WCSFP ’12: Scientifically speaking, part 3

With the World Congress of Science and Factual Producers beginning in Washington DC today, realscreen talks science with Smithsonian Networks' David Royle (left) and NHK's Hideki Tazuke (right).
November 27, 2012

In part three of realscreen‘s trio of science profiles, in time for the start of the World Congress of Science and Factual Producers (WCSFP) today  (November 27), we talk shop with commissioners from Smithsonian Networks and NHK.

(For part one of this report, click here. For part two, click here.)


David Royle (pictured, left)

EVP, programming and production, Smithsonian Networks


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

I would say about 20 hours.

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

Original and coproductions make up about 60% of what we do. Most of our large science programs have been coproductions.

Describe your science strategy.

What’s most exciting about what we’re doing at our channel is the range of science programming.

We did a show called Concorde: Flying Supersonic [which also aired on Channel 4 in the UK]. It just won [best technological sciences program] at Jackson Hole. Concorde: Flying Supersonic has a strong technology side and then we have Decoding Immortality [produced by] Sonya Pemberton on a female scientist, Elizabeth Blackburn. Then you get to something like Titanoboa: Monster Snake, which is about the discovery of the fossils of the world’s largest snake. I think what distinguishes us is we’re always looking at the edge of discovery, and what we like is science that really crosses into several other disciplines and borders.

What was your highest-rated series or special?

Titanoboa: Monster Snake.

What current trends have you noticed in terms of science programming?

As with everything else, what we’re really seeing is a push towards more drama and more use of technology to tell stories. We’re able to put cameras in places we haven’t before, and CGI has become far more comprehensive and elaborate than ever before and this really opens up doors in terms of telling science stories that are visually dramatic.

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

Yes. We did our first 3D broadcast, a film called Secret Life of the Rainforest that we did with Electric Sky. We were looking for a 3D film that we felt was immersive. I don’t think that 3D lends itself to all programming, but taking viewers inside of a rainforest – that felt immersive to me.

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

We’re multi-platform in the way that we approach all of our programming – iPad, iPhone apps, and everything we do has its own web page. With Titanoboa we had a lot of fun with a game and a web component. For us, we’re doing serious science, but we’re in the entertainment business and we want to make sure that when people come to us, they think about us also being fun and entertaining.

So is the entertainment quotient a key factor in what you commission or acquire for science programming?

I think people can take themselves too seriously. For many scientists it’s always a little scary when television comes along, so it’s important to express to them that you take their work seriously. Yet there’s a place for programming that is thoroughly entertaining and uses entertainment to convey the information. I think MythBusters has done that for years. There’s light banter but it actually has some very good science [and] if that’s one way to reach younger viewers, my hat’s off to them.


Hideki Tazuke (pictured, right)

Head of science program division, NHK

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

NHK has 280 hours of regular nature and science programming per year across its two terrestrial channels and two satellite channels. We also show science in special programs using other slots (for example, our ‘NHK Special’ flagship documentary slot). In total we have more than 300 hours of nature and science programming per year.

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

Try and Gotcha is one of our most popular prime-time weekly science shows for family viewing. This show is in its 18th year. It’s known for using scientific experiments and unique research approaches to answer everyday scientific questions about subjects as diverse as tooth decay to how to make the best hamburger steak. An edition on Alzheimer’s disease this year had a viewing rate of 18.5%, the highest rate in that time slot on that day.

The documentary 3/11 On-Site Disaster Videos: The Day We Will Never Forget marked a 15% rating. It investigates the Great East Japan Earthquake using video records, with some from viewers.

A two-part documentary series entitled Megaquake II uses cutting-edge simulations and computer graphics to explore how lessons from the disaster in Japan can be applied to preparations for future natural disasters. An ambitious project entitled The Cosmic Shore has also been popular with Japanese viewers. It used a super-sensitive HD camera developed by NHK to show the first-ever images of phenomena such as auroras, lightning, and sprites.

What current trends have you noticed in terms of science programming?

Starting with the series The Cosmic Shore, NHK has announced a variety of space-themed projects this year. This is backed by the trends [emerging with] the return to Earth of the Hayabusa asteroid probe after its seven-year journey [which] was big news in Japan, and astronaut-themed comics and movies have become popular. The fact that space research is now one of the most fascinating fields producing a diversity of research findings is also one of the reasons why we’ve been working on this theme.

Since the Great East Japan Earthquake, we’ve continued to focus on projects related to earthquakes and nuclear power plants. Earthquakes, tsunamis, and nuclear power account for half of our science specials.

Is the entertainment quotient a key factor in what you commission or acquire for science programming?

The key to success for NHK science programs in terrestrial primetime slots is making them enjoyable even for people who are not interested in science. So we’ve long attached great importance to the entertainment quotient in our science programs. We introduced the concept of entertainment in science programs with a studio-based, presenter-led show called Ultra Eye in the late 1970s. We’ve since worked hard on shows that entertain viewers while showing them science.

The entertainment value of a program is greatly influenced by each country’s cultural background, so it’s not a key factor when we acquire science programming from overseas.


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 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.