|Why are frogs vanishing? Science Investigators co-host Bahareh Azizi is on the case. (Image: WGBH.)|
For decades, public television has written the book on broadcast science journalism, producing Nova and other pioneering shows that have become part of our national TV culture. Now PBS is looking to stake out a new, younger frontier in science programing and is conducting an unusual experiment to help chart the course.
Last month on three successive Wednesdays, PBS previewed pilots of three science programs competing for a 10-week production contract and a time slot this fall. The programs were broadcast, podcast and streamed in hopes of reaching what a CPB study calls the “innovating and inclined” segment of the public. These tech-savvy viewers, slightly younger (ages 18-48) than PBS’s usual audience, say they want to see more science program on public television but are generally too busy until later in the evening. In the competition for their scarce attention, the I & I’s are the motherlode that PBS must mine for viewer/donors (and the underwriters who love them).
With competition from cable science shows like the Discovery Channel’s MythBusters and the History Channel’s Modern Marvels, the question is how much PBS can afford to equal cable’s appeal to hipper, busier viewers while maintaining its reputation and established audience base.
To win these I & I viewers, public TV not only has to pump up infotainment but also create shows that beat the competition with high-quality content.
Starting with a special RFP that yielded 19 proposals, PBS and CPB narrowed the field to three finalists: Wired Science, an offshoot of Wired magazine produced in association with KCET in Los Angeles; Science Investigators from Lion Productions and WGBH in Boston; and 22nd Century, a co-production of Boston Science Communications Inc. and Towers Productions in collaboration with Twin Cities Public Television.
Their formats are similar: hourlong newsmagazines featuring four to seven short segments about scientific research, recent discoveries and quirky topics, reported by teams of smart, young journalists armed with plenty of ‘tude and technology.
Science Investigators brands itself with a slogan: “Your questions drive our investigations.” That’s a good starting point because good science journalism always begins with genuine curiosity expressed as a sincere question. SI is curious to a fault.
It can also be confusing. Take the segment “The Myth of the Knuckleball.” Science Investigators host Kevin Hand unravels the physical riddle of a baseball pitch that has befuddled managers and batters for decades. His opening pitch was to ask questions: “Why is the slower knuckleball so hard to hit? And if it’s so effective, why do so few pitchers use it? Is the knuckleball really the hardest pitch in baseball or is all a myth?” A sentence later he re-asks a scientist, “Is it really hard to hit?”
I found it easy to forgive writing that sometimes swings too hard and misses. Science Investigators is as eager to please as a puppy. It just needs a little maturity, training and restraint. The knuckleball segment, like the other five in the show, hits the strike zone. It’s smart and well produced, informative and entertaining. It feels like public TV.
To my taste, this is a good thing. The show contains substantial science with a storytelling style that, while different than I’ve come to expect from PBS, doesn’t insult my intelligence.
Easily SI’s most compelling and best produced story was about bionic body parts and an Iraqi war vet who lost two limbs. It’s the kind of story you might see on 20/20 or Dateline, but SI didn’t lose sight of the science. The producers don’t oversell the soldier’s pathos for emotional appeal.
A segment about Neanderthal man asks: Is it possible to bring our extinct cousins back to life by cloning their DNA? Some of the interviews look staged, and the herky-jerky video editing is distracting. But the producers delivered solid science reporting—actually two stories in one. While one co-host dug up bones with anthropologists in the field, another met geneticists in a lab. Then the tag teams link up via laptop video, seamlessly stitching together the two probes. What could have been a gratuitous video gimmick works well as a storytelling device.
So does the producers’ clever use of video from a hilarious GEICO commercial featuring cavemen being wined and dined. The message for viewers: science can be both hip and serious. And why not?
SI’s four “investigators” resemble a young, globe-trotting mod squad: Kevin Hand, an astrobiologist at Stanford and Princeton; Bahareh Azizi, a biochemist at Georgia Institute of Technology; Victoria Bruce, a geologist, best-selling author and winner of a duPont-Columbia Award; and Basil Singer, a British physicist who is a dead ringer for the model Fabio. We learn from the pilot that Victoria and Basil are snowboarders and he has a taste for cognac. PBS will have to decide how much People magazine it can tolerate in their zeal to twist their demos. Personality journalism is nothing new—Alan Alda and Jacque Cousteau have long demonstrated that science and celebrity and public TV are not incompatible. It’s a question of balance and I thought SI, on balance, found the right mix.
Wired Science is remarkably similar to Science Investigators, but its pilot is slammed with seven segments, leaving little breathing room for reflection. Both pilots had stories about biologically powered batteries (Wired’s scientists use viruses, SI’s bacteria), and both had stories about souped-up electric cars (Wired’s took a second longer to reach 60 m.p.h.).
Wired Science introduces us to stem cell researchers and rocket-belt inventors and joins in a dive to an undersea habitat where astronauts train for space flight. Like Wired magazine, the pilot is glossy and the graphics are terrific. With Tod Mesirow, a veteran of Discovery’s Monster Garage and MythBusters, as its executive producer, Wired Science is entertaining but light on the science.
The show has the look, feel and some of the same stories as the magazine that inspired it. The opening segment of the pilot, “Meteorite Hunters” appears in a recent issue of the magazine. Wired Senior Editor Adam Rogers travels to Kansas where he meets two regular guys who hunt meteorites for money. Rogers looks comfortable on camera.
This on-the-road segment has crisp writing and a refreshing, down-to-earth sensibility. But where’s the science? I thought this was a science show—a public TV science show.
When Rogers asks a researcher, “Scientifically, when you look at these meteorites, what do we learn?” she responds, “We learn how our solar system formed, how our planet formed.” And that was?
I thought reducing serious science to a sound bite was the job of local news.
The show promises “cutting-edge science,” but, unfortunately, it does so by sawing a plasma screen in half. Co-host Ziya Tong says she wants to “check out its guts.” If the point of this segment is to explore the innards of this technological achievement, the producers blew it. First, we learn that Ziya power-sawed a model of a plasma screen, not a real one. What were we going to learn from this fake evidence? Second, in such scenes on MythBusters, viewers get a lot of motion and a little meat. But here we don’t learn much about plasma-screen science. The only good news here is that America will have one more real plasma screen for watching Law and Order reruns in high definition.
A segment tracing the history of the rocket belt is more successful. Archival footage reminds us of yesterday’s tomorrows—and how well our past visions of the future have held up over time. It’s a neat, fun piece of science journalism that really taught me how they work. Cool.
But my cool got used up when the reporter in the undersea laboratory segment “Finding Neemo” described its ocean location as “a friggin’ floating island.” I like my science fascinating, not friggin’. I went for the remote.
The segment I enjoyed most was the one with the lowest production values. Wired Science host Brian Unger’s conducted a straightforward interview with entrepreneur Elon Musk. Unger’s questions were smart, the answers were informative and I friggin’ learned something about his plans to build a commercial space vehicle.
22nd Century is, in many ways, the most ambitious of the three pilots but the least successful. It’s not about noisily sawing things in half. It’s about science in the future and how technology’s rapid acceleration affects human behavior.
The executive producer and director, Gino Del Guerico, is a lecturer in journalism at Boston University who worked with his students on the project. This might explain why the show seems targeted at an undergraduate science major with double minors in philosophy and English lit.
Unlike its breezier competitors, each episode of 22nd Century is built around a single topic, treated in four segments. The pilot’s subject is something called “The World Wide Mind.” Host Robin Robinson, a Chicago-based journalist, says that in the future, “our minds will be wired so we can communicate with the rest of the world effortlessly.” Or something like that.
Robinson shares the hosting duties with two actors: Orlanda Bell is an optimistic cyborg from the future who wears a Mao jacket and sports a Moe Howard haircut. The other actor plays a reincarnated Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World, whose pained expression keeps reminding us that technological progress is not always a step forward.
The segments are punctuated by arguments between the cyborg and Huxley, both behaving with a stagey smugness. She annoyingly calls him “Hux.” He pouts and looks pained, like he needs a nice warm glass of Metamucil. The acting is awful, the script worse.
The science in the four segments is substantial, but, as with Bell and Hux, the high-concept storytelling technique gets in the way. The producers choose to tell the stories without narration, so they edit interviews to maintain the narrative. The technique can be compelling, but it’s a slower way to tell stories and it’s exactly wrong for the target audience of busy multitaskers. Following it requires intense concentration. The pieces plod along. The psychedelic graphics in the background, which could have come from a Pink Floyd video, don’t help.
But what do I know? I’m on the far side of the age demographic PBS is targeting. I grew up watching Watch Mr. Wizard on NBC, before PBS was created. The show was in black and white, with no graphics, music or fast-paced editing. Don Herbert came, he experimented, he talked. I saw and I loved it.
Stay tuned. PBS officials will decide in March which pilot will go into production. Next fall, the real competition begins, and it’s between one of these shows and a herd of cable producers with power saws.
Bruce Gellerman, producer and substitute host of the Public Radio International environmental program Living on Earth, is a three-time recipient of the science journalism award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He and three colleagues from Living on Earth received this year’s AAAS award for their show about nuclear energy.
Web page posted Feb. 19, 2007, revised Feb. 27, 2007
Copyright 2007 by Current Publishing Committee