WCSFP ’12: Scientifically Speaking, part one

With the World Congress of Science and Factual Producers beginning next week, realscreen presents the first installment of a three-part report talking to science commissioners. (Pictured: the BBC's Kim Shillinglaw)
November 23, 2012

With the World Congress of Science and Factual Producers (WCSFP) kicking off in Washington DC next week, realscreen presents the first installment of a three-part report talking to the heads of science channels, slots and strands, with part one focusing on the BBC and the CBC.

Kim Shillinglaw (pictured above)
Commissioning editor for science and natural history, BBC

How many hours of science programming per year do you program?

I commission about 250 hours of science and natural history. It’s nearly all original productions rather than acquisitions. Around half of these have significant coproduction in them.

What has been your highest-rated science one-off or series this year?

I commission for three channels – BBC1, BBC2 and BBC4. They have very different remits and audiences. On BBC1, Super Smart Animals was the highest-rating single, and I have high hopes for the upcoming series Richard Hammond’s Miracles of Nature, and Generation Earth with Dallas Campbell.

On BBC2, Stargazing Live and Volcano Live both did very well, and on BBC4 The Joy of Chance did big numbers for that channel.

Are there any trends that you’ve noticed in terms of science programming?

We’re certainly seeing a move away from too many single presenter landmarks – we still do them, but they have to stay special treats. What’s lucky is that I don’t feel subject to the kind of monotonous everything-must-go-reality-show spirit I think we’re seeing right now in America.

I’ve got science drama, comedy, magazine, adventure, CG-fest, event and precinct shows and series coming up in my repertoire – I care more about continuing to surprise the audience with where science can go than almost anything else.

Is 3D science programming part of your strategy for the year ahead?

As well as commissioning the BBC’s science and natural history I’m in charge of the BBC’s two-year trial looking at 3D. We’re experimenting with as many genres as possible. We’ve done Planet Dinosaur 3D, music, entertainment and sport, and I have a comedy and a drama experiment coming up.

Is more multi-platform science programming part of your strategy for the year ahead?

We’ve done loads. It can be interesting, but it’s never the reason why I commission for television.

Do you accept unsolicited pitches, and if so, what’s the best contact to use?

Yes, of course! The best method is to use the BBC’s E-Commissioning system online [bbc.co.uk/commissioning/tv/pitching-ideas/e-commissioning.shtml] – we really urge you to submit via this, and we take it very seriously.


caroline underwood

Caroline Underwood (pictured above)
Senior producer, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation

How many hours of science specials per year do you program?

We program 19 original hours per year for ‘The Nature of Things.’ We have done limited series, [and] this year it’s Yung Chang’s The Fruit Hunters. Often we launch the season with a limited series, as we did with the Geologic Journey series and One Ocean.

What’s the ratio between original productions, coproductions and acquisitions?

We have no acquisitions. The way we’re funded, our projects are either in-house – 20-25% – and all of the remaining are commissioned under the Canada Media Fund (CMF).

What has been your highest-rated science one-off this year?

For our 2011/2012 season, our highest-rated show was Journey to the Disaster Zone: Japan 3/11, in which we took David Suzuki to revisit Japan. It was a very personal story of David going back and looked more towards the future.

What’s your take on science versus entertainment?

A good doc is a good doc. It can be entertaining, thought-provoking, all of those things that engage viewers. I suppose some people think we’re more serious than not, but our storytelling has changed over the years as everybody’s has, to reflect the viewer’s expectations and the things that engage them.

Science storytelling has become much more sophisticated over the years and [with] ‘Nature of Things,’ this is our 52nd year so we’ve had a whole lot of practice.

Do you take unsolicited pitches?

Anybody can pitch us a story. We obviously prefer filmmakers who have some sort of experience but even scientists will send us story ideas.


  • Stay tuned for parts two and three of this report, featuring execs from PBS, Science Channel, NHK and Smithsonian Networks, publishing next week. realscreen‘s Kelly Anderson will be attending the 2012 WCSFP in DC.
About The Author
Barry Walsh is editor and content director for realscreen, and has served as editor of the publication since 2009. With a career in entertainment media that spans two decades, prior to realscreen, he held the associate editor post for now defunct sister publication Boards, which focused on the advertising and commercial production industries. Before Boards, he served as editor of Canadian Music Network, a weekly music industry trade, and as music editor for HMV.com. As content director, he also oversees the development of content for the brand's market-leading events, the Realscreen Summit and Realscreen West, as well as new content initiatives.