From the popular dramas of A Country Practice and ER to news and documentaries, health and medical issues have been a longstanding favourite theme on television. Now health websites, online discussion forums, apps and social media compete for viewers’ eyeballs.
Is there room in the crowded space of medical infotainment for another television series? The ABC is betting on it. Ask the Doctor, its new medical television series, launched this week.
The ABC is promoting the series as “an innovative, fun, and exploratory factual series” looking at health and medicine in Australia. Each of the 12 episodes focuses on a specific health or medical problem, including diet, pain, allergies, sexual health and the common cold.
On the basis of the first episode, the series works hard to meet these aims. The talking heads are three young, smiley people: Renee Lim is a general practitioner, Sandro Demaio is a public health expert and Shalin Naik is a medical researcher.
The ‘obesity epidemic’
The first episode tackles Australia’s “obesity epidemic”, a term not everyone is comfortable with. For instance, fat activists (who challenge mainstream views of body size) and many sociologists reject both the terms “obesity” and “epidemic”. They argue these words medicalise fatness and create a moral panic about body size.
Over the past 20 years, Australians have been treated to countless media accounts of obesity. Researchers have criticised much of this coverage for blaming the victims and indulging in fat shaming and stigmatisation. Studies have shown this type of portrayal has a significant impact on the health and well-being of people who are characterised as “obese”, including social discrimination and psychological harm.
Ask the Doctor works to avoid these traps, but only to some extent. The usual shots of unidentified fat people walking around (known as “headless fatties”) or people scoffing junk food are contrasted with muscular young people playing beach volleyball. These images inevitably contrast the “good” fit and active person with the “bad” fat or over-eating person.
But the program includes a public health perspective in emphasising the contribution to body weight statistics of such factors as fast-food advertising to children, poor urban planning (not enough footpaths or open spaces for active leisure) and the prevalence of junk food outlets.
These broader social and political aspects contributing to body weight have often been ignored in television reports on fat bodies. Drawing viewers’ attention to these issues and away from personal responsibility for body weight can help to raise public awareness and reduce discrimination against fat people.
The program also addresses the biological reasons why body fat can be so hard to keep off. As Lim says: “Our hormones make us hungry”.
There’s a fair amount of technical and scientific discussion (for example, of “brown fat” and the role of hormones in regulating hunger) and plenty of shots of white-lab-coated researchers in high tech environments.
The message of how hard it is maintain weight loss is brought home with an interview with Sharon, one of the contestants on The Biggest Loser weight-loss reality show. She lost about 50 kilograms on the program, and three years later, has kept it off. Sharon is presented as one of the tiny minority of people who have managed to sustain major weight loss. The difficulties she copes with every day in keeping up this self-discipline are acknowledged.
The show also emphasises the “health at every size” approach; that good health and physical fitness can be achieved regardless of body weight. The program claims “you don’t have to be stick-thin to be healthy”. Medical research is now supporting this idea. This helps to move away from expecting people to lose unrealistic amounts of weight to instead finding achievable ways to improve their health by eating healthy food and engaging in regular exercise.
The main arguments presented in this episode, therefore, try to avoid the standard portrayals of fat people as lazy, greedy and lacking self-discipline. It is a shame, therefore, the final take-home message is from Sharon. She says people must “work hard, be self-disciplined” to keep the weight off.
The public health perspective and the biological reasons why weight loss is so difficult, which the program has just outlined, suddenly disappear. Instead, there’s this standard individualised message of self-responsibility.
Viewers are left contemplating the rather mixed message the program sends.
Who is the program for?
Some features of the first episode are obviously attempts to attract a younger audience used to finding their health information on Twitter, YouTube or Facebook. For example, the hashtag #Askthedoctor was used on social media to ask members of the public for their opinions. Some of these are subsequently aired on the program.
The program also tries to portray the presenters as fun-loving and quirky. They aren’t afraid to make fun of themselves. As well as being informed about their scientific qualifications, we get to hear about what the three do in their spare time. Renee Lim likes interpretive dance. Shalin Naik is “a bit of nerd” who is “pretty good at karaoke”. Sandro Demaio is a good Italian boy “who loves his mama”.
As well as being youthful, all are from non-Anglo backgrounds, a change from the television doctors that once dominated screens: the likes of Dr Kildare and Marcus Welby. This again suggests the ABC is trying to appeal to a more diverse audience than would usually watch such programs. It is also a welcome contribution to ethnic diversity on Australian television, which Screen Australia shows is lacking.
Based on this first episode, for all its attempts to be entertaining as well as informative, Ask the Doctor generally presents as dull and worthy. It doesn’t really break new ground, and comes across as trying too hard to be cool.
The static delivery by experts is also a problem. Audiences are now accustomed to the 24/7 medical advice offered by Dr Google, and the more entertaining health stories offered by the likes of Buzzfeed and the Embarrassing Bodies television series.
They are also used to being able to create and share health and medical information with each other, rather than simply looking for what the experts have to say.
While the #AsktheDoctor hashtag is a gesture in this direction, it is unlikely to be enough to interest and engage contemporary viewers.