'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.
'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.
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
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.