20 January 2005

The best reality television

I do not watch broadcast television.

That's a statement of fact, not of pride. And it is not even totally factual; while I was in the hotel in Elektrostal, I joined my suitemates in watching an hour or two on some evenings. And if you count a ten-year delay, then I'd have to admit that we watch some broadcast (past tense) TV; our whole family has a ritual of gathering together for DVD recordings of Homicide: Life on the Street.

Sometimes I wonder whether I'm less able to speak about popular culture because I don't normally watch TV broadcasts -- and popular culture is certainly worth observing and speaking about. However, there is one genre I've apparently been preserved from by my TV avoidance, a genre that nobody seems to have anything good to say about, although it is very popular. That notorous genre is "reality TV." Perhaps I'm not entitled to an opinion, not having experienced this phenomenon first-hand. Perhaps I wouldn't have a leg to stand on in criticizing the titillation and voyeurism that is promised by the advertising for those programs, not to mention the shameless exploitation of human weakness for the sake of advertisers who themselves are buying time, arguably, to exploit human weakness. So I will not express myself about these shows.

There is another "reality television" phenomenon that gives me very mixed feelings. The earthquake and tsunami of December 26 was videotaped by several people, whose video recordings are available on the Internet. One particular recording, seen by millions, shows a river of debris and dirty water sweeping through an Indonesian town as horrified residents scramble frantically to save themselves. Nobody sought to exploit the situation in making those original recordings (although a few days later a brisk trade in tsunami DVDs had sprung up), so I felt no guilt in viewing them. They sharpened my awareness and empathy; they helped me ward off the numbness caused by the statistical avalanche, and helped me keep some perspective in view of the indecent rush of political spinners to capitalize on the disaster. However, having seen this footage once, I have no desire to repeat the experience. It is enough to see them again when I close my eyes while listening to the news updates from the disaster relief operations.

Finally, there is a type of reality television that has truly caught me up with its immediacy -- the Internet's streaming-video coverage of major events in space exploration. By itself, space television can't balance out all the vulgarity or all the tragedy of those other forms of reality TV, but it does provide us with opportunities to see huge fortunes, national reputations, even lives hanging in the balance.

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned the Christmas Day coverage of the Progress freight vehicle's docking with the International Space Station. NASA television brought us the view from the cargo ship's docking camera and the audio of the Russian spaceman's communications with his mission control outside Moscow, every exchange revealing the casual professionalism of the participants.

However, for the experience of eavesdropping on genuine, unguarded human emotion, nothing has topped two recent events that were also brought to us on NASA television: the arrival of the two Mars rovers on the Martian surface, and the more recent landing of the European Space Agency's Huygens lander on Saturn's planet-sized moon, Titan. If voyeurism is your thing, how can you beat watching scientists and engineers embracing and weeping with joy as they see the fruit of 25 years of planning, dreaming, overcoming obstacles of technology, politics, funding, and the anxieties evoked by other projects' failures? What more drama can you ask for than watching a room crowded with scientists, administrators, politicians, and millions of dollars of high technology, all straining to catch a tiny peep from a fragile metallic ambassador of questing humanity, arriving at a hitherto unexplored interplanetary destination after seven years of hazardous travel? ... and there it is, that little burst of data that unleashes a pure rush of joy among those dignified and accomplished grownups, right before our very eyes. A few hours later, the very first images from beneath Titan's constant cloud cover were seen by human eyes, including those watching the Internet television coverage.

The first European Space Agency press conference after data was being received from the Huygens lander included remarks from a variety of agency representatives and a German politician. Because of NASA's participation (the lander was carried to Saturn on NASA's Cassini orbiter, which also served as a communication link between the lander and Earth), NASA was represented on that news-conference panel. Al Diaz was so moved by the occasion, he had a hard time getting through his remarks. I felt right with him in that moment of honest emotion. That's reality TV.

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