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Psychic TV

October 21, 2008

I have been asked to co-appear in a 3-part documentary-style show (“organic” was the term they used) on BBC television with British illusionist Derren Brown. The “flexible plot” – as outlined to me by the show’s producer/director Heenan Bhatti – calls for Derren and myself to take to the road in search of mysteries – unsolved murders, missing persons cases and so on – in need of resolution. The idea is that Derren would approach the case from his psychological, “mental magic” perspective, while I would attempt to get to the truth using my psychic profiling skills.
It sounds interesting. It might even work as a regular TV series, if it was handled properly.

However…

I haven’t done any TV for years. It’s not because I wouldn’t like to, or because I’m not asked. It’s because almost every show that’s ever been made on “the paranormal” has been – in my opinion, anyway – complete dross. TV producers seem to “lose the plot” whenever they set out (probably with the best intentions) to make programmes dealing with this subject.  That’s why there’s a message on my website advising media researchers that I’m not interested in taking part in TV programmes unless they are “original and thought-provoking” – which, of course, deters 99% of them, because most psychic-related programmes fall firmly into the “duh!” category.

Even so, I still receive one or two proposals every week, usually from Japanese television companies who seem to be obsessed with the paranormal. (That and bottom-smacking.) Most of the concepts that TV producers “run past” me are mind-bogglingly lame. So I usually refer them to Uri Geller. I did that once when I was asked to co-present a show with Sir David Frost called “Beyond Belief”. I thought the proposed format stank, and that the “psychics” they’d lined up to take part were indeed “beyond belief” (as it turned out I was right on both counts), so I politely declined and said: “Why don’t you get Uri Geller to do it?” If they realized that I was being ironic they didn’t care –  because they did get Geller to do it! (Geller, by the way, threatened to sue me a few years ago for suggesting that he was a fraud.)

There are several problems inherent in making TV programmes about the paranormal. In the UK there is the “balance” issue. This means that producers of programmes on psychic or paranormal topics will come in for a barrage of flak from various TV watchdog groups if they are seen to be “promoting” belief in, or acknowledging the existence of the paranormal (bizarrely, however, they produce religious programmes; so they have no problem with supernatural forces, only with paranormal ones!). In practice, this means that if someone makes a programme which appears to support or confirm the reality of some paranormal event or ability, they must also, in the interest of “balance”, include someone who will set out a counter argument – for example, a magician or professional “debunker” who will make the argument against the reality of the phenomenon in question and demonstrate how it can be replicated using trickery.

Most people are not aware that highly-organized groups of dedicated skeptics target producers of programs on psychic topics with various demands as to how the programme should be made.  In most cases they will insist that a magician representing the skeptical viewpoint – who can “explain” how the phenomena or abilities in question could be attributable to trickery – also take part. Their mission is to attack and undermine any and all claims of psychic abilities (often, unfortunately, by attacking the character of the person making, investigating or reporting these claims). For example, Wikipedia articles on paranormal topics are routinely and systematically trashed by dedicated skeptics if they appear to accept the reality of psychic abilities.

Another problem with television is that it is a medium which relies to a large extent on results on demand. Especially, of course, in a studio setting; and even moreso with a live audience. The viewers (or audience members) want to see something paranormal happen, and they want to see it now. Time is money, and there are deadlines to be met. And psychics – if they are genuine – are rarely able to “perform” at the drop of a hat. Psychic impressions come in their own time; and sometimes they don’t come at all.

TV companies can’t afford to waste time on psychics who can’t produce instantaneous and reliable results; and so they turn to performers who can: which is why most of the psychics you see on TV are frauds – albeit highly entertaining ones.

Another problem with the mainstream media is that psychics are expected to stay “in character” and “on theme” at all times. Or, to put it another way, they are rigidly typecast. Psychics are popularly depicted as detached, unworldly characters, with no interest in or knowledge of subjects like politics, business, science and current affairs – and that’s how TV and radio producers want them to be.

I remember one radio show producer in London went bananas when, in the course of an interview (I had been invited to talk about “anything you like”), I criticized the policies of the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, and made reference to the fact that the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant was pumping 2 million gallons of toxic radioactive waste into the Irish Sea every day, and that there was an abnormally high level of leukemia among children living along the east coast of Ireland. He accused me of “ruining his show” and said, “You’re supposed to talk about ghosts and extrasensory perception, not nuclear bloody waste!”
Politics was a different “slot”.

All of which explains why I am wary of doing television. The box really is a box, and as a psychic you’re expected to fit into it, snugly. But most of the shows on the box – and especially shows dealing with the paranormal – are, in the words of the old Malvina Reynolds song, “all made out of ticky-tacky, and they all look just the same”.

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