Fall 2002

Bringing Science to a Television Audience

Too often, spectacles—like mummies and volcanoes—triumph over the reporting of modern science.

By Jon Palfreman

In the late 1960’s, some farsighted BBC producers had an interesting idea—why not try to make television documentaries about science? Working on 16mm film, these pioneers set out to report on what, to viewers, had been a completely closed world of science. For the first time, film crews went out to visit research labs, interview scientists, and follow field expeditions to remote exotic places. In short, the goal was to show viewers what scientists actually do. This resulted in a weekly series called “Horizon” that, to the surprise of many people, was both popular and critically acclaimed. “Horizon” became the model for PBS’s “Nova” series.

As originally conceived, the intent of series like “Horizon” and “Nova” was partly journalistic: a mission to report on new science, thereby helping the public to understand the momentous changes that science and technology were bringing about. Contrary to most people’s tedious experience of school science, these documentaries revealed a world that could be exciting if not cool. Working as anthropologists do, producers brought back fascinating reports from different scientific tribes. They created programs about the mysteries of sleep and dreams, the secrets of the atomic nucleus, the magic of lasers, the puzzle of the Bermuda Triangle, and the “miracle” of brain surgery. The power of visual technology—be it cine-microscopy, cine-endoscopy, time-lapse photography, or digital animations—brought new and exciting imagery into viewers’ living rooms.

The audience liked much of it. Critics described it as quality television. It was a great time to be a science producer.

By the time I joined “Horizon” in the early 80’s, the novelty of the science documentary had started to wear off for the audience, and producers were grappling with the harsh reality of producing 20 to 30 new science documentaries year after year. What, we wondered, was the secret of success?

Some films seemed to stand out. In 1985, I made a film called “The Case of the Frozen Addict” that had everything going for it. It was a terrific yarn about how a bunch of young California drug addicts ingested some “designer heroin” and mysteriously “froze up,” acquiring the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. The bizarre cases were noticed by a smart and highly articulate neurologist who realized he had stumbled on a medical breakthrough. The story had an almost perfect narrative arc. It had plenty of fascinating science. It had interesting characters whose lives were caught up in a human drama. It had tragedy. It had hope and the prospect of redemption.

But “Addict” was the exception. Most programs I worked on were a struggle and, like most producers, I had my share of failures. The reality we all faced was that many scientists did not seem to lead very exotic lives. The visual environments in which these scientists worked—the labs—were usually unexciting. Worse, we found that most scientists did not project appealing personas. Indeed, we found the very qualities that make many scientists good researchers—dedication, focus, consistency, caution, thoroughness, attention to detail—militated against them being expansive, playful communicators.

Our successes and failures appeared to have no relationship to a field’s scientific importance: some of the most dynamic and exciting areas of science—like molecular biology—yielded some of the dullest films. In desperation, some subjects, like chemistry, were abandoned entirely. Engineering was treated very unevenly. Space exploration, aviation, war technology—in other words large-scale engineering topics where things could be seen and which moved—did very well in this visual medium and so they attracted producers. Small-scale engineering—materials science, semiconductor physics—were avoided.

Since modern scientific stories like “Addict” were rare, producers gravitated to broad areas where they had a chance of success. Producers liked medical stories because there were human beings involved. But we soon discovered that non-human characters could work just as well. Films dealing with exciting natural phenomena—volcanoes, tornadoes, earthquakes, lightning—were extremely successful, as were films about large or fierce animals—sharks, whales and dinosaurs.

Despite the temptation for everyone to do dinosaur and volcano films, the early executive producers of “Horizon” and “Nova” felt a moral obligation to cover scientific advances even when they weren’t “sexy.” Some of the best science documentaries came from this commitment, unpacking complicated and fascinating stories such as the mystery that surrounded Legionnaire’s disease, the emergence of AIDS, the rise and fall of cold fusion, and the Exxon Valdez disaster. Executives also ordered producers to tackle difficult but important topics—oncogenes (cancer-causing genes), the human genome, artificial intelligence, even mathematics.

Working under pressure, producers tried everything to draw viewers in, including relighting the scientific laboratory with “X-Files” lighting. Producers constructed careful story arcs. They coached scientists to give short, pithy answers. They added lush music tracks.

Occasionally these unpromising films turned out surprisingly well. While the smoke and mirrors helped, the main reason for success was usually the discovery of a stellar scientist-communicator. Richard P. Feynman—the legendary Caltech physicist—proved that, in the right hands, even the most abstract, arcane concepts in physics could be riveting. Feynman could captivate an audience whether he spoke about quarks or quasars. While his explanations were clear, his success came from his emotional bond with the audience. His excitement and enthusiasm were infectious. His mischievous smile made you like him. Viewers could discern that here was a big thinker: Here, viewers said, was a smart and interesting person.

This was the evolving story of the long-form television science documentary until the early 1990’s. Then, in my view, things began to go downhill as the television environment changed. The Public Broadcasting System [PBS] found itself facing competition from new cable outlets like the Discovery Channel and, as the market fragmented, audiences for this kind of science documentary fell. In the scramble to hold onto viewers, executives conducted market research to see which shows attracted the biggest numbers. Given the high costs of production, timeless subjects, which could be repeated over and over again, appeared more cost-effective than time-sensitive ones. The combined demands of ratings and long shelf life led executives in the United States (and later in the United Kingdom) to progressively turn away from journalistic films (which would quickly go out of date) and to avoid un-sexy but important science (which audiences might find boring). They settled instead for a limited set of bankable topics that would bring in viewers.

With almost no exceptions, the long-form television science documentary has come to be drawn from a small handful of approved genres:

  • “Archeology and Legends” genre (“Indiana Jones” science), which deals with expeditions, lost treasures, mummies, dinosaur bones, mammoths and the use of forensic methods to uncover the past.

  • “Forces of Nature” genre, which deals with volcanoes, tornadoes, mountains, sharks, etc.

  • “Modern History” genre, which explores certain mysteries left over from past wars such as missing submarines of Hitler’s Third Reich.

  • “Boys and Their Toys” genre, which deals with cool gadgets like racing cars and helicopters.

There is also a very popular genre that deals with war technologies such as bombs, biological and chemical weapons, military aircraft and submarines. And the emergence of cable outlets like Discover and The Learning Channel in the 1990’s has pioneered new genres such as popular psychology, alien abductions, and paranormal phenomena.

Excellent though many of these films were, they began to have less and less connection with what was actually going on in America’s research labs. A viewer watching long-form television science documentaries on PBS and cable during the past decade would hardly have realized that American science was reshaping the world.

Did television science journalism die? Not quite. There were isolated exceptions to this rule that reminded viewers about high-quality science journalism’s potential. Two notable recent examples are Larry Klein’s “Nova” film “Why the Towers Fell,” about the collapse of the World Trade Center, and Nancy Linde’s “Nova” program “Cancer Warrior,” about the life and work of cancer researcher Judah Folkman. I also played a modest role in keeping television science journalism alive. But I did it by moving from “Nova” (PBS’s flagship “science” series) to work at “Frontline” (PBS’s flagship public affairs series.)

“Frontline,” known for its in-depth coverage of current issues, is an oasis of quality television journalism in a desert of fairly desperate news magazine shows. While “Frontline” generally reports on topics such as terrorism and political scandals, from time to time they take on critical scientific issues involving medical, educational or environmental controversies.

In 1993, I set out to make a film for “Frontline” called “Prisoners of Silence” about a controversial (and bogus) new teaching technique that claimed to unlock the hidden literacy of autistic children. That experience was so positive that it resulted in a long relationship with “Frontline,” a relationship that has allowed me to once again practice true television science journalism. During the 1990’s, while most science producers were obliged (willingly or unwillingly) to craft timeless films about mummies and aircraft carriers, I had the good fortune to work for a series in which topicality matters. Each year I was assigned the controversy du jour—silicone breast implants, climate change, genetically modified food, power line electromagnetic fields, tobacco, Gulf War illness, and nuclear energy.

I have “Frontline’s” executive producers, David Fanning and Michael Sullivan, to thank for this renaissance in my career. If they have realized the value of in-depth science journalism for unpacking a complex modern controversy, I have learned an enormous amount about the values of ethical public affairs journalism—values such as honesty and fairness. I have become interested not just in the science at the core of a controversy, but in the psychological reasons why people hold the beliefs they do, whether they’re mistaken or correct. I have learned that the task of communicating messages that people don’t want to hear—not because they are bored but because it conflicts with their current belief system—is among the most interesting challenges for a science journalist.

Most important, the move to public affairs helped me to find a solution to the problem that has plagued the science documentary from its origins— getting an audience to care about science in the first place. Television is a very complex medium, and there are a million tricks that skilled producers use to tell stories. But at the bottom, effective communication depends on getting some emotional leverage with the audience. This can be done by invoking the awe and fear that an earthquake or volcano elicits, or with the excitement of fast cars and aircraft carriers, or by telling a morbid mystery about mummies. But, in my view, it’s more interesting to do it with living people.

So what is the emotional potential of living scientists? The minimum emotion necessary to get someone to listen is enthusiasm. Feynman demonstrated this just by projecting his love of science. Strong narratives, like “Addict,” in which scientific tension and emotional conflict converge, evoke other emotions that audiences relate to.

Intense controversies, however, reach emotional spaces that films about mummies, volcanoes and astrophysics can’t penetrate. When a group of people feel their children are dying from some agent in the environment, they are scared and angry. Their predicament grabs our attention. When a powerful group of lawyers takes on a powerful corporation in court, we wonder who is going to win. As we, the audience, get drawn into a controversy, and come to feel as though we know the protagonists, we are motivated to learn more and more about the issues that are so important to them and their situations.

Often in the telling of a raging controversy, with plausible arguments on both sides, it can be very difficult to know whom should we trust. While for most of my career I have bemoaned most scientists’ lack of color, I no longer complain so loudly. In an expository “Nova” about astrophysics, a scientist’s lack of charisma might be a big handicap. But in an intensely controversial film, filled with skilled dueling advocates from politicians to plaintiff lawyers, moments of “dullness” can be a virtue. In a stormy debate, viewers seek a credible moral compass, someone they are willing to believe. A mild-mannered scientist, who appears to have reasons and evidence for his or her conclusions, can fill that role. Remarkably, in my “Frontline” films I have found that modest—and yes, dull—scientists often become the heroes of the story.

As the newspapers continually remind us, modern technology brings risks as well as benefits. Do power line electromagnetic fields or cell phones cause cancer? Is it safe to move nuclear waste on America’s highways? Should therapeutic cloning be banned? Is margarine safer than butter? Are coffee and saccharine dangerous? What levels of ozone emissions should the EPA set? Is genetically modified food sufficiently well regulated? Should surgeons be allowed to transplant organs from transgenic pigs into humans? Should post-menopausal women take hormone replacement therapy? There are dozens of such questions that are complex, fascinating and important.

Three decades ago, the producers who pioneered television science documentary thought that what they were doing might help citizens to better navigate the modern world. This remains the most important justification for what I do. And while I realize that mummies and volcanoes will probably continue to dominate what viewers see on television, I would like to make a plea that we should keep television science journalism alive. If we lost these various windows into our scientific journey, we’d miss them.

Jon Palfreman has made more than 40 BBC and PBS documentaries including the Peabody Award-winning “Nova” series “The Machine That Changed the World,” the Emmy Award-winning “Nova,” “Siamese Twins,” and the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Silver Baton-winner, “Harvest of Fear.” He is the only television producer ever to receive the prestigious Victor Cohn Prize for Excellence in Medical Science Reporting. In 1996, Palfreman left WGBH to set up his own production company, the Palfreman Film Group, Inc., in Lowell, Massachusetts.

No Comments Yet
Submit a Comment
Enter the words above: * Enter the numbers you hear: *
Switch to audio Switch to image
Thank you for your comment. It will be published after it is approved by an editor. Read our comments policy »