Brussels, 14 Jun 2006
According to a Eurobarometer poll, television is the number one preferred information source among Europeans for staying in touch with the latest scientific developments. It is therefore somewhat worrying to see that science is featured less and less on television programming schedules.
At a debate organised by the European Commission in Paris on 11 June, a panel, bringing together European officials and science journalists, was asked to discuss the importance of science on television, and what needs to done to get it back in television listings.
In 2001, The European Commission published the results of a special Eurobarometer entitled 'Europeans, science and technology', which found that while interest in all matters relating to science and technology (S&T) was high, two-thirds of European citizens considered themselves poorly informed, and a significant proportion were interested in receiving more information. When asked to indicate the preferred source for such information, over 60 per cent of those interviewed cited television In fact, TV comes first in all Member States. 'I think this survey shows that European citizens understand S&T [science and technology] better than we thought,' said Michel Claessens, Information and Communication Officer at DG Research.
Alain Hubert is Co-Founder and Chair of the International Polar Foundation, and a mountaineer and discoverer who is known for his expeditions across the Antarctic. 'Television helps me share my convictions with the public through the expeditions I have been on and the scientific projects in which I have participated,' he said. 'It is very important to explain how science works and affects us, because the world we have created is becoming more and more complex.'
'If we do not appropriate its evolution, I have the impression that in 10 to 15 years, people will be completely lost and from that point on they will lose interest,' he warned.
Mr Hubert lamented the fact that there are so few programmes on television that are reaching out to the general public. An exception to this, he said, was 'C'est pas Sorcier', a French TV science programme for adolescents: 'I adore this programme but it is an exception and that's not right.'
Frédéric Courant, the producer of the programme and one of the panelists is more optimistic: '12 years ago I never would have thought that this show would be as successful as it is today.' The programme draws up to two million viewers per broadcast. 'It means that people are interested and are trying to understand what is going on,' he said. While the initial target audience was young people, now it would appear that it reaches out to a much broader public: 'I recently received a letter from a 100-year old woman thanking my team for helping her to understand the problems of the 21st century,' said Mr Courant.
Asked where he thought television was going wrong, he underlined the need for the journalists to first deliver the facts before launching a debate: 'When I look at a lot of TV news reports, generally they are starting a debate without providing all the facts. 'It is essential to first show the mechanism in order for people to have the key,' he continued. 'Then people can form an opinion to accept or oppose the arguments given.' Mr Courant also referred to the tendency by broadcasters to tackle only the controversial side of issues like nuclear energy and genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
Mr Courant's programme proves that there are certain formulas that work, said Jean-Michel Baer, Director of the Science and Society programme of DG Research, and former Programme Advisor for the French-German TV-station ARTE. He referred to other successful science programmes such as 'Horizon' in the UK, and 'Matière-Grise' in Belgium. However, with the arrival of digital and satellite television, broadcasting companies find themselves competing for precious air time. This results in programmes being chosen according to ratings. 'Science programmes are not selected because they not seem attractive enough,' he said. To counteract this trend, some nationally funded broadcasters are allocating a certain percentage of the budget to science magazines, an approach which in order for it to become more widespread, needs further political support, said Mr Baer.
Programme-makers could also help to ensure that science gets adequate air time by simply avoiding the use of the word 'science' to describe their work, Mr Courant suggested. 'Once you label a programme 'science' it does not get any air time,' he said. Instead, they should market their work along the lines of how it is helping people understand the way things work, he said. 'This is the notion of 'knowledge', which is completely different to science,' he said.
Another way would be to use big events like the World Cup to report on related scientific topics, one participant of the audience suggested: 'Is there not a scientific dimension to the debate on doping in sport?' he asked. To this Mr Baer noted that this approach is already popular, giving the example of the US and UK, where television reports on the functioning of the heart and emotions were broadcast around St. Valentines Day.
'It is also about getting the right people involved and seizing the moment,' said Mr Baer, giving the example of the BBC's 'Walking With Dinosaurs', a series which portrays prehistoric animals combining fact and informed speculation with cutting-edge computer graphics and animatronics effects. 'The success of this programme is mainly due to films like Jurassic Park.' But it is also a question of budget, said Mr Courant: 'If you want to produce programmes like this you need a lot of money: the English have always had more of a culture of investing in science programmes.'
The lack of European-made science programmes was a problem that became apparent to Patrice Lanoy, Scientist journalist at the French newspaper, Le Figaro when he started his television channel 'Planète Futur'. He saw that the only programmes available were from Japan and the US, and he found that they did not translate well into a French context. 'They did not talk about science in a way that was accessible to our viewers.'
It is not so much a lack of programmes, as a lack of exchange between television programme producers across Europe, said Mr Baer. To overcome this, he suggested that alongside the creation of a European Research Area (ERA), a European space could also be created for television. This would perhaps encourage a greater number of co-produced scientific programmes.
With this goal in mind, in 2005 the European Commission launched Athenaweb, a professional portal for audiovisual scientific information. A total of 6,600 independent film producers have so far subscribed, making extracts of their film available to would-be buyers. The portal also receives up to 100 hits a day. He concluded by saying that the platform's success was proof of the desire by TV broadcasters to work at a European scale, and this should be further underpinned by the Seventh Framework Programme.