It’s not necessarily a criticism of reality TV to say it had you shouting at the screen. But the target of your ire is supposed to be the foolishness of the participants, not the programme makers.
One of the flagships of BBC Three’s autumn season is Honey, We’re Killing The Kids. In each episode, using ‘state of the art graphics based on detailed scientific research’, parents are shown images of how their ‘couch potato’ children will look at 40, then given ‘golden rules’ to improve their prospects.
Presenter Kris Murrin, one of several well qualified contributors, is a child psychologist, but her onscreen role has more to do with the parents’ psychology. They’re led into a vast white room containing only a giant video screen and Murrin, who whips them into a tearful frenzy of guilt and self-doubt as they ‘come face to face with the consequences of their children’s unhealthy lifestyles’. Unless they change their ways, their kids will end up looking like fatter, greyer versions of their parents, with stereotypical markers of low social class. Apparently poor diet not only makes you ill, it prevents you getting a decent haircut.
Are you feeling sceptical? The parents aren’t, because they’re led to believe that what they’re seeing is scientific, computer-generated, objective. The results of ‘tests’ have been ‘fed into’ the age progression ‘process’. What exactly is this process? A press release mentions ‘the same techniques and technology used by the Missing Persons Helpline’, so I ask the National Missing Persons Helpline about their contribution. ‘We’re not sure that we were actually involved with the programme.’ But it says here…? ‘We’d come across that article ourselves and were a bit confused.’
NMPH does produce age-progressed images of missing people to help identify them, and provides an honest overview on its website, www.missingpersons.co.uk. ‘Age progression artists… use computer software to manipulate and merge features to create an updated image of what the child may look like at an older age… It is important to note that [this] is not an exact image of what the person will look like, but more of a possible likeness.’
Funny, nobody in the programme mentioned anything about artists, or manipulation, or not being exact. And their images don’t merely claim to show ‘a possible likeness’, but to represent the effects of specific nutrition and lifestyle choices. How is this possible? The BBC press office can’t find anyone who knows within the time available, but describes the images as ‘a responsible prediction’. On screen, we do get a brief glimpse of the process in action. Boxes are ticked to assess the kids’ lifestyles. Then computer operators are seen clicking on… hmm. That looks very much like Photoshop.
Well, Photoshop is pretty advanced technology. And that’s not all they’ve used. ‘We worked closely with BBC Broadcast to create morphs,’ explains series producer Robin Ashbrook in the blurb. ‘It’s been amazing what we’ve been able to achieve,’ adds BBC Broadcast’s Steven Aspinall. But the badly tweened morphs seen in the programme are no more amazing than those produced by countless home computer users in the decade since the technique became popular. As for the Photoshop work, if Aspinall checked out the way Steve Caplin aged Prince Charles in his book How to Cheat in Photoshop, he’d be really blown away. And all without the aid of special ‘technology’ that may or may not have anything to do with Missing Persons.
No offence intended to Messrs Ashbrook and Aspinall, who are probably very good at their jobs. The broader question is, what are their jobs? BBC Broadcast is the Beeb’s creative services division, or was until it was sold off a few weeks ago to an Australian bank. (No, that’s not a joke.) Its remit is style, not substance. As well as producing the age-progressed images on which Honey, We’re Killing The Kids rests its credibility, it also created the programme’s logo and incidental graphics. Maybe they were based on the results of extensive tests on the credulity of viewers fed a diet of glossy visuals.
This series is certainly a wake-up call. Once upon a time, the BBC had a mission to explain the real uses of technology, not just use it as a cheap trick to turn factual programming into junk food for the eyes. Perhaps a few execs need to be taken into a white room and shown what their channel could look like in a few years’ time. Honeys, you’re killing TV.
As a home worker, Adam Banks tries not to watch too much daytime TV. This man on Trisha said it was bad for you.