Does TV Matter?

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I have recently begun working with the good folks at the Sci-Fi channel and last Thursday, the 11th, I had the extraordinary opportunity to live tweet a special event at the Manns Chinese Theater in Hollywood. Topic: the role of television in helping society explore the big issues of the day, as well as the big issues of tomorrow.

One thing that made the event so extraordinary was that it was framed as a panel discussion with stars from the recently concluded Battlestar Galactica (Edward James Olmos, Mary McDonnell), producers of the show (Ronald D. Moore and David Eick), and two representatives from the United Nations dealing with many of the issues in fact human rights, torture, justice that shows like BSG deal with in fiction. But as the UNs Craig Mokhiber told the audience at the Mann last Thursday, Theres not much fiction in Battlestar. (Note: the BSG crew ran a similar panel at the Worlds Science Festival at the 92nd Street Y in New York City.)

What Mokhibar meant, of course, was that the thoughtfulness and rigor that the BSG team applied to the show gave them a command of these issues that was closer to reality than fantasy. He later added: The UN has struggled to deal with these issues. The creative community is better at communicating these themes.

The UNs participation in Hollywood, a repeat performance of an event at UN headquarters earlier in the year, was led by the UNs Department of Public Information. So when Mokhibar spoke about the UNs struggle with these issues, he is mostly talking about the communication challenges. Creatives the folks who were being honored at the Mann event have a special facility for dealing with matters on a level that is more human, accessible and perhaps ultimately more effective than the tools of a public information officer. But what the panel also seemed to be suggesting is that creatives might have a responsibility and role for doing that thing they do at the service of big, important causes. Thats a question that might provoke a negative response not just from the world of policymakers, but from the creative community as well. Theres a simple answer to the question does television matter? (i.e., fiction-based series versus the news) and the answer is that entertainment matters, for all work and no play make us into very dull boys and girls.

But the answer is too facile, and it ignores the role that fantasy, science fiction, and adventure writers actively have taken in exploring big issues. As an erstwhile creative before communications, I ran a professional theater company I have long been cognizant of this tendency among writers, actors and producers. The best dramatic work whether on stage, in film, or TV has always explored the big issues of the day. And the province that Sci-Fi occupies exploring how these issues might play out in the future is special, but only different in kind. At a time when many industry watchers are wondering about the future of TV, the success of BSG to connect with a global audience should provide the industry with the courage necessary to support this kind of work. Its not only the right thing. Theres an audience for it, too.

So, let me ask the question again, does television matter? And if it does, what on the TV matters to you?

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