Making science as sexy as The Street

July 31, 1998

Can science programmes ever be as popular as Coronation Street? Tim Matschak investigates

Science programming rarely achieves the prominence of the recent BBC series The Human Body with an average of six million viewers. Only 1.7 million on average watched Stephen Hawking's Universe and even populist programmes like Tomorrow's World find favour with only around four million.

Though highly respectable, these figures are dwarfed by the 16.4 million who recently tuned in to Coronation Street. But what makes a successful science programme?

The British Film Institute is currently analysing forms of science television and audience responses as part of an EU-funded project also involving two German TV companies and the University of Munster. The study aims to identify current and innovative trends.

Geraldine Fitzgerald and Kate Stables, who supervises the project at the BFI, looked at more than 300 examples of science television from as far afield as Finland and Spain. TV companies from all member states of the EU submitted examples while the US and Canada served as examples of non-European broadcasting.

The BFI found the programmes largely conservative with the traditional, hour-long documentary making up more than half of the sample and magazine programmes roughly a quarter. Researchers said that even programmes produced for a regional audience did not home in on local issues.

"One of the advantages of regional programming would be that you could cover regional scientific subjects, but certainly the programmes we were sent were still about topics like earthquakes and volcanoes," says Ms Fitzgerald.

Local productions did use local experts, however. But British and US productions dominate the market. Channels in other countries buy in a large proportion of their output - in one year 30 out of 42 programmes on Finnish television were made elsewhere, for example.

According to the BFI, only about 10 per cent of the broadcasts took a critical stance towards science. Instead of enabling the audience to discuss the pros and cons, most left viewers with a set of facts they had to accept.

The researchers are quick to point out that there is no single, homogeneous audience. Producers often face the dilemma of trying to attract a new audience without alienating science-literate viewers by seeming trivialisation.

"The answer is to provide a range of science programming for different audiences," explains Kate Stables. She cites Tomorrow's World and documentaries such as Horizon or Equinox as aiming at different target groups.

Documentaries tend to aim at people interested in science already. Others, especially young people, often feel excluded, according to Ms Fitzgerald.

"You have to think about how people use TV and the role it plays in their lives. They want to be entertained and less frequently informed. There might be five other people in the room, or they might be going out in ten minutes."

CAN CAN GIRLS AND THE HUBBLE TELESCOPE DON'T ALWAYS MIX...

Sara Ramsden, commissioning editor for science at Channel 4, has had a fair shot at alternative formats for science programmes.

"I tried to do things that shake things up a bit," she says, citing as examples Designs On Your ..., designers tackling unusual problems; Techno Trip, all-night science related to clubbing; and the upcoming series Scrapheap, an engineering game show.

But the standard is the one-hour documentary. "There is a sizeable part of the population that don't want their information to be messed around with. They want a strong authoritative science story."

She concedes that she likes to draw in as many people as possible. But she will only go so far with entertaining gimmicks. "I won't make a programme about the Hubble constant with Can Can girls in it," she promised.

However, good programmes should be entertaining, and documentaries do not have to be ponderous, didactic lectures. "I don't see that it's either informative or entertaining. Anybody who thinks that makes bad TV."

In her opinion documentary is a very broad category encompassing a wide variety of sub-genres.

The claim that science programming is not critical enough outrages her and she names several episodes of Equinox that criticised science. But then she also thinks that the portrayal of science in current affairs and news programmes is largely negative, which is rightly redressed by science departments.

To her, drama documentaries are no real alternative. The highly successful Life Story on the discovery of the structure of DNA is an exception, with the genre generally suffering from a shortage of talent and good ideas.

She quips that she would be interested in talking to somebody of the calibre of Mick Jackson, Life Story's director, who went on to film The Bodyguard.

TWO EUROPEAN RECIPES FOR SUCCESSFUL SCIENCE ON THE BOX

Can science be light entertainment? The Knoff Hoff Show on the German channel ZDF successfully goes this way. 'Knoff Hoff' is how somebody German without any knowledge of English would pronounce "know-how", and the jokey theme is carried through in the show with a Knoff Hoff professor, who performs experiments ineptly, for example blowing himself up with a microwave. A live jazz band plays the programme in and out while a studio audience watches sitting comfortably on bistro tables sipping on drinks. Even the guests on the show include not onlyscientists but also well-known entertainers.

However, theprogramme stillmanages to conveya science content,for example details on the nature of a new fire-resistant fabric.

* Archimede is a science magazine with a twist. Theprogramme on the French/German channel Arte does not have a presenter and uses a set of "templates" to communicate its message.

Programmesmay start with avisual item, forexample tracing aluminium from a finished bicycle down to its atomic structure, followed by animation, switching to showing a scientist at work performing an experiment. The same scientist then addresses the audience directly without the mediation of a presenter, and the effects of science on society are examined in a last item. Each show has a particular scientific theme. The producers aim to show methods rather than results andportray what it means to look, act, think and speakscientifically.

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