National Geographic Channels at TCA: A Mind-Expanding End to the Summer Tour - Ed Martin
Published: August 6, 2012 at 07:31 AM GMT
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Last Updated: August 6, 2012 at 07:31 AM GMT
By Ed Martin
The final days of the Summer 2012 Television Critics Association Tour were devoted to cable, and as is often the case, some of the presentations did little to interest critics in the programming at hand, while others brought the group surprisingly to life and generated instant enthusiasm for shows that were completely new to them.
The best example of this came on Friday in an extended lunch session with the National Geographic Channels, which was the second to last event of the two-week tour. The three programs showcased were, it seemed, thoughtfully selected as being of potential interest to the group, and the response to them was everything a network hopes that a TCA panel will be. It should be noted here that as critics filed into that room they were tired, anxious to get home and not at all interested in being lectured to or made to suffer through a dull session. Many intended simply to eat and then bolt.
And then something happened that demonstrated the power of an effective, well thought out presentation – and in choosing the right speaker to address a group. In this case, the choice was National Geographic Channels Chairman David Lyle, who could not have sounded less like the dozens of executives the critics had been listening to during the last two weeks. He was full of sincere good cheer and not afraid to poke a little fun at himself, his programming and the press.
"Thank you all for joining us today," Lyle began. "It is wonderful to be with you on this very special day, the final day of the TCA tour. It's Friday. The weekend's almost here. You're able to go home to your towns and villages ravaged by heat waves, fire, whatever, so you won't have to spend any more time in these ballrooms."
After talking about a few projects in development, Lyle turned to the day's presentations. "What you're going to see today is a continuation of our aggressive direction for the channels, and it just might blow your mind. With that said, I want to start with 'Brain Games,' which is designed to blow your mind. It's a new series based on the success of our specials from last year, exploring topics ranging from visual perception to sound, creativity, attractiveness, lying and persuasion -- all the things that people in TV need to know more about. Let's take a look."
Clips from "Brain Games" were shown, followed by a smattering of applause from a few National Geographic employees in the back of the room.
"Thank you," a gracious Lyle said. "That was either applause or two or three people sitting down on vinyl furniture."
Lyle then turned the stage over to three people involved with "Brain Games": Host Jason Silva, who was a noted presenter at this year's TED conference and a self-described futurist and technology optimist; performer and professional trickster Apollo Robbins, who is known as The Gentleman Thief because he tells his targets that he is going to steal things off their person before he actually does so, and executive producer Vin Rubino.
Critics were shown Silva's well-known video "Radical Openness," which apparently was a sensation at TED and has since gone viral and, more importantly, led to career advancement for him.
Rather than simply describe what a typical segment of "Brain Games" might be like, Nat Geo prepared a special video featuring Silva and a number of TCA members attempting a particular brain challenge. It had to do with the way the mind processes visual information and extrapolates meaning. It would be difficult to fully explain here, but the video showed critics reading the words "New York in the the spring" as "New York in the spring."
At this point, Silva and company owned the room. Then it was Robbins' turn to shine. He asked a critic to join him on stage and told him that in two and a half minutes he would be wearing the critic's watch. The critic didn't believe him. Robbins kept his word.
The breezy Q&A that followed could have gone on for an hour or more rather than its allotted 30 minutes. Silva in particular had everyone captivated with some of his remarks, especially about "radical openness." "It's important that we embrace radical openness in the new age of information," Silva said. "We need to create spaces in which ideas can flow freely so that they can evolve and intermingle and it just sort of accelerates our collective psyches."
Or, to put it another way, as Silva did, "radical openness" is about "creating spaces where ideas can have sex and [embracing the] notion of ideas being like orgasms." Actually, he meant to say "organisms," and he did correct himself, but everyone in the room was laughing so loudly they may not all have heard him.
Asked about the impact of texting on the brain, Silva offered the following:
"There's a cyborg anthropologist named Amber Case who refers to texting as technologically mediated telepathy because it allows us to send our thoughts through time and space, which is kind of an unbelievable idea to consider it that way, but it really is. I mean, through these technological tools, we can now send our thoughts brain to brain, transcending the limitations of time, space and distance. That's pretty fascinating."
One critic asked Silva about recent scientific studies that suggest that the use of LSD under a doctor's supervision can be very beneficial to people. Silva, who is big on reference-making, replied, "You know, Tom Robbins, who was writing about psychedelics, said that [drugs] are tools [that can] pull users out of context in such a dramatic manner that it forces them to gawk in amazement at these ubiquitous, everyday wonders they are culturally disposed to ignore. It has to do with de-conditioning your thinking, pulling yourself out of context. That can happen metaphorically, bio-chemically or geographically. Sometimes just taking a trip somewhere physically will make you be more creative and induce free association and divergent thinking. And sometimes it happens psychologically under these supervised, you know, 'tools.'"
A Japanese American critic followed that by revealing that she is bilingual, but when she drinks she loses her English and starts speaking Japanese.
"So do I with enough drink," Lyle added. The critics loved this guy. Many expressed the fervent hope that he will continue to moderate TCA sessions by the National Geographic Channels for many years to come.
Another critic asked Rubino about the mind-numbing effects of sitting in a cubicle all day, as most American workers are made to do, which led to some praise for the stimulating environment at Google.
"We're hoping to shoot at some point in the series at one of the Google offices because it's sort of a modern version of what an office should be in terms of creativity," he said. "There are all sorts of places for games. It's very unstructured, unlike what we are used to, and it's because that's the sort of leading edge of technological thinking. I think they come to work with skateboards. There are animals walking all over the place. It's a very different model than we are used to, and I think that's, sort of, part of what we want to tap into."
Later, Silva introduced us to the term "skin bag," which will likely stick in the critics' collective consciousness. "There are two cognitive philosophers named David Chalmers and Andy Clark who wrote about the 'extended mind' thesis, and they talk about the iPhone as an extension of our cognition. Andy Clark says, 'We need to get over our skin bag bias and see these tools as our extended phenotypes, our outsourced brains.' They are not unnatural. They are a part of who we are because we are of nature, and anything we make is of nature. So we are outsourcing parts of our cognition, parts of our memories to these devices, and in those feedback loops, we become greater than what we were, which I think is a very exciting thing, but a lot of people get really nervous because they fear change."
Anyway, this session accomplished two things: It stimulated TCA members in a way they had not been since certain PBS panels two weeks earlier, and it energized them for the two Nat Geo sessions that followed, one for the National Geographic Channel series "Doomsday Preppers," an already established hit about ordinary people who are busily preparing for cataclysmic events; and one for an upcoming Nat Geo Wild series titled "Animal Intervention," which chronicles the work of animal advocate, actress and filmmaker Alison Eastwood (daughter of Clint) and wildlife expert Donald Schultz as they travel the country doing whatever they can to find healthy living environments for wild animals that are suffering in horrid road-side zoos and private captivity.
If "Brain Games" was the most stimulating panel of the tour, "Animal Intervention" may have been the most important.
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