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Nova producers try shorter form: newsmag demystifying discoveries

Originally published in Current, Nov. 3, 2003
By Dan Odenwald

With a generous $6.8 million grant from the National Science Foundation, the producers of Nova are preparing to launch a science newsmagazine next fall. The series — called The Leading Edge — will feature segments on new developments in scientific research narrated by on-camera reporters, according to Paula Apsell, executive producer of Nova and head of WGBH’s science unit.

Each hourlong broadcast will open with a news update and move on to longer profiles, visual essays and expert discussions. Programs will focus on subjects that don’t warrant full-length treatment in a traditional Nova episode, Apsell says. “When you have to do an hour [doc], it cuts out a lot of subjects,” she says.

Though production begins this spring, it’s still too early to say what the final show will look like, she adds. It could include segments like the one Nova prepared for its NFS grant application. The 10-minute spot featured a report on the hydrogen car, narrated by ABC journalist Robert Krulwich and featuring Tom and Ray Magliozzi from NPR’s Car Talk.

The NSF grant provides most of the funding the show needs for the 10 episodes in its first two years, Apsell says. Leading Edge will need to raise an additional $2 million.
The search is under way for the show’s executive producer and reporters. Apsell is hoping to attract prominent producers with proven track records in science journalism.

Leading Edge will air quarterly in Nova’s timeslot, Apsell says. The series will also include a year-end special about what’s new in science and where things are headed.

Apsell hopes the show will put a “human face” on science reporting and demystify some of its jargon. She also thinks it will attract younger viewers intrigued by the gee-whiz factor of today’s research findings.

She acknowledges the project will involve some level of risk. It will take the place of Nova repeats, which tend to perform well for stations in the ratings. “We’re always nervous about alienating our loyal audience, but we should try new things,” she says.

She’s confident Leading Edge will build into a popular franchise. “Anything new takes time to become something good,” she adds.

Posted Nov. 12, 2003
Current: the newspaper about public TV and radio in the United States
Current Publishing Committee, Takoma Park, Md.
(301) 270-7240


Pipeline: Producers list other new series in preparation for future seasons of public TV.


When Nova came on the PBS scene 30 years ago, founding producer Michael Ambrosino explained the need for skillful storytelling to engage viewers: "Folks hate to be taught, but they love to learn." The series' present executive producer, Paula Apsell, adopted years later the series' strategy for attracting viewer, combining learning with the kinds of topics and dramatic action they want.


Nova's website.

The National Science Foundation is a major funder of Nova and other pubcasting programs.

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