Natural selections

When it comes to being a host for science programming, you don't necessarily need a long list of letters after your name. But it does take an almost scientific combination of believability, credibility and charisma.
November 1, 2009

Every television host with a modicum of success is skilled at conveying the message of his or her program and having some level of charisma. Science program hosts in particular are a certain breed of people who go the distance with their science know-how and their conviction in the topic at hand. ‘Science communicators’ – from Michio Kaku to David Suzuki and the MythBusters team – must explain complex scientific theories in layman’s terms, and employ the scientific method in an entertaining and accessible manner.


Those who can’t keep a high school science class awake need not apply: the scientific personality of today is unorthodox, passionate and bringing in top ratings. In some cases, the science communicator is already comfortable in front of the camera, while in others, he or she is a star of academia.

Science knowledge and TV charisma are not mutually exclusive, according to Michael Allder, executive producer of The Nature of Things with David Suzuki.

‘Good academics have to engage their students,’ he says. ‘If they’re used to handling a group of unruly students in a lecture room, then handling a camera in a more controlled circumstance would seem to be an attainable target.’

The Science Channel is taking a more proactive approach in turning those science academics into science hosts. Deborah Myers, its EVP and GM, is actively training and grooming people in the sciences in a program that will be announced formally in the months ahead. ‘In a nutshell, what we do is look for people who are in the sciences that have that spark and passion and they go through a whole formalized boot camp,’ she says. The end result will give the Science Channel new experts to either place in existing series or launch series with the network in the future.

The cabler has already used some of its grooming techniques on renowned theoretical physicist Michio Kaku, with whom the network has a multi-year talent and content deal. He has already hosted SCI Q Sundays, a true-science program for the channel, and will be creating a 10-part series out of his bestseller Physics of the Impossible. Debuting in December, Sci-Fi Science: Physics of the Impossible, gives the theoretical physicist plenty of screen time. ‘I think this is the most hosting he’s ever done,’ says Myers. ‘We just keep giving him notes and working with him, getting him comfortable in his role of taking us through the journey of the 10-part series.

‘What I’m thrilled about is the growth, when we look at where we started and where we’re ending up a year later, you just see him grow as a great science communicator. He just keeps getting better and better,’ she enthuses.

The Science Channel has come a long way to the present day, as now a mix of internationally renowned physicists, comedians and celebrities are involved with the programming. When Myers came to the channel a year and a half ago, there was only one personality, Harvard-trained architect Danny Forster, host of Build it Bigger.

The new strategy for the Science Channel’s personalities is three-pronged in its efforts to emphasize that science is ‘so alive and can be personal to people at home,’ Myers explains. The first part is to find the ‘rock stars of science,’ the great communicators who are the scientist’s scientist. The second key strategy is to find the pop culture stars that have a genuine love and previous study of science, engineering or technology, which Myers says requires a little digging. The third approach for the channel is to groom its next wave of science communicators, in the aforementioned boot camps.

Canada’s David Suzuki falls into two categories as a rock star of science and a pop culture star after steering the CBC’s The Nature of Things with David Suzuki for 30 years. The celebrated geneticist has captivated Canadian audiences for three decades on his CBC show by being the real thing, according to Allder.

‘With some television personalities, there’s a measure of artifice there, or a personality that’s been created for the camera,’ he states. ‘David off-camera is exactly the same as David on-camera.’

Suzuki’s other key trait, common in scientific communicators, is the ability to take a complicated concept and translate it into simple terms that the average viewer can understand, Allder says. As well, ‘he is quite fearless in what he is willing to do to prove a point,’ says Allder, which can be linked to Suzuki’s reputation for standing by his convictions.

The belief in ‘keeping it real’ has enthused a new generation of eco-science fans, who show up in droves to any public screening that Suzuki is involved in. ‘Young people like direct speaking and David has always been thanked for his direct speech and conviction,’ says Allder.


But successful science shows aren’t always steered by science stars. Over on Discovery Channel a pair of non-scientists has become ingrained in pop culture after serving up seven seasons of the scientific method applied to busting myths and urban legends. With no formal scientific background, but a healthy background in special effects, Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage, co-hosts of MythBusters, drive the show with their honesty and genuine interest in their experiments.

Dan Tapster, executive producer of MythBusters for Beyond Productions, says that the extremely good working knowledge of practical engineering that Hyneman and Savage each possess, as well as a passion for the subject make the sometimes mind-boggling technicality of some of the experiments fun for audiences.

Hyneman and Savage also have the complicated task of co-hosting the show as a pair. ‘They are ‘Adam and Jamie’ and they do have this very interesting chemistry,’ says Tapster. ‘It’s unique with Jamie being very methodical and Adam being more inspirational and I think people watch it for their working relationship.’

The duo sees its partnership in a slightly different way. ‘The relationship that we’ve built over the years is one based on mutual annoyance and also respect,’ says Savage. ‘We play devil’s advocate together. We’re not friends, we don’t hang out outside the show or commiserate and we have two very different styles of working, which often clash with each other. But what we’ve found is that in having different working styles, we, as Jamie usually describes it, have ‘binocular stereovision’ on any given problem that we have to solve.’

Hyneman seconds that, saying, ‘The result you get at the end is actually greater than the sum of parts from those differences, and Adam and I are living proof of that.’

Their honest answers are indicative of the approach and enthusiasm they also bring to the show, which they maintain creates its appeal for audiences. Hyneman says that seven seasons in, the MythBusters team (which also includes Tory Belleci, Kari Byron and Grant Imahara – Imahara being the only member with formal scientific training via a degree in electrical engineering) is getting more excited about working on episodes, not less.

‘It’s not so much a job where it’s the same old thing [because] we’re not rehearsing or spitting out lines or doing the same old jokes over and over again,’ says Hyneman.

Savage adds, ‘A lot of different shows try to replicate the MythBusters formula and I can smell if the producer has written down the hypothesis or the conclusion and the [host] is just reading it out. That lack of involvement translates to me very clearly. For us, the fact is that the narrative of each show is the narrative of our enthusiasm. It’s by design that we’re still excited.’

Their day jobs have also affected their daily lives, turning them into celebrities of a sort. ‘It’s changed our lives considerably in terms of going out in public,’ muses Hyneman. ‘When the line at the airport for autographs is longer than the line for security, you realize that something has happened.’


Actors who are used to such hoopla have also gotten into the science game, bringing their passions to projects in front of and behind the camera. Alan Alda teamed up with Graham Chedd (producer of PBS’ long-running Scientific American Frontiers, which Alda hosted) on The Human Spark, a three-episode series set to air in January 2010 on PBS, based on the question of what makes humanity unique.

Alda is a longtime science buff who has a unique ability to engage scientists on-camera and have them explain their work in a way that is interesting to non-scientists, says Jared Lipworth, series executive producer and director of science programs at‘s THIRTEEN.

‘He wasn’t brought in to this project to be a celebrity,’ says Lipworth. ‘He has the credibility in terms of his own knowledge and sense of investigation and questioning to belong in the heart of this series and not be plastered on top.’

Having a celebrity does have its perks, in that a recognizable name may draw in more audiences. ‘You’re going to get your crowd who still think of him from M*A*S*H and watch everything that he does because of that, but that’s not going to keep [audiences] there,’ Lipworth maintains.

What the EP hopes will keep audiences tuned into the series is the exploration of the topic at hand – what makes us unique – which also takes an interesting path by involving a wide array of sciences, including primatology, neuroscience, behavioral psychology and philosophy. ‘You get scientists in fields like neurology thinking about things that archeologists have only thought in the past, and vice versa,’ he says.

As well, Alda also shares Suzuki’s penchant for getting his hands dirty to prove a point. In the series, viewers get a peek inside the actor’s brain, who submitted to an MRI for The Human Spark. Alda also goes above and beyond in the outreach component of the series, attending science museums for the educational initiative. ‘It comes down to the difference of a hired gun and someone who’s involved from day one,’ says Lipworth.

Science Channel’s Myers is having success with scientifically-inclined celebrities, such as Whoopi Goldberg, who is executive producing the science trivia show Head Games. ‘Whoopi is very passionate about bringing women and kids into the space of science and [Head Games] is the brainchild of Whoopi and that passion,’ she says.

Science Channel also tapped into Morgan Freeman’s love of science, for an upcoming summer 2010 series called Through the Wormhole. Freeman will host, do the VO and serve as executive producer on the project. ‘He is passionate about the universe, space and exploration, so when we found that out, we worked closely with Morgan and his production company,’ says Myers.

But whether your host is a movie star or a scientific celeb, in either case most agree that the key ingredient in making it work is believability. ‘I think there’s a level of veracity and a level of honesty about the show,’ says MythBusters‘ Savage. ‘You’re not watching what somebody wrote down [for us to do]. We’ve driven it, we’ve located it, we’ve dialed into it and we’re part of the story. We’re not just telling the story.

‘We’re willing to be ourselves, willing to be wrong, willing to be cranky, to be hilarious and have fun with it. I think that’s [what] most people respond to with us.’
Michael Allder, executive producer of The Nature of Things with David Suzuki: ‘It’s that they recognize the value of what they do and that what they’re doing is going to be of inherent interest to someone else.’
Dan Tapster, executive producer, Beyond Productions: ‘They need energy, they need enthusiasm, they need to be able to relate to their audience and they also need an inherent interest in their subject matter. That’s true of all hosts, but [for] a great scientific host, I think the interest in a subject matter gets ratcheted up to being the most important of all the other traits – it’s having that interest that will then be the inspiration to the viewers.’
Jamie Hyneman, co-host of MythBusters: ‘We’re not actors and we’re coming at it basically from our own interests in the subject at hand. We’re believable in that regard.’

About The Author
Managing editor with realscreen publication, an international print and online magazine that covers the non-fiction film and television industries. Darah is an award-winning journalist who has spent over two decades covering a wide range of issues from real estate and urban development to immigration, politics and human rights, primarily with The Vancouver Sun. Prior to joining realscreen, she was editor of Stream Daily, realscreen's sister publication covering the dynamic global digital video industry. She also served a stint as a war reporter in Afghanistan for television and print, and was a national business blogger with Yahoo Canada.