The Final Frontier

Channel 4, U.K.
Since laying 'Equinox' and 'Secrets of the Dead' strands to rest this year, C4 has become interested in a range of science program formats. Explains Simon Andreae, C4's commissioning editor for science and education, 'There are no science strands on the channel at the moment. We are freeing our schedule to be more reactive to science-based events in the news. But, we still have a similar budget. Programming is tending to polarize between fast-turn-around think pieces, low-budget documentaries, and long-format, high-budget science movies.'
October 1, 2002

The Big Bang

Channel 4, U.K.

Since laying ‘Equinox’ and ‘Secrets of the Dead’ strands to rest this year, C4 has become interested in a range of science program formats. Explains Simon Andreae, C4′s commissioning editor for science and education, ‘There are no science strands on the channel at the moment. We are freeing our schedule to be more reactive to science-based events in the news. But, we still have a similar budget. Programming is tending to polarize between fast-turn-around think pieces, low-budget documentaries, and long-format, high-budget science movies.’

Budgets range from £60,000 (US$90,000) for a half-hour to £600,000 ($900,000) for an hour. Last year, programs produced for the science and education department numbered between 175 and 200. Of the pure science programming on the channel, 40% is commissioned, 40% derives from copros and 20% from acquisitions.

The channel’s newfound flexibility in schedule has enabled C4 to pick up more two to four-part series, as well as singles – one-hours, or sometimes 75 or 90-minute films – which air five days a week. But, good programming is still tough to come by. Says Andreae, ‘There has been quite a glut of what I call ‘the three Ms’: mummies, monsters and mysteries.’ C4 is looking for more contemporary subjects. The terrestrial broadcaster is involved with Space Dive, a one-off made by London-based TVF about a 58-year-old daredevil named Michel Fournier, who will jump from a helium balloon at 40,000 meters. Says Andreae, ‘It’s an interesting engineering/ technology/space story with strong human content. I am looking for more stories that combine hard science with strong human content.’

At the higher end of C4′s schedule are long-format films. Touching the Void is a full-length C4 commission based on Joe Simpson’s memoir of a near-fatal climbing accident, from Darlow Smithson Productions in London. Says Andreae, ‘We’re looking for ways to make hard science hugely accessible, so big cgi, big recreations – what you might call ‘science movies’.’

Five, U.K.

According to Justine Kershaw, deputy controller of factual programs at Five (formerly Channel 5), ‘None of our programming is science with a capital ‘S’. The selling point of our programs is the story; we use science to unpack the story.’

The factual department currently runs three science-oriented strands. ‘Extraordinary People’ (eight per year, each 30 minutes) and ‘The Unexplained’ (six per year, each 60 minutes) both look at real stories that seem to defy scientific explanation and then explore the science behind them. ‘Ultimate Machines’ (eight per year, each 60 minutes) is a technology strand. Beyond this, Five is programming six-part series and is interested in narrated two to three-part series.

Of the 50 programs the factual department is currently developing – one third of which are science themed – 49 are copros. Says Kershaw, ‘Thanks to some good copro relationships, total budgets have grown. We contribute about 40% of the budget – £50,000 to £90,000 (US$78,000 to $140,000) for an hour – and get 60% more from copro partners. Total budgets for these programs range from £110,000 to £200,000 ($172,000 to $312,000) an hour.’ Acquisition rates at Five are fixed at £10,000 ($16,000) an hour and presales range from £15,000 to £40,000 ($23,000 to $62,000), depending on the ambition of the program.

Discovery Channel Canada

Discovery Channel Canada has distinguished itself as a serious science programmer. With 240 new hours of science programming per season – 50% of which derive from commissions and international copros involving a Canadian production partner, and around 10% of which derive from acquisitions – Discovery Canada is wide open to indies. Says Jill Offman, director of programming for Discovery Canada, ‘We’re looking for programs wherein science comes organically through the topic, as opposed to a program on the science of ‘X’. Science is a story. There aren’t enough programs that treat science as a story.’

The channel is currently in search of 13 x 1-hour series, but also programs seven 40-week, hour-long strands. Included among these anthologies are: ‘World’s Greatest Mysteries’, which explores unsolved mysteries of the past through the techniques of modern forensic investigation; and ‘Exploration Discovery,’ which travels the world to join up with various experimental expeditions. The channel has up to three hours of high-tech programming on Saturdays, as well as two hours of premium production value science programming on ‘Sunday Showcase’.

For hour-long acquisitions, Discovery Canada pays CDN$2,000 to $10,000 (US$1,300 to $6,500), and covers 15% to 20% of copro budgets. Explains Offman, ‘We want to work with international broadcasters on copros. We also commission a ton of programming. There’s a lot of room on our network, and we’re hungry for great ideas.’ She adds, ‘The trick is applying science to things that people are already curious about.’

Discovery Channel U.S.

Discovery Channel U.S. airs 100 primetime hours of science shows per year, about one quarter of all original programming. Additionally, most of the channel’s big specials revolve around major science expeditions. Science strands include ‘Sci-Trek’ (Monday 9 P.M. to 11 P.M. and Saturday 5 P.M. to 7 P.M.), ‘Science Mysteries,’ (Thursday 8 P.M. to 11 P.M. and Saturday 5 P.M. to 8 P.M.) and ‘Unsolved History’ (Wednesday 9 P.M. to 10 P.M. and Saturday 1 P.M. to 2 P.M.).

Like its counterpart to the north, Discovery U.S. is big on copros: 70% of the channel’s programming derives from coproductions, with commissions ringing in at 25% and acquisitions at around 5%.

Steve Burns, senior VP of production at Discovery U.S., concurs with Offman at Discovery Canada that ‘story is most important.’ He says, ‘Discovery is always looking for innovation in storytelling, scientific development, or technical wizardry.’ The network prides itself on the recent use of CGI in its programs. Says Burns, ‘Discovery has been on the forefront in this area of production.’

The channel’s preferred format is the single-topic, hour-long program. Says Burns, ‘We use the latest developments in science as a starting point to discuss a larger science topic,’ he adds, ‘The opportunity ahead of us now is finding new ways to do popular science topics.’


Approximately 20% of TLC’s primetime schedule is dedicated to science and technology. The primary strand for science programs on the channel is ‘Science Frontiers,’ which runs one hour, twice per week. On Mondays, TLC targets a female demographic, programming a high proportion of medical science and human behavior programs. On Wednesdays, ‘Science Frontiers’ focuses on shows about technology and engineering. ‘It’s scheduled next to Junkyard Wars [on Wednesdays], so that strand calls for a male-skewed approach,’ explains Mary Ellen Iwata, VP of development for TLC. In addition to ‘Science Frontiers,’ TLC sometimes airs big science specials in its Sunday night strand, ‘TLC Presents’.

While these strands generally consist of one-hour one-offs, the channel is open to limited (three to six-hour) series. TLC’s budgets – which range roughly from US$250,000 to $400,000 per hour – have grown slightly, due to an increased use of CGI. Explains Iwata, ‘We’re beginning to see a lot of stories that couldn’t be told before the existence of sophisticated graphics and photography, subjects such as cloning, genetics, viruses and complex technology.’ About 60% of TLC’s programming derives from copros, with 25% originating from commissions, and the remaining 15% from acquisitions.

Although modern technology has enabled producers to get below the surface of science, the most important aspect of a program is still the story, Iwata asserts. ‘It’s tough to find strong, cutting-edge science that has new information and is also highly entertaining. The most important element of science programs remains strong, clear storytelling and human drama.’

National Geographic Channels Int’l & U.S.

Approximately 20% of National Geographic Channels International’s schedule is devoted to science programs. But, as Bryan Smith, executive VP of programming and production at NGCI, says, ‘It depends on your definition of ‘science’. There are science elements weaved throughout all of our programming.’ Current ‘pure science’ programs include Science Times (13 x 60 minutes), a collaborative effort between the Nat Geo Channel and The New York Times; Scientific American Frontiers (29 x 60 minutes); The Human Edge (26 x 30 minutes); and National Geographic’s Hot Science (15 x 60 minutes).

When Smith took over programming and production two years ago, 85% of NGCI’s programming was acquired, and 15% was commissioned. ‘Now we commission about 85% of our programs,’ he says.

National Geographic Television and Film produces most of the channel’s one-off specials, so commissions are focused on original series. According to Smith, budgets range from thousands to millions of dollars, depending on what is required for a particular story.

What remains constant is Nat Geo’s commitment to airing accessible programming. Says Smith, ‘We are always looking for good stories. If a producer comes to me with a proposal on a subject I’ve seen countless times, but the story is good, the narrative is compelling and the characters are interesting, it has a good chance of finding a home with National Geographic.’

Andrew Wilk, executive VP of programming production and news for National Geographic Channel U.S., shares Smith’s interest in the story behind the science. ‘I look for the face on the science. If there isn’t going to be a really compelling character around whom the science revolves, it probably doesn’t work for me,’ says Wilk.

The primary spot for science on the U.S. channel is ‘National Geographic Today,’ a strand that airs every night at 7 P.M. and 10 P.M. through the channel’s news division. The strand is home to 312 hours of programming a year, 35% of which is dedicated to science content. Says Wilk, ‘If it is newsworthy, it will make it onto ‘National Geographic Today’ first, because we’ve made a dedicated effort to air short-form science bits on that show.’

Approximately 25% of new programming on the U.S. channel derives from acquisitions. Nat Geo Channel U.S. is open to coproducing and commissioning hour-long one-offs – it generally covers 30% or more of copro budgets – but is more skeptical about science series, which usually run 13 hours. Says Wilk, ‘Science series are tough, typically, because you have to have a lot of compelling evidence that it’s really going to sustain as a series.’

Stellar Strands

‘Horizon,’ BBC2, U.K.

‘Horizon’, the main strand for science on BBC2, recently underwent some revisions. According to Matthew Barrett, executive producer of ‘Horizon’, ‘There have been two huge changes – one technical, the other stylistic. The technical change is an increased use of CGI, which allows us to take the camera to places we have never seen, be it back in time, into outer space, or inside the human body. The change in style is that we have moved away from the didactic method of giving information to narrative storytelling.’

While the strand’s mandate for science topics is open, ‘a story pitch should hit three criteria: it must be a gripping narrative; the story must have rigorous science at its core and must pivot on scientific revelation; and it must be topical. There must be a strong reason to do it now,’ Barrett explains.

Last season, ‘Horizon’ aired 20 hour-long programs, the majority of which were purchased as one-offs. The strand supports two and three-part mini-series, but they are increasingly rare on the schedule.

At least half of ‘Horizon’ programs are coproduced, acquired or commissioned. The rest are produced in-house. But, says Barrett, ‘the unit has no fixed quotas or limitations on commissions. It simply depends on whether indie proposals offer what we want.’

Too often,’ he continues, ‘we are presented with ideas, which although interesting, appeal solely to the scientific community or to a small group of people affected by a particular issue. The crucial ingredient is a really cracking narrative with enough surprises to last 50 minutes.’

‘Nova,’ PBS, U.S.

‘Nova’ is PBS’s primary science strand and runs 18 new hours per year. From the anthology’s new three-part series, Elegant Universe, which offers an in-depth examination of current research areas in physics, to Lost Roman Treasure, a one-hour copro with France’s Gedeon Programmes and the BBC that follows an archeological expedition to Turkey to restore ancient Roman floor mosaics, ‘Nova’ is home to a wide range of science topics.

Still, all ‘Nova’ programs have something in common. ‘All of our programming has a strong narrative that is moved forward throughout the program by scientific inquiry,’ says Melanie Wallace, senior series producer for ‘Nova’. ‘It is very important for programming to follow the process of understanding – how scientists come to understand what they think they understand – and to engage the viewer in that thought process.’

‘Nova’ once produced 50% of its programming in-house, but now reaches out more often to independent producers for new ideas. Says Wallace, ‘There’s now more outside production, more coproductions and more acquisitions.’ But, she adds, ‘It’s very rare that we can find a finished film on the shelf. Usually, we like to get involved in the idea and production stages.’

Most programs for the strand are one-hour one-offs, but there are exceptions. Evolution, a copro series between Seattle, U.S.-based Vulcan Productions and WGBH, is eight hours. With acquisition fees from US$400,000 to $500,000 per hour, and copro contributions coming in at one third to one half of the total budget, ‘Nova’ offers a lot to the independent science producer.

New York-based PBS station Thirteen/WNET doesn’t have a strand akin to ‘Nova’, but ‘everything on the channel has a science element,’ says WNET’s director of science programs, Beth Hoppe.

By the end of 2003, WNET will wrap an eight-part tech strand called ‘Innovation’, for which commissions are open. Says Hoppe, ‘The big-series concept is going to come from us, but we are actively entertaining proposals on cutting-edge technology stories.’

‘Innovation’ aside, WNET’s science department does 17 to 25 hours of programming per year, usually consisting of three or four mini-series, each three to six one-hours. About 70% of those are coproduced; the remaining 30% are original commissions.

WNET coproduced Secrets of the Dead with Channel 4 in the U.K. ‘Secrets of the Dead is a good example of the kind of programming we’re interested in,’ explains Hoppe. ‘It’s science meets history. We’ve looked at everything from six-million-year-old bones, to what made the Hindenburg crash. I like projects that are cross-genre. I don’t think things need to be traditional – it’s a ‘science’ documentary, it’s a ‘blue-chip natural history’ documentary. I think we are at our creative best when we don’t think that way.’

Specialty Stations

Einstein TV, U.K.

Dr. Toby Murcott, channel editor at Einstein TV, is looking for programming that breaks the mold. Says Murcott, ‘There is still this preconception that science programs have to follow the formula: establish problem, enter hero, solve problem, ride into sunset. This gives a totally false view of what science is and how it is actually conducted.’ The very structure of the channel’s slate – largely consisting of five-minute interstitials – reflects Murcott’s radical programming philosophy.

The all-science digital channel commissions 95% of its programming and will pay £1,250 (US$1,950) a pop for a five-minute film that provides a snapshot of a particular scientist or technologist at work in a research facility or lab. Says Murcott, ‘I want to get inside the researcher’s world. I want viewers to feel they are witnessing what scientists and technologists do on a daily basis.’ The most significant element of the short film is to get a handle on the problem the researchers are tackling. Says Murcott, ‘There has to be a reason to do the research, so let’s see that reason on the screen.’

Tech TV, U.S.

While the word technology tends to conjure images of microchips and computers, the field is not just for tekkies. Tech TV’s colorful programming strands are evidence of that. The Tech Of… (32 x 30-minutes) is a series that goes behind the scenes of modern life to examine what makes things tick. A new 13 x 1-hour (as yet, unnamed) documentary block will explore the history of technology and science, and will take a look forward. According

to Laura Civiello, director of program development at Tech TV, ‘We view technology broadly, as the foundation for the modern world in which we live. We aim to redefine this genre by making it interesting and accessible to a wider audience than the traditional science consumer.’

The 24-hour cable television network is looking for programming that is interesting and informative, as well as entertaining. Says Civiello, ‘Smart TV is really important to us, but being smart doesn’t necessarily mean being complicated.’ The majority of programming on the channel is non-fiction. Approximately 40% of shows derive from acquisitions and commissions, for which fees range from US$40,000 to $60,000 for a half hour. Tech TV is in the market for half-hour series of 13 to 26 episodes, as well as hour-long programs for the new documentary strand. Notes Civiello, ‘Right now, we’re looking at getting volume’.

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.