Ambrosino and Nova:
making stories that go ‘bang’

Commentary by David Stewart

Ambrosino in 1998 video interview by WGBH colleague Fred Barzyk. The interview is posted on the WGBH Alumni site.

In the first of May in 1971, Michael Ambrosino sat at his desk at 25 Wetherby Gardens in London writing a six-page, single-spaced letter to Michael Rice, vice president for programs at WGBH, Boston.

“This project in science,” he wrote, “would begin to fill an appalling gap in PBS service. It would attempt to explain and relate science to a public that must be aware of its impact.

“The strand would be broad enough to cover all of science and . . . beyond its normal confines . . . biology, chemistry, physics, astrophysics, sociology, psychology, medicine, anthropology could all provide program topics.”

The letter, filled with detailed explanations of production team schedules, content of programs, coordination with the BBC and financial requirements, is a remarkably accurate description of Nova, the series that Ambrosino named and ushered onto the air March 3, 1974. Even more remarkably, the 1971 plan still resembles what has become, 25 years later, the longest-running documentary series in America.

When Ambrosino proposed the series, he was on leave from WGBH and near the end of a year-long fellowship provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). The fellowship had sent him to work with the BBC and to observe its production procedures. He was 40 and an experienced producer. In 1957 he had joined WGBH, where one of his first producer-director assignments was “The Ends of the Earth — Explorations of Antarctica.” Two years later he was producing a series entitled Science Six, featuring elementary science experiments. In the ’60s he produced, directed and conducted TV interviews for programs that ranged from politics and election coverage to discussions of sex and drugs and music performance. By 1969 he was producer of Michael Ambrosino’s Show, described by WGBH as “a cultural magazine that aims at putting Boston viewers in first-hand contact with their city.”

In London he observed the BBC’s Features Group and a production unit that was creating a strand of diverse, internationally acclaimed documentaries under the title Horizon. (Writing to Rice, Ambrosino described a “strand” as “a continuous run of broadcasts that a [BBC] unit presents and administers. Some are freshly produced, some are coproduced, some purchased and some repeated. This method allows flexibility, lowers costs, increases quality, enhances communications with foreign broadcasters and spreads the responsibility of administration.”) Nova became the first of many WGBH strands.

Horizon had been established by a talented and extremely energetic program executive, Aubrey Singer (who later served briefly as the BBC’s deputy director general). The Horizon unit had been formed within the new BBC-2 channel in the early 1960s. It soon attracted prestigious film producers who were given considerable independence in making single-subject, all-on-film documentaries.

Sun rises in red sky during early "Nova" title animationViewer reception to these programs — many rooted in scientific exploration — surprised everyone, not least the BBC itself. According to John Mansfield, Nova‘s fifth executive producer, “When BBC-2 arrived, it was agreed that science with a capital “S” must be given a special chance. There was little hope that it would be popular, but it was generally agreed that a dose of science television would do the country good.” From the beginning, Horizon programs — such as “The Making of a Natural History Film,” which later led off the Nova series — were popular in the U.K. and throughout the world.

For many years they set the standard for TV documentaries, winning every international prize available. When Ambrosino left England in the fall of 1971 he was determined to establish an American version of Horizon at WGBH.

In a “welcome back” press release in mid-September, the station described its delight at the prospect of resuming Michael Ambrosino’s Show and, almost as a footnote: “In addition, he is working on the design of a project to make WGBH a major source of science programming on PBS.”

Ambrosino could not have urged the creation of Nova on a more receptive program executive than Michael Rice, who was familiar with the U.K. from his days as a Rhodes scholar and could appreciate the value of strong program ties to the BBC. Rice, who died at age 47 in 1989, is still regarded as one of the most intelligent and creative program managers in public broadcasting’s short history. When Ambrosino went to England to begin his fellowship, Rice was immersed in choosing the first BBC dramatic productions for what would become Masterpiece Theatre.

“I never thought of Nova as a science series,” said Ambrosino recently. “I wanted to examine how the world worked, to use the scientific process of discovery as a narrative device to tell good stories. . . . We also wanted to use some of the talented scientists that were all around, at Harvard, MIT and along Route 128 [Boston's high-tech corridor]. This was going to be an active series. We had very few limits on what we could or should do.”

“Eureka!” was not to be

A long list of what Ambrosino calls “worthy” titles for the series was drawn up, including the public relations department favorite, “Eureka!” In the end he selected the title himself. “A supernova is something big, bright, new and bold, something to which you had to pay attention,” he explained.

As fundraising began, he was frequently reminded of another and equally accurate, description of a Nova, i.e., making a big splash but then burning out quickly. “It was our little joke on the way public TV was funded in those days,” says Ambrosino. “You could find money to start things but after a year or two the funders wanted to put their money into the next new thing, and your series would be left out in the cold and dark.”

While he had hoped for a 1972 start, most agreed that finding the required funds (to say nothing of producing and acquiring programs) for a beginning in March 1974 represented a considerable achievement. In addition to a development grant from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the newly established WGBH Science Program Group found first-season support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, CPB, the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Polaroid Corp.

In his initial proposal, Ambrosino had projected a budget of $1,178,000 for 30 hour-long programs — 12 of them would be WGBH productions, four coproductions, eight acquisitions and six rebroadcasts. The budget earmarked $60,000 for a group editor and staff, and $100,000 for publicity. In the end, the first season’s 13 programs cost about $1.5 million. By the third season the budget had doubled. (By contrast, Nova‘s recent 1990s seasons — 20 new hour-long programs a year — cost between $10 million and $12 million. As Alan Ritsko, Nova‘s managing director, explains, “About 10 of these are original productions. Most of the others are mini-coproductions that Nova controls from start to completion, sharing ownership and distribution rights with its coproducers.”)

Fortunately for purposes of recruiting a skilled production staff, NSF and Polaroid committed funding for two seasons. When the word went out that there would be openings for three production teams, Ambrosino received 170 resumes. Interviews were conducted in New York, London, Los Angeles and Boston. Robert Reid, former head of the Science and Features Department of BBC, became Nova‘s chief consultant. Not surprisingly the three production team leaders were British, two of whom had worked for the BBC. One of them, John Angier, subsequently became Nova‘s second executive producer. Many who helped produce some of the early programs became major producers at WGBH and elsewhere — including Paula Apsell, Nova‘s present executive producer.

The teams eventually moved into new quarters at 475 Western Avenue overlooking the Charles River. Channel 2′s new film facility, with its nine editing rooms, a small studio and a viewing room, also was home of two other WGBH series, The Advocates and Religious America. Before Nova had aired its first program, an additional production team was added to the Ambrosino’s responsibility. Its assignment was to produce a lengthy program on death and dying in America, funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). The program was produced and directed by Michael Roemer; he was assisted by David Grubin, who later produced film portraits of Presidents Roosevelt (Theodore and Franklin), Truman and Johnson for the American Experience series.

By December 1973, Team One, under Simon Campbell-Jones, had completed “Where Did the Colorado Go?” — an examination of water management in the Southwest. It was the series’ first original production and the second program aired. Angier and his team were finishing “The Search for Life” (origins of life on Earth), while former Horizon producer Francis Gladstone was in the midst of an ambitious dramatized version of the discovery of anesthesia, featuring Boston doctors in the leading roles. The series premier program, “The Making of a Natural History Film,” was an extraordinary film-within-a-film tour de force, demonstrating techniques used by the Oxford scientific film laboratory, a production organization making nature sequences for the BBC. The first season also included programs on dolphin intelligence, nomadic tribes in the Amazon, bird navigation, nuclear fusion, and chimps learning sign language.

Such disparate subjects, a hallmark of Nova from the start, have in common an emphasis upon beginning-middle-and-end stories. Storytelling was a major theme in Ambrosino’s initial proposal to Rice, his subsequent memoranda to PBS stations, and his recent responses to my questions about his work.

“Producers are a naturally curious lot,” he says, “and good documentaries are made out of that curiosity. They hear a new idea from a scientist, read a journal, attend a lecture, and ‘bang,’ they want to find out more. The topic chooses you. We were after good stories that could be told visually, and good storytellers. Some shows were assigned but most of the ideas came from the producers themselves. I just had to make sure the season had a flow and variety.”

From the start, Ambrosino promised the stations that “science will be interpreted in its broadest context.” Still, there were to be three areas of major interest: “basic science, science and technology’s affect on society, and science’s impact on public policy.”

Nova will aim at having audiences feel: ‘I can understand how science works. I can make sense of the world. I have an insight I didn’t have before.’”

Prepared for the accidents of life

Both storytelling and drama informed most of Nova‘s programs in the first years, as they had influenced Ambrosino’s early life. Born in Brooklyn, his family settled in Westhampton Beach on Long Island when he began high school in 1945. His father managed upper-income grocery stores in New York and owned his own specialty food store in Westhampton. “I took advanced math in a class of four,” he recalls, “and physics with seven. There were 28 in our graduating class.” He played drums in a jazz band and was an enthusiastic member of the school’s “spectacular drama club.” At 15 he was a dance band drummer: “I think I played every bar, senior prom and Polish hall on eastern Long Island.” With four others he also played in a volunteer fire department band, the Sons of the Beach.

He was accepted at Syracuse University to study physics, but switched to drama on the day of registration. “It was very romantic,” he says now. “The only rep company on the East Coast, the Brattle Theatre in Harvard Square, went belly-up that same year.” Still, he worked three seasons in summer stock. When he returned to Syracuse for a masters of science degree, after a hitch in the army overseas, he began to make TV programs. “In starting Nova, I finally put my two loves [drama and science] together. I was lucky to find a road for my interests.”

Ambrosino says he believes in “preparing for the accidents of life.” An important one occurred in 1956 when he was invited to talk about closed circuit TV in the schools at a Harvard conference. (He had had six months experience.) Hartford Gunn, then president of WGBH happened to be there. “Three weeks later,” says Ambrosino, I was working at WGBH, developing school television for the State of Massachusetts. I was prepared. But it was an accident.

“Sitting at the next desk was the smartest and prettiest radio producer I had ever met. Lillian and I were married a year later and had three children.” The Ambrosinos were married for almost 40 years, until Lillian’s death from cancer in 1995. In addition to producing radio programs, Lillian Ambrosino was a reporter, one of the four founding members of Action for Children’s Television, a government consultant in Washington and a lawyer whose clients numbered many independent film producers.

“Making good films and making them on time and on budget is tough,” Ambrosino reflected recently. “We began production in ’73 and there were few folks in Boston or the U.S. who knew [how to do it]. The series premiered in the spring of ’74 with 13 programs, and we returned with 17 more in the fall. That’s a killer pace, but I knew we had only one chance to take our message to the stations for [production funds] in the Station Program Cooperative, and I wanted us to survive.”

In 1972 and 1973, each Nova team spent seven to nine weeks on research. Much was done in the field, as the one-page outline grew into a full film treatment. The camera and sound crew then joined the team for four weeks of shooting — traveling about the country by plane, car, truck and helicopter. This was followed by two months of editing by some team members while others began again on a new topic. As Ambrosino wrote in a memorandum to stations in 1976, “As with all science, the end of one story is the beginning of another.” “I think the producer’s job is to find the power within the content, to have it grow out of the meat of the subject, not added on like sugar. All the pretty music and helicopter zooms [can't replace] finding that small seed and building a story around it.

“We tried to have the narration lag the awareness. Hopefully, the viewer will put the answer together just before the narrator’s golden tones give it all away. In this way, the viewers are empowered and will seek out more on their own. That really is the task of public broadcasting, to set the audience out on its own search. The viewers are then on the road to self-education for the rest of their lives. Folks hate to be taught, but they love to learn.”

The first 13 programs were, of course, all new to the audience. In the next year, Nova presented 24 programs, of which five were repeats. In 1976, there were 26 programs, of which six were repeats. Boys and their toys During these years, the Nova staff worried about fulfilling its promise of basic science and science-related public policy — an objective never fully resolved. Popular programs about sleep and the sense of smell — great crowd-pleasers — tended to nudge out “important issues.”

Worries over the proper balance of programs — and Nova‘s general direction — have continued. In a paper reprinted in Current in 1992, Paula Apsell, then and now executive producer of Nova, describes her concern, in 1990, for the series’ diminishing audience and her reappraisal of program content.

“More than 250 past programs were divided into four categories and the average Nielsen rating was computed for each category,” she wrote. Some of what they learned surprised the staff: “Challenging programs did not seem much of a deterrent to viewers,” Apsell reported, ” … clearly the decisive factor was topic choice.”

Topic preference groups were ranked from “death and destruction” (most popular) to pop-science (e.g., ESP and UFOs) to “bones and bodies” (dinosaurs and origins) to “boys and their toys” (aviation and military technology).

“Slowly and cautiously, we began to rethink the way we commissioned and scheduled programs . . . developing a wider variety of storytelling devices to match the broad array of content. “After two years we have reversed the erosion of ratings and we are building audience.”

Of Nova‘s first 50 programs, 19 were made by WGBH, nine coproduced and 27 acquired through purchase. The number of original productions had advanced annually from four to six to eight. The operation had been partly based, of course, upon the advantages of cooperation with the BBC and other production sources. The number of WGBH productions represented 36 percent of the total. It was more than the station had ever attempted or completed before. As Ambrosino noted ruefully in his third-season report: “As hard as it is, raising money is still easier than making good programs about serious subjects.

Although more U.S. productions than we promised, it was still less than we hoped. Novas are hard to make.” In the first three years Nova‘s staff looked at 150 foreign-produced documentaries to purchase 22. They were drawn from four BBC documentary series, from the British companies Yorkshire TV and Granada, and producers in Sweden, Yugoslavia, Switzerland, Germany and Canada. A mid-’70s screening session in London confirmed that fewer British films would be on the market as the country’s economic pressures increased — further reason to explore the tentative contacts that had been made with the Australian Broadcasting Corp., which eventually became a major source of program material.

Ambrosino’s objective of developing long-term relations with producers outside the U.S. was taking shape. It would prove to be an immensely valuable asset to Nova, to WGBH, and to U.S. public TV at large.

Three treatments were evaluated in these days for every program that Nova agreed to coproduce. In some cases cooperation was largely financial. But in any case it meant more broadcast rights, a cheaper price and, frequently, considerable influence upon a program’s direction. Nova opened its first PBS season on March 3, 1974 with, for those days, considerable advance publicity.

Journalistic response was cordial: enthusiasm tempered by a certain dignity — perhaps befitting the scientific nature of the programs as the news media saw them. Time called attention to Nova “filling the gap between deadly-dull ‘educational’ lecturing and pop-science trivia.” Many papers, such as the Portland’s Oregonian were content with references to “high production values with intellectual curiosity” and the like. Some national publications, TV Guide among them, dodged the problem of writing critiques of what apparently seemed esoteric subjects by hiring writers such as Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov to create essays. Sagan wrote about “Life on Mars” in May, when PBS carried Nova‘s “The Search for Life on Earth.” Asimov constructed an essay on chimpanzees (“They’re smart but not smart enough”) to supplement Nova‘s program on attempts to teach primates to communicate. Variety, after a nod to “some magnificent …. breathtaking film moments,” took the it’s-good-for-you approach: “All with an interest in science should watch your TV schedule for Nova.” Of one thing in its review of Nova‘s first program Variety was entirely accurate: “With its scope, Nova should be good for seasons to come.”

Most programs in the initial season seemed to offer journalists more opportunities for rather bland and graceful acceptance than energetic response. One exception was the program “Strange Sleep,” a drama describing the discovery of anesthesia. It brought the Boston Globe to full alert with a piece headlined, “Boston doctors star in Ch. 2 medical film.”

Despite tepid reviews, Nova found its audience. And it grew. At the end of the third season, the Nielsen rating service reported a national average of 2.8 million households, and an audience range of 4 to 7 million viewers for each program.

Ambrosino moves on

“I left Nova [after three seasons] in exhaustion,” says Ambrosino. “I never anticipated leaving WGBH for good.”

John Angier became Nova‘s new executive producer while Ambrosino began designing a new series — Odyssey, 27 programs with an emphasis upon anthropology and archeology that was aired on PBS in 1980-81.

Having raised the funds for Odyssey (from the National Endowment for the Humanities), Ambrosino offered to bring it into WGBH. But the station rejected his stipulation that he control the hiring and firing of personnel and the publicity, so he established his own nonprofit production company, Public Broadcasting Associates (PBA), to produce the new series. As Ambrosino describes it, “We built a kitchen right in the center of our production company and never had staff meetings. We just ate together. I put in a shower for the joggers, and we all got healthier and could create an entirely different mood for work and play on the job.” Two-thirds of the Odyssey programs were made by PBA.

After two years, the company was ready to seek support, as Nova had, through the Station Program Cooperative. But the Reagan Administration had cut federal funding for public broadcasting by 40 percent and the stations reduced their cooperative purchasing proportionately. Ironically, Odyssey was forced to compete directly with Nova and, as Ambrosino explains, “Odyssey went down in flames.”

Henry Hampton, president of Blackside, Inc., and producer of the two celebrated Eyes on the Prize series, a history of the civil rights movement in America, is one of Ambrosino’s closest friends. They share a love of flying and for years have co-owned a plane, a Beechcraft Sierra. After Odyssey, Ambrosino worked closely with Hampton on all aspects of Eyes on the Prize, as consulting executive producer. “Eyes is one of my proudest credits,” he says. “Nova was important but Eyes was essential.”

This was followed in the mid-’80s by The Ring of Truth, concerning the nature of scientific evidence. These were made with Phillip Morrison, perhaps America’s most famous teacher of science (at MIT). For these productions Ambrosino reassembled some of the Nova and Odyssey production people. “[My production friends] are a very important part of my life. We keep in touch, have reunions, critique each other’s proposals . . . it’s an extended family of gifted men and women — and now lots of kids!”

His last production found him back on camera after 20 years: a 90-minute special produced with Gillian Barnes, “Journey to the Occupied Lands” for WGBH’s Frontline series. The controversial program, revealing life under occupation in the West Bank and Gaza, was, he says, “an unforgettable experience; a long research period, difficult filming, endless editing, a very favorable response to the broadcast, and . . . organized attacks from the far-right Israeli supporters in the U.S.”

Ambrosino, now 67, is closing his production company and, after 42 years in public television, trying to design a new life without TV and film and Lillian, who occupied an office next to his for four decades. He has been helping build a post-and-beam barn in Vermont, walking in the Tetons, sailing in the Virgin Islands, white-water rafting and kayaking, attending open rehearsals of the Boston Symphony, taking courses in music theory and, as always, doing a lot of reading.

Michael Ambrosino is one of a growing number of persons whose professional lives have been spent almost entirely within public television, people whose careers began soon after the first channels were assigned for noncommercial use in 1952. In some sense their talents have advanced in parallel with public television itself. “I am very fortunate that my professional life and the early days of public broadcasting came along together,” he says. “There were opportunities to create programs . . . and institutions that had a real staying power. I am delighted that Nova is having its 25th year and that public broadcasting has become a staple in the intellectual life of Americans.” I recently asked him if he would name some public TV producers he particularly admired.

His response: “I admire Fred Rogers’ honor, Bill Moyers’ sense of mission, Jack Willis’ (The Great American Dream Machine) sense of news and humor, Russ Morash’s (This Old House) competency, David Fanning’s fairness, Fred Barzyk’s (What’s Happening, Mr. Silver?) daring, Jac Venza’s taste, Henry Hampton’s guts, Jonathan Rice’s (KQED’s Newsroom) and Judy Crichton’s (The American Experience) nose for good programs [and a lot of others] who have put out an astonishing lot of good programs against all odds.” In such company the inventor of Nova would no doubt find a warm welcome.

David Stewart is a contributing editor of Current and a longtime public broadcasting program executive. This article appeared in Current and later in Stewart’s 1999 book The PBS Companion: A History of Public Television.
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