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image European Research News Centre > Research and Society > The secret of small screen success
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image image image Date published: 16/10/02
  image The secret of small screen success
RTD info special "Talking Science"
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  Some 66.4% of Europeans 'prefer to watch television programmes about science and technology than to read articles on the subject', As the media ‘king’, how does television communicate scientific knowledge? Is the emphasis on informing or entertaining? Who are science programmes aimed at? Is a European science channel a feasible proposition? TV science comes under the spotlight as we try to find some answers.
   
     
   

'Television news traditionally treats science as a bit of a break from the heavy stuff, going for optimism and spectacular pictures, such as those taken by the Hubble telescope. It offers an element of surprise, the cherry on the cake,' believes TV and newspaper journalist Patrice Lanoy, a physicist by training and current president of the Association des journalistes scientifiques de la presse d’information (France). 'More serious questions are covered in greater depth at other times, in particular by science programmes broadcast by certain European channels – some of those for young people being very good indeed – and the documentaries which are the main diet of the theme channels.'

A question of image(s)
With a few exceptions, science programmes are scarcely considered as likely to boost audience ratings. Most channels therefore give priority to subjects with a certain popular appeal, such as health, the environment, biotechnologies and space. These are aimed at a wide audience, with the emphasis being on the popularisation of science and a dramatisation of research to appeal to the viewer's imagination. Scientific disciplines are therefore dependent upon their image – and their images, in terms of their ability to provide sequences which should preferably be spectacular, poignant or shot in far-away or exotic locations. The animal kingdom lends itself very readily to this, many wildlife programmes being assured a comfortable success. Ethnographic documentaries appeal simultaneously to our curiosity and love of the exotic, while archaeological documentaries have an element of mystery and can be portrayed in a manner worthy of the very best detective stories. As to astronomy and space research, these are clearly subjects that can grab the viewer's imagination. On the other hand, subjects such as maths and physics are clearly going to find it more difficult to make their way on to the TV screens, unless the focus is on very concrete applications.

Varied landscape
'Science continues to suffer from a dull and bookish image, which is an obvious turn-off for TV bosses whose main fear is losing audience share,' believes Kathleen Van Damme, senior consultant in audio-visual communication with DDB Focus Europe, which recently carried out a feasibility study at the request of the European Commission (see box A channel portal) for a possible pan-European science channel. Yet a number of channels have managed to attract a significant audience by producing science programmes of real quality. The secret? 'You need a different approach to science in pictures. If you can provide quality and originality, you will have an audience… and commercial success too,' continues Kathleen Van Damme.

She believes the problem is 'not so much a matter of the quality of science programmes, which has been improving for some years now, as the actual quantity broadcast, which varies greatly from one country to another’. There is considerable scope in France, where there are two educational and cultural channels, and also in Germany and the United Kingdom, with over 20 hours of science and technology programmes weekly. Countries such as Portugal and Spain, on the other hand, have very few specific programmes, with the exception of l'Aventura del Saber on TVE.

Although this Portuguese production is very popular, it is aimed at children and there is no follow-up programme to make the early teens more aware of questions of science. 'It is not easy to determine which young people you are seeking to address,' points out Piero Angela, producer of the programme SuperQuark, which has been remarkably successful on prime-time TV on Italy's RAI station. 'The adult public is much more homogenous and, by using a simple level of language, you can reach a mass TV audience. Among young people, the ability to understand changes very quickly from one age group to another – you do not speak in the same way to a child of six, eight, ten, 12 or 14. But it is difficult to convince people that such a limited number of young TV viewers warrants such major investments. That said, it is certainly worth trying.'

The cost of super co-productions
With the development of ideas, document search, scouting for a location, shooting and so forth, a good TV production does not come cheap. As is so often true in the audio-visual industry, the solution lies in co-production. The two science documentary experts – the BBC and the US station Discovery –formed a partnership ten years ago. This co-operation enabled them to raise the kind of budgets required for an average production cost of €530 000 for a 52-minute documentary in the United Kingdom, compared with between €130 000 and €200 000 in France.

In the super co-production league, the series Walking with Beasts (6x30 minutes) on the evolution of mammals 65 million years ago, cost more than €11 million to make, and was jointly financed by the BBC, Discovery, Pro7 (Germany) and TV Asahi (Japan). It was more than two years in the making and employed a team of 80 (most notably at the two animation studios and for the special effects), plus transcontinental shooting in Indonesia, South Africa, Brazil and Mexico. This flagship series, which followed the equally popular Walking with Dinosaurs (€9.5 million), was also an opportunity to experiment with interactivity by giving more than 2 million British viewers the opportunity to find out more about the scientific issues raised and the production techniques used in making the series.

Derived media
Internet complementarity is one of the new avenues being explored by most European science programmes. The viewer is invited to log on for access to a more in-depth content, references and links to explore the subject further. Some sites, such as the BBC website at (http://www.bbc.co.uk/science/), are starting to resemble a genuine on-line encyclopaedia – and are thus a particularly useful resource for teachers – sometimes with the option of a repeat viewing of a broadcast programme.

Never short of ideas, the BBC (http://www.bbc.co.uk/science/) has also launched a travelling exhibition based on its famous science programme Tomorrow’s World (http://www.bbc.co.uk/science/
tw/2002/
). The aim is to make young people, their teachers and their families more aware of the latest news from the world of science and technology. During its trip around the UK it is expected to attract about 160 000 visitors. It will be an interactive event, covering research and innovation in the fields of health, energy, sports, transport, engineering and the life sciences. Launched as part of Science Year, this travelling roadshow will also broadcast live as part of the weekly BBC programme.

Cultural and thematic
Over the past few years science has also begun to feature prominently on cultural or documentary channels. The Franco-German Arte channel, for example, devotes almost 20% of its programming to science subjects while France 5, a public channel launched in 1994, is essentially a knowledge channel. The latter aims to give viewers the tools to help them 'decipher the world around them' (http://www.france5.fr/sante_sciences/). In addition to programmes on employment, the economy, the arts, history and the media, science makes up one-third of its programming, with programmes for adults and children alike. With a predilection for the human sciences (40.1%), natural sciences (22%), and exact or technical sciences (16.5%), France 5 presents the mechanisms, advances and implications of research clearly and precisely in its magazine programmes, series, documentaries and debates. The weekly A la recherche, for example, adopts a tried and tested formula: a film followed by a debate.

In the private sector, the multimedia specialists Einstein Group launched an exclusively science channel two years ago. Einstein TV broadcasts quality programmes, combining information and entertainment, in fields such as space, technology, and the earth and life sciences. These usually comprise short sequences of between five and 30 minutes repeated at regular intervals, with the possibility of logging on to the Internet site (http://www.einstein.tv/) for further information. Its programmes are broadcast by satellite in the UK (on Sky Digital), Germany (Mediavision) and Switzerland (Cablecom), and it hopes to expand throughout Europe by offering French, Spanish and Italian versions. The station is certainly not lacking in ambition in the face of European productions by the two major US channels, Discovery Channel and National Geographic.

     
 
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Animals and action… A tried and tested formula used successfully in the series Walking with Beasts produced by the BBC. © BBCAnimals and action… A tried and tested formula used successfully in the series Walking with Beasts produced by the BBC. © BBCAnimals and action… A tried and tested formula used successfully in the series Walking with Beasts produced by the BBC. © BBC
Animals and action… A tried and tested formula used successfully in the series Walking with Beasts produced by the BBC. © BBC

 


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