You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby

Not so long ago, science shows were relegated to the category of dry and dusty educational fare, partly because the definition of science was so narrow - but not any more....
December 1, 2000

Not so long ago, science shows were relegated to the category of dry and dusty educational fare, partly because the definition of science was so narrow – but not any more.

‘Science used to be defined as biology, physics, etcetera,’ says Stuart Carter, managing director of London-based Pioneer Productions. ‘[But] there has been a major shift – a realization that science affects everything in our lives. Things such as weather are really scientific phenomena or natural phenomena that have a scientific basis or interpretation to them. You wouldn’t call weather a science, but it has become an area of science programming.’

Mary Jane McKinven, director of science, natural history and explorations programming for PBS, agrees. ‘There might be some traditionalists who see science in a fairly narrow way, who talk about pure science or applied science, but I think for the contemporary broadcaster, science may be seen to encompass medicine, technology, and so on.’

According to Andre Barro, VP of international affairs for Montreal-based production company Pixcom, the definition ‘depends on the broadcaster. For an educational broadcaster, it’s more strict, but for others, the entertaining, unsolved part is more prominent.’

This shift in perception has been a boon to producers and broadcasters, widening the scope and demand for science programs. Says Barro, ‘Before the specialty channels, there weren’t very many science shows, perhaps one program per week per channel – some channels didn’t even have any – and it was mainly called educational. The definition is more open today.’ Carter adds, ‘I think science used to be seen as a very academic part of TV, but now it’s a big area of primetime. A lot of things are described as science which are really only on the edge of science, but that suits us well and obviously provides for entertaining programming.’

At Pioneer, projects range from ‘soft’ to ‘hard’ science. On the hard end, there’s Universe, a 4 x 1 hour copro for TLC and Channel 4 in the U.K. Budgeted at £1.5 million (US$2.2 million), the series looks at issues like the Big Bang theory. In the mid-range, the prodco has Volcano (also for Channel 4 and TLC) and Storm Force II, which mixes elements like human survival stories with scientist interviews. ‘Then we come through to the very popular end, where there’s very little science,’ Carter says. ‘Our Extreme Machines series on TLC is a good example of that – a lot of tech, a lot of excitement, a lot of people, a lot of fun, but no mission to explain the science or technology.’

Even companies that are widely considered the science standard-bearers, like the BBC and PBS, seem comfortable broadening the definition of science programming. At the BBC, Animal Hospital is a product of the science department, and at PBS, 1900 House (produced by London-based Wall to Wall) fits the bill, albeit as a science/history hybrid. Says McKinven, ‘Was 1900 House a science show? Not in a traditional sense, but you did learn something about the history of technology from it.’

Paula Apsell, director of WGBH’s science unit, puts it this way: ‘As a program-maker and executive producer [of NOVA], I’ve always told myself not to make any rules.’ She adds that she used to question whether a program fell into the hard or soft science category, but now feels that sets up too many boundaries. ‘I work for a series that has a long history and a high bar of quality. But if [the show] was too limited by it, we would never try anything new.’

The more traditional approach to science – in which interviews with scientists are generally a must – has not been abandoned entirely, particularly when addressing controversial topics. For Animal Homosexuality, a 52-minute project budgeted at US$650,000, doc-maker Jessica Menendez of Paris’ Saint-Thomas Productions says the subject matter made it essential. ‘Initially we weren’t going to have scientists speaking on-screen, because it was going to be a 100% blue-chip, wildlife documentary. Because of the controversial nature, everyone we spoke to said if you have scientists on the screen we’d be much more likely to take this project on. I think people were scared.’

Saint-Thomas has embraced a more contemporary style for other programming. Penguin Baywatch, a US$400,000 one-hour special, is intended to be a play on the long-running beach drama, Menendez says. ‘It’s kind of put together as a sitcom, but with penguins as the main characters. The penguins are on a big beach, sometimes tens of thousands of them, and it’s all about the trials and tribulations of a penguin’s life on a beach.’ In Killer Whales: Up Close and Personal, also a one-hour special (budget: $800,000), the intent was to give the story a personal touch. Says Menendez, ‘Instead of making it a scientific repertoire of behaviors or trying to explain in general how killer whales behave, it was the story of this particular group of whales.’

Although wildlife is often considered apart from science in programming circles, it still seems to fall within the parameters, particularly these days. Reasons Carter, ‘All those people working [in natural history] have biology degrees. They need a lot of knowledge about wildlife. Those are science programs. They’ve always been separated from the science departments at the big broadcasters, but they actually are science programs.’

With such an inclusive definition, the obvious question is what doesn’t qualify as science? For McKinven and Apsell, shows about the supernatural cross the line. Says McKinven, ‘We really are not into speculative science, which I think some of those paranormal shows go into.’ Apsell concurs,’ There’s science and then there’s pseudo-science,’ adding that she would only ever consider it if she felt it was a good debunking story. Barro does not necessarily agree. ‘It depends how we take it. We’ve never done a UFO show, but I would do something on unsolved mysteries, in the sense that you’re trying to understand what’s going on… Speculation is good as long as there is an explanation of what could really happen. It’s a possibility, a scientific possibility.’

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