Wired sprints to PBS debut — will snark implant survive?
One night in August, Jackie Kain noticed the parking lot at KCET in Los Angeles was full. Kain, who is v.p. of new media at the station, went to investigate in the production room of the new PBS show, Wired Science. As she neared the area where the producers, correspondents and researchers convene, she didn’t hear a thing. Total silence. Kain figured everyone had gone home for the night.
But the room was packed, everyone focused on their work. “It’s just heads down, going forward,” Kain said.
By most measures, the Wired Science team, drawn from Wired magazine and KCET, has had a challenging schedule to produce the series that debuted last week.
In late March, team members learned they’d won a tough competition against two other production companies for the new PBS primetime science series. Most of the staff hadn’t come aboard until May, with two new co-hosts arriving in August.
The first of the season’s 10 episodes was due in September, three weeks before the Oct. 3 debut, and all must be finished by Thanksgiving.
“We’d all be happy if God gave us one more month,” said David Axelrod, Wired Science’s executive producer.
Jackie Kain, whose staff and contractors are developing the website, would have preferred three more months. The website launch deadline was Oct. 1.
But John Wilson, PBS’s senior v.p. and chief TV programming executive, sees advantages of the fast pace.
“It would have to be produced in a fairly tight time frame so that the material itself is fresh,” Wilson said, “and it’s hitting the air not looking like it was made a year ago.”
Of course, it would be easier to get the work done if Wired Science had more funding and could expand its staff, which is now about 30.
Yet Wilson and the show’s producers are confident the team will meet its goal. The senior staff developed great working relationships during the pitch phase to PBS almost two years ago and while assembling the pilot last year, Kain said. And there’s something invigorating about seeing their labor of love come to fruition.
“Sometimes your best creativity comes out under pressure,” Kain said.
The team wanted a show and website to be nothing less than groundbreaking — punchy, community-focused and visually stunning.
What they delivered was “fast-paced, yet substantial; serious, yet with a light touch,” wrote Kansas City Star critic Aaron Barnhart.
“To PBS diehards, Wired Science may take some getting used to,” he wrote. “Seven stories are packed into less than an hour, punctuated with whooshy sound effects and flashy little visual transitions.”
Show producers are getting much of their inspiration from their namesake, Condé Nast’s Wired magazine. For nearly 15 years, the monthly has enticed readers with its clued-in dispatches from the intersections of science, technology, innovation and culture.
“Wired is really, really well known not only for their editorial content but for their visual style,” said Karen Robinson Hunte, e.p. for KCET. “So we work together to bring, sort of figure out, what the Wired Science look is for the television show. I would define that look as very visceral, energetic, clean, sharp.”
Like the magazine’s cover, the set for in-studio segments and the sleek website are reminiscent of a minimalist film strip, a mix of squares and rectangles, blue and pinkish pastel lights. The TV and magazine logos are nearly identical.
The show’s writing style is clearly informed by the magazine, as well.
“We have a very specific voice,” said Melanie Cornwell, executive producer for Wired. “Some people would say it’s irreverent. Some people would say it’s snarky.”
The magazine keeps its finger on the pulse of popular culture and blog-worthy new technologies, while harboring a slightly disillusioned, youthful angst. The broadcast tries to stay true to its Wired genes.
TV and magazine staffers sit in on each other’s editorial meetings and share story ideas. Many of the field segments appeared first in the magazine.
The TV program has been lucky in its affiliation with the established Wired in the first season. The schedule would have been even more daunting without the magazine’s support.
David Davis, Oregon Public Broadcasting’s e.p. for an already-established magazine-format nonfiction series, History Detectives, knows from experience that the first season is the hardest. You have to come up with dozens of story ideas from scratch. “And you’re having to make a lot of creative decisions about the format,” he said. “The second season, you’ve kind of got a format. You can fine tune it or change it.”
Audience feedback from PBS’s January tryout broadcast of the Wired Science pilot was mainly positive, but some viewers wanted more science content in the segments. Producers responded by reducing the number of segments per episode, making room for some to be longer.
“The take-away was, ‘Don’t be afraid of the geek-out,’” said Cornwell.
Wired Science wants to whet viewers’ appetite for gadgets and at the same time point out the political, cultural and health implications of these little pieces of technology. Axelrod likes making a “big story with a small story.” The challenge is giving viewers enough context without stretching the piece out of shape.
Having five to seven segments per hour-long program sets Wired Science far apart from PBS stalwarts Nova and Nature, which concentrate on one. Many viewers prefer shows that come in segments.
“People often watch TV while they’re doing other things,” according to Davis. “The audience can skip a segment and still understand the next one.”
Print reporter, cameraman in tow
David Axelrod hopes to organize each first-season episode around a loose-fitting “soft theme.” He wants to pair two gardening pieces, for instance. One is about Minnesota farmers who are thrilled with global warming because they can cultivate plants that once couldn’t survive the winters. The other, a What’s Inside feature like those in the magazine, looks at the tasty brew of ingredients in Miracle-Gro plant food.
In the season-opener, three segments reported how computers can be used for good and evil. Contributing Editor Joshua Davis covers an alleged Russian hacker attack that abruptly devastated Estonia’s economy, shutting down its banks and newspapers. Davis, who also covered the event in the magazine, took along a digital video camera and cameraman to do a Wired Science version.
The resulting piece, “World War 2.0,” investigated the mystery of the hacker attack and outlined the dangers of similar intrusions for larger world economies.
Another field piece, by Senior Editor Adam Rogers, looked at decades-old chemistry sets that allowed kids to make explosions. Today’s sets for kids usually omit volatile chemicals because of litigation concerns.
Rogers questioned whether the hazards outweigh the benefits of kids learning the scientific method and experiencing the “wow” factor that could hook them on a career in science. The program’s in-studio segments aren’t nearly as engaging as the field pieces. Ziya Tong, a producer who retained her co-host role from the PBS pilot that aired in January, did an in-studio chat with venture capitalist Paul Kedrosky. He invests in inventions such as a springy alloy used in golf clubs, robots that hop, and software that allows users to change body and facial features in photos (invaluable on dating websites). Oddly, the viewers don’t see B-roll footage of these intriguing products.
Chris Hardwick, one of the new co-hosts, did a What’s Inside segment about CoolWhip, which contains an ingredient also used in antifreeze. But the magazine reveals the chemistry of the whipped topping much more comprehensively in its May issue. The TV version is so short that we learn very little about science. Hardwick, a standup comic, barely has time for a punch line.
Hardwick’s personality fits the show’s energy and jaded humor. Yet he and Kamala Lopez, the other new co-host, have had little time to learn from production staff and seem uneasy on screen. Adam Rogers, who has the least TV experience of the four co-hosts, carries off his scenes with authority and Wired’s colloquial tone.
Outreach on the Web
What may be most significant about the web strategy of Wired Science is that PBS will offer program content to a variety of broadcasters and sites—YouTube, iTunes, the whole lot.
“There’s a new [PBS.org] team in Washington,” said Kain, who manages KCET’s new media department. “They’re very much about having our work out there where people are, where people can find it. It used to be very much about being contained on PBS.org in a kind of exclusive arrangement. But now there’s a realization that the Web doesn’t really work that way.”
The Wired Science site adopts another successful model from the Web, bringing viewers into the site as bloggers, as well as carrying the work of professional science writers and blogs by the show’s own correspondents and producers. Scientists write about how they chose their careers and got where they are today.
Web-exclusive offerings add depth to show segments with sidebars, interactive graphics, simple science experiments and complete interviews.
The site’s education pages show teachers how to use the show and site in the classroom. Teachers will blog about essays and experiments they assign students. And this academic year, the web team will initiate a high school video contest of the best science experiments.
For now, Kain and her Wired Science website team of nearly 20 (including Hello Design in Culver City, Calif.) are focusing on using the site to complement the TV show. The first season is largely an experiment in the site’s look and content. She also wants to know whether target audiences will find program video on the Web.
“I just hope I have a second season,” Kain said. “Because everything we learn now, we want to keep improving upon.”
After January, they’ll focus more on building the online community and education sections.
Despite Wired Science’s first-season tendency to piggyback on the magazine, producers and correspondents contend the show won’t be simply a TV version of it.
The audience may be the key difference — PBS viewers are likely to range both younger and older than the highly educated, affluent, middle-aged magazine readers. PBS and Wired hope their collaboration will open new audiences for both.
Another difference: Stories in the magazine and the website can provide significantly greater depth and breadth than segments a few minutes long, according to Rogers. But the TV stories benefit from the medium’s immediacy, which lets viewers experience them as if they’re happening in real time.
Some segments to look forward to in future episodes include examining the “miles and miles of unending trash” that circulate on the Gyre currents through the northern Pacific Ocean, and the lightweight sports wheelchairs being designed for fencing and hunting.
This season’s last episode will air Dec. 26 . Soon after that, Wired Science producers hope to hear from PBS whether they should start work on more episodes. Hunte said her staff already has begun listing segments they could do in Season 2.
David Kates is a freelance writer in Los Angeles, a former intern at NPR West and South Africa’s Bush Radio, and a news volunteer at KCRW-FM in Santa Monica, Calif.
Web page posted March 3, 2008
Copyright 2007 by Current Publishing Committee