British Universities Film & Video Council

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Broadcasting Live … From Space

In March 2014 Channel 4 promised to let viewers share live the experience of being an astronaut on the International Space Station. Dr Michael Allen, Birkbeck, University of London, considers the perils and the promise of this claim as the broadcast reaches DVD.

Mike_AllenAbout the Author: Dr Mike Allen is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Film, Media and Cultural Studies at Birkbeck, University of London. He is the author of several books, including Film and Digital Technologies (Polity Press, forthcoming); Live From the Moon: Filming and Televising the Space Race (I.B. Tauris, 2009); Contemporary US Cinema (Longman, 2002); Family Secrets: The Feature Films of D.W. Griffith (BFI , 1999); and the editor of Reading CSI: Crime TV Under the Microscope (I.B. Tauris, 2007).

Live From Space was a three-part series of programmes broadcast on Channel Four in mid-March 2014. Two shorter, thirty-minute, documentaries – on astronaut life and the perils of space travel – preceded the final two-and-a-half hour live presentation, which was broadcast in primetime on Sunday 16 March 2014, during one full ninety-minute orbit of the International Space Station (ISS). This marrying of orbit with programme length was the main programme’s central conceit: we would be experiencing ‘live’, in real time, what it is really like to be an astronaut on the ISS as it orbits Earth.

An easy, but rather unhelpful, answer to the question of who this series of programmes was aimed at would be: all armchair space travellers; i.e., virtually all of us who can never reasonably expect to experience a journey into outer space (Richard Branson’s commercial dreams notwithstanding). A more specific (and hopefully erudite) focus would identify a largely young, largely male demographic: child to young adult, with perhaps an older component (those who might affectionately remember the old Space Race of the 1960s). A ‘typical’ viewer would either be a space geek or reality TV fan. As proof of this hypothesis, the show was not only hosted by Dermot O’Leary, self-confessed space geek and reality TV presenter, but was also promoted ahead of its broadcasts in Channel Four output such as 24 Hours in A&E and The Brit Awards 2014.

… the danger of space travel offers the frisson of imminent appalling incident and the contradictory hope of non-event

There are three major identifying features of space travel that are relevant to the present discussion, and two major problems in trying to show them on television, especially live. The first is that much space activity is, paradoxically (given the great speeds at which spacecraft tend to travel), very slow, very painstaking and, to the layman’s eye, often excruciatingly boring. Even the most exciting of activities, spacewalks, take hours to perform and mostly involved indistinct work by astronauts huddled to the sides of spacecraft; not an instant recipe for exciting television. The appetite now is for more concentrated, dramatic, action.

But not too dramatic. The second feature, the antithesis of the first, is that there is an ever-present, any-second, possibility of catastrophic failure: of the spacecraft; of the spacesuit; of the fragile conditions which allow humans to exist in outer space. This would certain ghoulishly satisfy the action-hungry appetite just alluded to, but in the most appalling way. Memories (for the older members of the audience at least) of the life-and-death race back to Earth of Apollo 13 in 1970, crippled by a massive explosion while on the way to the Moon, or (for the younger viewer) of the mid-air disintegration of the Challenger Space Shuttle during lift-off in January 1986, are still collectively fresh in the mind. The intense danger of space travel on live television offers both the frisson of imminent appalling incident and the contradictory hope of non-event for its audience.

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