NOVA – Celebrating 25 years

'Let both sides seek to invoke the wonders of science instead of its terrors. Together let us explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths and encourage the arts and commerce.' - John F. Kennedy, inaugural address,...
November 1, 1998

‘Let both sides seek to invoke the wonders of science instead of its terrors. Together let us explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths and encourage the arts and commerce.’ – John F. Kennedy, inaugural address, 1961

While JFK’s words considered the hopeful prospects of a modern world, they apply equally to one of the marvels of contemporary television. A production of WGBH’s Science Unit, NOVA is remarkable for a number of reasons. Few American broadcasters have been audacious enough to accept Kennedy’s ideal as a broadcasting standard, and fewer still have succeeded. Beginning its 25th season, NOVA has become the yardstick by which other science programming in the U.S. – and, increasingly, the world – is judged.


In 1970, Michael Ambrosino left his position as a producer at the Boston PBS station for a year-long fellowship at the BBC, and made a revolutionary discovery in the process. Contrary to conventional wisdom in the U.S. at the time, science programming could work on television. It was thriving in the U.K. ‘I saw that the BBC was taking what would normally have been academic subjects,’ he explains, ‘and was making marvelous subjects out of them.’ Inspired by the revelation, Ambrosino wrote a proposal for a science series and sent it to WGBH.

The station asked Ambrosino for a pilot episode, but he refused. The series he had in mind couldn’t be demonstrated in an hour. The first season would be his pilot, and would cover topics as diverse as physiology, politics, natural history, and even how to acquire plutonium for a do-it-yourself nuclear weapon. WGBH accepted the proposal, found a funder in Polaroid, and launched the series in 1974 with a budget of US1.5 million.

Ambrosino had two reasons for wanting to get NOVA off the ground. The first was that he wanted to bring to television the sense of adventure and excitement inherent in the scientific process. The second was to stem the tide of what he considered to be a dangerous trend in public broadcasting. Masterpiece Theatre had made its appearance the year before, and to Ambrosino, it represented a threat.

‘It was very strong in my mind that if we bought cheap plays – beautiful plays, but you could buy a play for forty grand in those days – well, if you could buy them for that, then nobody was going to give you the money [to make them yourself]. If we started extending the Masterpiece Theatre concept throughout public broadcasting, we’d be BBC3.’ Ambrosino felt it was important to begin the production of quality programs domestically, rather than fall into the role of consumer.

NOVA was meant to be an enigma. It was a science series which wasn’t about science. The science provided a framework, but NOVA’s intention was to tell stories. ‘It was a series about how the world works,’ observes Ambrosino. ‘It was stories about the process – how scientists find out about knowledge. The subject of NOVA was never meant to be science. The tool was science.’

The difference, as he sees it, is the difference between lecturing to viewers or enabling them. ‘If you can make me want to go further, if you can empower me to reach into the material, then that’s about all you can do. Television is effective, but it’s an inefficient way of transmitting information. I don’t want to give you information. I want you to become sensitive to the world. To use a quote from my daughter, she says she likes to learn, but she hates to be taught.’

The goal of the series remains: to create an intellectual interaction. The ten or more million viewers NOVA pulls in for every episode are not intended to be passengers, regardless of that night’s theme. ‘I’ve always considered the viewer ignorant, but not stupid,’ says Ambrosino. ‘Part of our job is to tease that ignorance. You plan a good documentary so that several times in that film the viewer is going `Ah ha!’ just before the narrator [explains things].’

Because the goal is the exploration of the process, NOVA can tackle mathematics, genetics and a host of other topics most other shows wouldn’t attempt. Viewers tune in for a story, even if it’s wrapped in the complex mathematics of Fermat’s Last Theorem, as was last seasons’ episode The Proof. ‘The best compliment I ever got,’ recalls Ambrosino, ‘was from a woman who sent in a postcard that said: `I never know what the hell you were coming up with next week.’ To engender a feeling of appreciation is one thing, but to engender a sense of expectation really makes me feel good.’


The current executive producer of NOVA, Paula Apsell, began as a production assistant in 1975. She held that position for five years, before leaving WGBH for the ABC affiliate in Boston. The pull of public television was too strong, however, and she returned to fill the empty executive chair in 1984.

The mentoring process which brought her from P.A. to creative head has become a NOVA hallmark. Says Apsell: ‘Television is a craft, and I think you can be a very clever young person – or old person – but I think you have to learn from the experience of others. We have really put an emphasis on mentoring at NOVA, and we get people in very early in their career so that they can learn our ways. We have a number of people who have a lot of institutional memory, and in a science series, that’s very important. You need to know what programs we did before, and what we said, and who we talked to. It amazes me how often we tap into that memory bank.’

Apsell does not take credit for creating the creative environment at NOVA. Much of that credit she gives to people like WGBH’s VP for national programming, Peter McGhee, whom she refers to as the ‘godfather’ of public television …in a good way. ‘WGBH is a very stimulating, creative environment, where good ideas are absolutely the highest form of currency, and where mistakes are tolerated,’ says Apsell. ‘I think that the most important thing a manager can do is to create a fertile territory where creative people will want to do their best; where they feel good about what they do, and where they feel comfortable enough to take the risks and make the mistakes, because that’s the only way you’re going to get anything really good.’

Giving the staff credit for their creativity is only half the equation. Apsell also extends that courtesy to her viewers. ‘I think people are genuinely interested in science. I think there was an enormous void in American programming. We have the largest scientific research establishment in the world, but there was an assumption that you could not present science in a way that the general audience would be interested in it.’

Science exploration has ‘all the elements of comedy and tragedy and human enterprise,’ explains Apsell. ‘I think that one of the flaws in the way that science is presented is that it is seen as a kind of parcel of breakthroughs.’ It is the drama of discovery and failure which has attracted viewers, and has traditionally made the series popular with corporate sponsors.

But for all their successes, Apsell still finds funding no simple task. ‘The U.S. corporate environment is very volatile. Whereas before, we always had a great deal of stability in our sponsors, that’s just not how it’s going to happen nowadays. Things are too dynamic, too volatile. I think it’s a very tough environment to sell sponsorship. They like us, and they appreciate us, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that public television sponsorship in general fits into their corporate strategy.’

NOVA does enjoy an international appeal, and that translates into added income gained through sales made by WGBH’s recently-formed distribution arm, WGBH International. As well, extra funding is also funneled into the series through the PBS Sponsorship Group, an affiliation of four stations (WGBH, New York’s WNET, Washington’s WETA and KCET in Los Angeles), which actively seeks out new corporate dollars for public programming, and makes sure the NOVA name is front-and-center in the minds of corporate America.

For a budget of only around US$10 million a season, Apsell has some big aspirations for the series. ‘There’s a problem with science education and literacy, and we want to be part of the solution.’


A season at NOVA is comprised of 20 new episodes. Historically, the source for the new shows has been evenly split between original productions, and acquisitions and coproductions, but pure acquisitions are becoming a much rarer commodity now.

For the first few seasons, NOVA relied on picking up completed productions to fill its slate. It was financially impossible for the embryonic series to afford 20 eight-month-long scientific explorations. NOVA forged strong ties to the BBC, and most especially Mothercorp’s Horizon strand, which shared a dramatic scientific vision. Those affiliations have continued until today, but now take the form of coproductions. Straight acquisitions are the exception.

Besides the existence of a mature domestic production community, there are several other reasons for this. More international competition for science docs has meant that there are fewer such programs not tied to broadcasters at their inception. Also, as a result of the demand, the productions which do become available tend to be accompanied by substantial price tags.

Most important of all, however, is the fact that few acquisitions have the feel of a NOVA production. Melanie Wallace, senior producer of coproductions and acquisitions, better explains the shift to original programming. ‘We have to be [hands-on] because we have a series that has a style and a mark. People come to us because they expect certain kinds of things. In the old days, we might take a finished program that was maybe 60% of what we wanted. We would work with the producer and pour money into it and change it. But since we would only be getting North American rights now, it’s not feasible to do that anymore. It makes much more sense to get in early, pay more, but have some editorial say all the way through. Besides that, the producers find that their programs are better.’

NOVA takes North American broadcast, home video, publishing and on-line rights for all the programs they acquire and coproduce. In some cases, when budgets allow it, they will also take international rights.

Even though the series is one of the pinnacle outlets in the genre, many producers are intimidated by this hands-on approach. NOVA is very careful about the accuracy of the science they provide their viewers, and spends months on fact-checking. Wallace says that inaccuracies happen surprisingly often, whether because of time or budget constraints placed on outside producers.

All acquisitions and coproductions are taken apart piece-by-piece and checked for accuracy, and then are reassembled for the American audience. Several films from the 25th season are coproductions with the BBC (Ice Mummies, Terror in Space), and even these are assigned a NOVA editor who will tailor a version for the PBS audience. In some cases, that may involve substantial re-shoots to include U.S.-related material and visuals. The Brain Eaters, which aired two seasons ago, required this level of reconstruction. The episode dealt with the ravages of mad-cow disease in the U.K. Additional footage was required to demonstrate the possible impact of the disease on American public health.

Another problem with the nature of the science NOVA covers is that sometimes it tends to be subjective. Sometimes breakthroughs aren’t breakthroughs at all, and occasionally the science is just plain wrong. The films must reflect this. ‘There’s always room for interpretation. I think the filmmaker has to make it clear that there are different points of view, and that this [story] is one person’s point of view. We try to make sure the research and the individuals get represented in context, and if there is some legitimate criticism, it gets incorporated.’

Variety is also a concern when Wallace considers coproductions and acquisitions. The 25th season will feature shows on space stations, weather, volcanoes, and special effects, among other things. Wallace considers diversity as a key element to keeping NOVA’s viewers satisfied. ‘Every week they know they’re going to get treated to something different, and they know it’s going to be high-quality, and they know it will be right. People are curious about well-told stories about things they don’t know much about.’



NOVA airs nationally, Tuesdays at 8:00 pm

Viewership > approximately ten million per episode

Budget per hour > US$500,000

New Productions per season > 20


NOVA has been producing large format (15 perforation/70mm) films since 1985. The unit was begun by Paula Apsell and executive producer of NOVA large format films, Susanne Simpson. The group’s first effort, To The Limit, was produced with MacGillivray Freeman Films and the Museum Film Network in 1989. The film examined the performance of the human body, and has been seen by 20 million people.

The most recent production, Special Effects, was nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary, short subject, in 1997. Perhaps more importantly, it set a record for an IMAX documentary film release by reaching box office returns of US$28 million in just 18 months.

Upcoming large format releases include: Island of the Sharks, which is scheduled for release April 21, 1999, and Volcano: Lost City of Pompeii, which will be released in Fall, 2000.


David Axelrod of Green Umbrella, on NOVA

Project > Lost at Sea: The Search For Longitude

Credit > NOVA, by David Axelrod Productions for WGBH and BBC, in association with Sveriges Television

Brief Synopsis > The story of eighteenth century clockmaker, John Harrison, whose innovation provided a solution to the problem of finding longitude for ships at sea.

‘I’m amazed that there are so many smart people walking around in one building. They seem to be more open to try stuff than anyone else I’ve worked for. They’ve obviously created a brand name, but you still don’t automatically know what you’re going to see when you turn on NOVA. Sometimes it’s biographical. Sometimes it’s historical. Sometimes it’s mathematical. Sometimes it’s impenetrable. It’s never fallen into a steady routine thing.’

Denise Dilanni, producer, on NOVA

Upcoming Project > Deadly Shadow of Vesuvius

Credit >NOVA, for the WGBH Science Unit

Brief Synopsis > In all probability, Vesuvius will again erupt cataclysmically. The volcano that once destroyed Pompeii now poses a similar threat to Naples and other smaller Italian towns.

‘I think it’s knowing that our job is to discriminate for the audience, in terms of what they need to know, and at what time in the film, and be ready with answers just at the moment people begin to ask questions – not to give them so much up front they can’t make sense out of it… You want people to be left with the ideas and concepts. You don’t need them to be left with all the factoids and figures.’

Susan Kopman-Lewis, producer, on NOVA

Upcoming Project > Ice Mummies – Siberian Ice Maiden

Credit > a BBC/Horizon, NOVA/WGBH coproduction

Brief Synopsis > Found buried with six decorated horses, the immaculately-preserved and ornately tattooed corpse of a 20-something woman from 450 B.C. has made scientists reconsider their impressions of the nomads of the Asian Steppes.

‘We have the trust of the scientific community. People give us access that they might not give to other programs. It kind of snowballs. Because we have high quality programs, we can do stories other people can’t… I think science has a bad rap. People think of science as being something dry, when science is really just knowing the world, and hearing stories about people who are driven to understand things.’

Joseph McMaster, producer, on NOVA

Upcoming Projects > Ice Mummies – Return of the Iceman, Terror in Space

Credit > both BBC/Horizon, NOVA/WGBH coproductions

Brief Synopsis > Iceman: Found in the act of performing daily rituals, he was probably caught by a sudden snowstorm, and has provided a perfectly preserved snapshot of life in pre-history. Terror: Although it has been a triumph of technology, the Russian mir space orbiter is beginning to experience some serious and alarming technical problems.

‘I really think there is an appetite out there for strong stories, compelling visuals and good information. I think people crave information, but today the market is so saturated with information, good and bad. I think people know that they can tune into NOVA for good information.’

Michael Barnes, producer, on NOVA

Upcoming Project > Secrets of the Lost Empires II

Credit > NOVA for WGBH

Brief Synopsis > Secrets looks at five architectural marvels of the ancient world, and attempts to recreate them using only the technology and materials available to the original builders.

‘I think the challenge for NOVA is to continue to be creative and to find fresh ways to get this information across. So far, we’ve been able to meet that challenge, but it remains a constant one. It’s hard to find new ways to make programs, and a lot of fast-cutting and rock music isn’t going to do it.’


As is often the case, sometimes beneath the surface of disaster lurks opportunity. In 1996, NOVA on-line producers joined the IMAX team to cover their attempt at filming an Everest climb. They were relaying updates from the mountain for an on-line adventure when disaster struck the expedition, and eight people lost their lives (as was documented in Jon Krakauer’s book, Into Thin Air). The NOVA site was one of the few with an information pipeline to the mountain, able to provide news services and interested observers with a first-hand look at what was going on. The event solidified the NOVA site in the minds of surfers as the place to be for science info on the web. The film version, Everest: The Death Zone, a scientific examination of what went wrong, followed on the network last year.

On-line offers an opportunity for NOVA to do more. Says Apsell, ‘It’s a way to extend the nova name. It’s a way to expand on what we do, to add educational value to it, and to reach another audience and serve our viewers better.’

It’s impossible to duplicate the feel of live television with contemporary transfer technology, so Apsell takes a different approach when she considers on-line content. She treats the website like a magazine, which can make use of the 90% of researched material that can’t be squeezed into the film. (Stay tuned: NOVA may also be on a magazine stand near you soon…)

Liesl Clark, who wrote, directed and produced the Everest film, and does much of NOVA’s on-line work (webumentaries?) explains their motivation: ‘NOVA wanted to set the standard by creating a website that did these kinds of documentaries, and that had the companion materials that go along with the films… People are always interested in that drive to go to the ends of the Earth, or explore the unexplored. All of that is science. Science is all the exciting stuff that’s happening out there in the world. It’s all the really intriguing stories that you read about in newspapers and magazines, and that you hear about on the news.’

See also:

NOVA Retools Its Image pg. 51

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.