This week Channel 4 devoted two hours of prime-time programming to the controversially titled ‘Drugs Live’. A quick glance at the TV listings for the programme might have given the impression that it would feature a series of volunteers taking drugs live on air; the trailers which Channel 4 ran for the programme did not completely disabuse potential viewers of this notion either.
In fact the braodcast was a documentary and discussion which focussed on a clinical trial, which took place in July, was officially licensed by the Home Office and which will be submitted to a scientific journal.
However, watching subjects in a brain scanner does not make for riveting television which is an issue for a broadcaster covering a scientific trial in a slot more usually reserved for Shameless and the The Inbetweeners.
When the programme was originally announced last year Channel 4’s Chief Creative Officer, Jay Hunt, described the programme as bringing ‘mischief’ back to the channel. It has originally been hoped to show the drug-taking live although this was vetoed by the Home Office so the live element of the show was a studio discussion hosted by John Snow and Dr Christian Jenssen.
The subsequent programme had the feel of an election night broadcast complete with temperamental microphones and vox-pops.
Laudable though the aims of the clinical trial may have been it was very difficult for viewers to reach informed opinions on rather sophisticated science from watching such a disjointed programme. Proper conclusions will only be reached after the results of the trial are published and peer-reviewed.
In a letter to the Daily Telegraph Professor Les Iversen of Oxford University, chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, questioned the scientific value of the broadcast:
“The dressing up of the Channel 4 project as ‘research’ is flimsy, and there is a danger that such programmes may glamorise drug-taking as a form of entertainment.”
He is quite right: scientific fact and voyeuristic entertainment make uneasy bedfellows. It is to be hoped that the ultimate outcome of this TV first is a greater understanding for brain scientists rather than the damage of vulnerable viewers.