SCIENCE: Producing for a better payday

When it comes to science, it's wise to go big. Big concept, big budget, and you'd better be able to see all that money on the screen. That's what the international market is demanding of science programming. Or is it?
November 1, 2004

When it comes to science, it’s wise to go big. Big concept, big budget, and you’d better be able to see all that money on the screen. That’s what the international market is demanding of science programming. Or is it?

Although some producers, distributors and broadcasters agree, most say the equation is not as simple as big budget equals more profit or more international sales. While it may be true that big budget (i.e., coproduced) science is likely to yield more pre-sales and distributors can charge a premium for it, moderately budgeted, commissioned, multi-part series provide prodcos a reliable source of good business, even if they don’t have distribution potential. Lower-budget science is also less likely to require copro partnerships, making it relatively uncomplicated for the producer.

‘Blue-chip stuff earns more money for us at the end of the day,’ says Stuart Carter, MD of U.K. prodco Pioneer Productions. ‘That’s not to say we don’t do cheaper ones and they don’t sell. Distributors can charge a premium for the higher budget ones, but it’s a complex equation.’

In practical terms, prodcos can’t live on big budget science fare alone. As Tom Brisley, head of factual at Darlow Smithson points out, ‘How many people get higher-budget series away these days? Very few. The majority of science programming is done in the range of £200,000 to £300,000 (US$360,000 to $540,000), and that’s an area where we’ve had a lot of success.’

Brisley uses What We Still Don’t Know, an upcoming 3 x 60-minute series for C4, as an example. Even though it could be classified as hard science and doesn’t boast a bank-breaking budget, Brisley expects it to sell well internationally because it discusses the cosmos, the quintessential universal topic.

Although it’s widely agreed the most valuable science programs tend to be the unique, higher-budget ones, producers working in a mixed economy survive on diversity. Simon Willock, head of factual for Southern Star and Oxford Scientific Films, believes lower-budget multi-part science commissions can be a production company’s bread and butter. ‘We’re wrapping our fourth series of Industrial Revelations for Discovery Europe. It might not have distribution potential, but in terms of turnover for a production company, it’s bricks and mortar.’

Although OSF continues to seek big international coproductions, the company recently hired Paul Sen away from the BBC in order to chase science commissions from the likes of BBC, C4 and WGBH-produced ‘Nova.’ Currently, OSF does two or three small- to medium-budget commissioned series annually, mostly for cable. Overall, the company is targeting to do 40 hours this year, much of it wildlife. Says Willock: ‘To make your production company profitable, you have to maintain a balance of good useful productions that earn you margin in terms of production recovery.’

Richard Life, head of factual coproduction at Channel 4 International, agrees. ‘A commission of 10 or 20 hours, which may not be pioneering, but represents $2 million or $3 million worth of business, is good business for a production company.

From the distribution perspective, Life concedes it’s easier to get international pre-sales in major territories for big budget science that ‘the individual broadcasters wouldn’t be able to afford themselves.’ Yet, he also notes that science, when done as an international copro, can lack originality and usually takes the form of one-, two- or three-parters rather than series, which doesn’t give a producer the same opportunity to take advantage of savings or to spread out costs.

Montreal-based Cineflix has found international success for its science/tech series, The Ultimates. At $200,000 per hour, the series has a home on Discovery Canada, Canal D, Discovery Europe and Five, and has sold well in Germany, New Zealand, Ireland, Asia and Scandinavia.

Quite apart from the narrative-driven science now en vogue, The Ultimates is not heavy on human interest. ‘You’re not expecting it to do huge numbers, because broadcasters aren’t looking for it to sit in peak time,’ says Cineflix International’s MD Paul Heaney. ‘We’re looking to do more of those, because they pay for themselves. Mid-range science and technology are great – they’re not a problem for production or distribution. It’s cable and satellite material, but it’s high enough quality that you could see it on terrestrial TV as well.’

Some of the status awarded big-budget science in the international market can be attributed to the things money can buy that can help spice up the traditional scientific approach. At NHNZ, executive producer Andrew Waterworth says his company has had trouble getting traction on its more traditional science pitches, and has had more success on genre-bending shows like Animal Face Off for Discovery U.S. He classifies the show as blue-chip and high-budget because of the amount of technological wizardry involved. The program, which attempts to predict the results if iconic animals were to fight it out, uses biomechanics and CGI to explore the animals’ strengths and weaknesses.

‘We hired a team of animatronics and fx people who constructed biomechanic jaws, paws and claws for us,’ says Waterworth. ‘We built a 20-foot long, 700-kilo colossal squid and we floated it in a swimming pool, we took it out to sea, we towed it behind a boat, and we looked at its fluid dynamics.’ In addition to the effects team, the program required an 11-week shoot, two enormous sets, and the cost of flying numerous U.S. experts into Auckland, making it easy to see where the money went.

As in any genre, money can’t buy originality or strong storytelling. ‘I’ve been responsible for some of the highest budgets in the industry as well as some of the most modest, and I don’t think it makes a difference in terms of quality,’ says Steve Burns, senior VP and GM of The Science Channel. ‘What matters is the quality of the producers and their ambitions within their budget.’

As an example, Burns cites programs from BBC’s ‘Horizon’ slot, many of which air on The Science Channel. ‘They are not mega-budget,’ he notes, ‘but they are fantastically high quality, and they’ve sold well around the world. It’s the quality of storytelling that sets them apart.’

On the other hand, C4 head of science Simon Andreae cites ‘Horizon’ as the kind of ‘middle ground’ science he steers clear from. ‘The decent, vaguely contemporary science stories dressed up in a movie-style narrative, which rates fine – we don’t do much of that anymore. You don’t win on the innovation front or the audience front.’

While Andreae might not buy into the comfortable format, he concedes that much of his own science programming is done on a moderate budget as well. ‘We buy into two or three big international coproductions a year, but our average contribution to a science show in primetime is between £100,000 and £150,000 ($180,000 and $270,000). At least half of what we do is 100% commissioned, which means we are making 50 to 70 hours of science films which are, by international coproduction standards, very cheap.’

When it comes to profitability, producers are wise to get in on high-budget programs if – and this is a big if – they’re available. The right project could mean good earnings, but the inevitability of coproduction and international distribution makes the process more complicated. A small-to moderate-budget science commission, while it might not be snazzy work, means guaranteed revenue. Smart prodcos are likely to cultivate both ends of the spectrum.

Dumbed-down vs. User-friendly

Science programming for the masses or the massively underestimated?

The hot debate likely to be rekindled at this year’s World Congress of Science Producers is the ongoing argument about whether science is being ‘dumbed-down’ in the name of approachability.

‘The reality is, it’s easy to make something entertaining, but it’s really hard to make something entertaining and intelligent,’ says Sydney Suissa, EVP of content for National Geographic Channels International. ‘We have gone way overboard on the entertainment aspect in science. Do we really need to build a six-storey blender?’

Both Suissa and NHNZ’s Andrew Waterworth point the blame squarely at reality TV. ‘Science has taken a hammering with the success of reality,’ says Waterworth. ‘There’s been a shift from ideas and breakthroughs to people- and personality-driven television.’

From looking at treatments in preparation for WDR’s return to science documentaries after a 10-year absence, culture and science commissioner Daniele Jörg agrees that science is becoming more approachable, but not everyone agrees that this is necessarily a negative trend.

Perhaps surprisingly, given the highly advanced electron microscopy employed to make its science programs (Squatters, The Inner Adventure), producer Pierre-François Gaudry of Mona Lisa Production doesn’t believe his shows are ‘hard science.’ ‘We need to find experts who can speak accessibly about these topics, because this is something the average viewer might not be able to comprehend otherwise,’ he says.

Brisley, of Darlow Smithson, contends that the traditionalists who complain are underestimating approachable science. ‘Often it’s not a case of science being dumbed down, it’s the process of making very, very complex science more user-friendly,’ he says. ‘There’s great skill involved in giving science a mainstream feel, and you have to tailor your programs for the intended market.’

Over at Channel 4, where the ‘Body Shock’ strand includes shows such as The Boy Who Gave Birth to His Twin and The Man Who Ate His Lover, Simon Andreae says the term ‘voyeuristic’ is badly misused. ‘People are glued to having certain visual/ sensory experiences, and their mind is compelling them to watch,’ he says. ‘I think producers who are too ready to decry series like ‘Body Shock,’ because they’re tabloid – I think there’s an unspoken element of envy there.’ MEA

To Mars and then to Mars

One planet, two budgets

Earlier this year, both National Geographic Channels International and Discovery’s The Science Channel aired science programs to coincide with the landing of NASA’s rovers on Mars. Both programs focused on the scientists and featured their emotional turmoil as they waited to see if their intricate technological creations would land safely and function properly. Steve Burns, senior VP and GM of The Science Channel, describes the budget for his Mars Rocks programming as ‘modest’ while Nat Geo’s one-hour Mars: Dead or Alive? (produced by ngci, wgbh’s ‘Nova’ and Mark Davis of mdtv) cost about US$600,000. Not surprisingly, given the investment by the partners, Mars: Dead or Alive? was made available for international sale and sold to France, Germany, Japan, Denmark, Korea, Italy, Sweden, and elsewhere. Mars Rocks was aimed at only the U.S. market.

Both productions benefited from outstanding nasa graphics, which were free to the public. While The Science Channel’s kick-off programming was in production about two and a half months prior to the event, producer/ director Mark Davis was shooting Dead or Alive? for a year beforehand. ‘You get a long-term, over-the-shoulder view of what goes on behind the scenes of the actual creation of the rovers,’ says Madeleine Carter, senior supervising producer for NGCI.

Additionally, the team on Dead or Alive? was able to manipulate NASA’s free graphics and commission graphics of their own. ‘A lower budget is going to mean a lot more emphasis on interviews, because that’s cheaper,’ says Carter. ‘You’re also likely to see more emphasis on free graphics.’ MEA

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.