Inside science slots

With a limitless world of topics to cover, advances in camera technology and CGI, it's all good news for science slots and channels. A handful of international science programmers and producers break down what they are looking for and the current challenges the genre is facing
November 1, 2008

With a limitless world of topics to cover, advances in camera technology and CGI, it’s all good news for science slots and channels. A handful of international science programmers and producers break down what they are looking for and the current challenges the genre is facing.


Strand: The Nature of Things with David Suzuki – Michael Allder, Executive producer

How many hours of programming do you have?

We have 23 hours at the moment per year. It’s a summer season of 10 and a main season of 13.

Do you do coproductions, acquisitions and commissions?

We do a mixture of internal production, coproduction and some acquisitions – but not many.

What kind of programs are you looking for?

We’re always looking for the strong well-told story. Good access, and we generally need a new perspective on a topic, or new information built around a central narrative, so there’s a chance of an unfolding story.

What is the ballpark figure for your budgets?

There’s a huge range in our budgets, anything from about CDN$350,000 up to $650,000.

Any advice for producers pitching to you?

Pitch to me what you think you most want to do, rather than what you think I want.

What do you think is the greatest challenge facing science programming?

I think to avoid sensationalism, to avoid cliché, to genuinely engage with the viewer, not to dumb down.

What’s the best program that you’ve aired?

Our series Geologic Journey was a huge success both in terms of audience impact, ratings, science center screenings and especially DVD sales. We sold 12,000 sets of the series.

Who are the commissioning editors and how can they be contacted?

They would be Caroline Underwood and F.M. Morrison. [You can contact] Vance Chow, who can forward it to who’s the most appropriate; he’s on our website.


Toshihiro Matsumoto – Chief producer of science programs

How many hours do you have for science each year?

Science programs are being broadcast for an average of seven and a half hours a week with the ground channel.

What genres are you looking for?

We are looking for four genres. The first is exploring a social theme with scientific methods, such as environmental problems or a disaster. The second is natural wonder and scientific fun for a general viewer. The third genre introduces the most advanced science and technical information. The last genre indicates which direction civilized society should advance.

What kind of budget do you have?

The budget of science programming is around 5.6% of total program production cost. The total cost in fiscal year 2008 is 155 billion yen.

What’s the best program you’ve aired?

In the work which I produced, it would be the live broadcast of the total eclipse of the sun from the South Pole and pictures of the moon’s surface and of the earth seen from the moon, captured by Hi-vision camera placed aboard the Kaguya lunar satellite.

What trends are you noticing?

Until recently, elaborate CGI was a main feature of the science program, but it is changing due to the advancement of camera technology. Pursuing the image that no one has seen with the latest movie camera, such as high sensitivity cameras and high speed cameras, has received widespread interest from the viewer.

How can NHK be contacted?

If you need a coproduction with NHK, please contact Sayumi Horie, chief producer of program development center. (


Strand: NOVA – Paula S. Apsell, Senior executive producer

How many hours of programming do you have?

We make 20 new hours of nova every year, plus we make six new hours of NOVA Science Now, a spin-off of NOVA. Generally speaking, we combine those with repeats, and we’re on the air about 48 weeks a year.

Do you do coproductions, acquisitions and commissions?

We do very few acquisitions, every once in a while we’re lucky enough to find a show that we can essentially buy off the shelf. Mostly we do coproductions. It’s a little difficult because it’s really hard to find broadcasters who are interested in programs with the same level of science as we are.

What are your working budgets?

It’s all over the map. There are some shows that are US$250,000 and under, [which are] easier for us to commission than shows that cost more. Certainly our commissions go all the way up and down the scale, from $150,000 to a million. That’s depending upon the content, depending upon the ownership and depending on how much we want them.

What is the greatest challenge facing strong science programming right now?

One challenge is that most broadcasters don’t really believe in it. There is a significant audience out there that wants to know about science but without bridging off into pseudo-science and sensationalism, it’s very hard to get the kinds of eyeballs that most advertisers and broadcasters feel that they need. Another challenge is the expense. Science is told using animation, that of course is very expensive, and so really strong science stories are often very costly to make.

What topics are you not interested in?

We’re not interested in topics that are really pseudo-science posing as science.

What advice do you have for producers pitching to you?

It’s easier if you come to us and you already have some funding. You need to come to us with a subject that has both strong science and a strong story. We’re much less interested in being pitched an idea that is scientifically interesting but you haven’t worked out how to tell the story and vice versa. It’s kind of amazing how some people come with one and not the other.

How can producers send in their pitches?

They should send them to Make them short. All we need is two paragraphs. Tell us what the story is and what the status is. They have to fill out some legal papers and its all on our website. It’s a very simple streamlined procedure and they will get a personal answer.

Science Channel

Deborah Myers, SVP of programming and development for Discovery Emerging Networks

What is your strategy for science?

We cover a wide spectrum of science and go deeper than our sister network Discovery will, but we hope to bring a sense of wit and beauty to that deep information and be creative in how we execute it.

How many hours do you have?

Coming up for next year, I’d say we’re going to do about 400 hours.

Do you do coproductions, acquisitions and commissions? How much of each?

The majority of what we do are commissions, but if somebody brings the right idea to the table, with the right partners around the world, we will do coproductions.

What kind of budgets do you have?

Across the board from commissions to acquisitions, we will run the gamut from us$10,000 an hour to, on the top spectrum of our big beautiful shows, $300,000 an hour.

What sorts of trends are you seeing?

I’m seeing the trend of the passionate communicator. We’re trying to lead that trend, finding scientists from around the world that are like kids in a candy store. When I first came to the network, we had one personality. Now as we go into 2009, we’ve got 12, and we’re not done yet. It takes some digging. You’re not going to go to a casting agent and say ‘Find me that great geologist,’ or ‘Find me that great seismologist.’

What’s your advice for producers?

Really think outside of the box. Science should be alive and full of curiosity. Think through your title, and find three sentences that describe the project really carefully because that’s your hook. If you can say it in the first 30 seconds and get our attention, and explain what the show is and how it’s different, that’s half the battle when it comes to a sale.

What’s the best program you’ve aired?

That’s a tough one because, right now, we’re working on shaking it up. The one I’m most excited about is Brink because it covers the world of innovation in a unique interactive way.

Who are the commissioning editors?

It would be our team of Roger Henry, VP programming and development, Science Channel; Sean McKnight, director of program development, Science Channel; Michael Sorensen, senior manager of development, Discover Emerging Networks; and me.

Is there a contact for pitches?

The Discovery Pitch Portal. They can mark it to the attention of Michael or Sean.

YLE Teema

Riitta Jalonen, Commissioning editor

How many hours does your science slot have?

Five slots, three hours of new programming per week the year around. [The slots are]: science documentaries (60- to 90-minutes, singles or miniseries); health series (30-minutes); technology series (30-minutes); behavioral sciences (30-minutes); and education series (30-minutes). Series can be documentary or investigative.

Do you acquire, commission or coproduce?

We mostly acquire documentaries and series. I also coproduce four to five documentaries and two to three series per year, and commission domestic documentaries and series (35 to 40 domestic programs per year).

What kind of budgets do you have?

Our budgets are small. (Finland has only five million inhabitants.) If you’re in need of decisive funding to realize your project, I’m not the one to be contacted. But YLE has a good reputation for high quality programming and to have YLE as a partner is appreciated by financing foundations.

What’s the best program you’ve seen or aired?

I believe the best ones are yet to come! Of recent programs that we’ve aired I could mention Stephen Fry: the Secret Life of a Manic Depressive and Open University’s Alternative Medicine.

Who are your commissioning editors?

I’m commissioning editor of the thematic culture channel YLE Teema. My colleague Ari Ylä-Anttila has one science documentary slot (acquisitions) and one domestic science magazine on the main channel YLE TV1.

How can you be contacted?

By e-mail. I’m also present yearly at the World Congress of Science and Factual Producers.

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.