called me and explained they’d found a number of people but were still seeking more experts to answer some of their questions.

I replied that I still couldn’t really help, but the experts I’d recommended way back when were ideal. Hadn’t they included them?

During our conversation it emerged that those experts I’d recommended (and other contributors to the show had also endorsed) couldn’t be used because:
- one didn’t live or work in London (so the TV company would have to travel to film them)
- two weren’t considered ‘televisual’ (for that read young or attractive)
- and all of them had ‘complex knowledge’ (which I gathered meant they wouldn’t just answer the questions presented to them by the TV company).

I explained I couldn’t be involved if these key experts weren’t included, particularly if the exclusion criteria for expertise included living outside the M25 and being aged over 40.

They tried all ways to persuade me. The producers loved me, I was ‘televisual’ (wow, lucky me), I was ‘accessible’, but most importantly I was ‘local’.

Over and again they said ‘if we can’t get these other experts on board can you do it, because we only need simple ideas to fill our documentary’.

I said ‘no’ because none of this is flattering to my colleagues or me. And it’s unfair to audiences because they’re denied a truly expert or contemporary opinion.

Sometimes we can’t get the best experts on board because they’re not available, or perhaps are media-shy. But on this occasion the right people for the right job were deliberately overlooked. The researcher admitted they knew they were doing this, but said it was ‘just one of those things’.

Next time you watch a documentary or news on TV, remember those experts talking on screen could be there because they’re right for the job. But more likely they’re there because they fit a particular format. Or they’re the kind of person who either doesn’t know or doesn’t care that they’re taking the place of a genuinely experienced and well-recognised colleague. Or they’re just being included because they happen to work near the TV company offices.

It’s ‘just one of those things’.

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