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  TELEVISION  -  The magicians of C'est pas sorcier

Science is an adventure and researchers have to keep their wits about them because you never know where a discovery may lie. Proof of which is provided by a French television programme that is now broadcast on several continents – and most recently in China. RTD info takes a look behind the scenes.

The programme’s travelling laboratory and its two presenters, Jamy Gourmaud (left) and Frédéric Courant. © Riff Production
The programme’s travelling laboratory and its two presenters, Jamy Gourmaud (left) and Frédéric Courant.
© Riff Production
"Fred is funny, Jamy is nice and Sabine is interesting," writes Hermione, aged 11. Titi, also 11, finds that “most of the time the explanations are easy to understand, even if some words are sometimes difficult”. C’est pas sorcier – which translates as ‘You don’t have to be a wizard’ or, more simply, ‘It isn’t complicated’ – attracts young viewers, but not exclusively so. “People often tell me that their son watches the programme… and that they watch with him,” says Frédéric Courant (Fred), one of the creators and presenters of this programme for which “the children decide on the content”. They receive letters from just about everywhere and from people of all ages. They recently received this message: “I thank you for having enabled me to understand my century”. The writer had just celebrated her 100th birthday!

The range of subjects covered is impressive: migrating birds, nuclear power stations, the saving of Venice, avalanches and tidal waves, Ariane V and life in space, radioactivity and writing. Since 1994, 360 programmes have been made, all based on the same concept. An individual (Frédéric Courant) finds himself up against a phenomenon. “I am the proverbial ‘man in the street’ and I ask naïve questions that many adults may not dare ask. It is by asking questions that you learn. What we are trying to do, in a sense, is to de-stigmatise ignorance.”

Fred and his companion Sabine are seen out and about in the field where, all in a good cause, they have no qualms about making a parachute jump or approaching an active volcano. The answers are given by Jamy Gourmand, the master experimenter and modeller, who explains everything from inside his travelling laboratory, driven by the mysterious Marcel whose voice is sometimes heard but whose face is never seen. 

Conveyors of information
The coral reefs, treasures at risk – shooting in Noumea (New Caledonia) and the models produced for the programme. © France 3
The coral reefs, treasures at risk – shooting in Noumea (New Caledonia) and the models produced for the programme. © France 3
The coral reefs, treasures at risk – shooting in Noumea (New Caledonia) and the models produced for the programme.
© France 3
This well-tried formula has attracted such a faithful audience that the 26-minute programme   goes out daily on the French public station France 3. Each Sunday, the week’s new programme is broadcast, which attracts a young audience, while the late afternoon weekday repeats of earlier programmes attract a more varied audience. “We are the conveyors of information, positioning ourselves between those who have the knowledge, that is the experts and the scientists, and the general public.”

It may sound simple but it requires serious preparation, involving a team of journalists and six weeks’ work for each programme. “We are currently making a programme on obesity, mainly among young people. We are analysing the mechanisms involved and talking to the experts. We will then present our investigations and our findings by creating a scenario, the situation in which I will be presenting in the field, along with Jamy’s answers. There will also be a logic and a dynamism running through it all that is not always easy to achieve.”  

The subject does not guarantee the audience
Exploring Etna in the company of volcanologist Jacques Durieux. © France 3
Exploring Etna in the company of volcanologist Jacques Durieux.
© France 3
The secret lies in coming up with a perfectly natural storyline revolving around sometimes complex questions, in ‘popularising’ without oversimplifying while, at the same time, respecting the utmost rigour and closely scrutinising the present state of scientific knowledge on the subject. “We translate what the experts say into other words, making use of comparisons and of our models that sometimes say it all.” As proof that they are doing it right, the team find they are generally very warmly welcomed by researchers “who often have children who watch the programme”.

As to the choice of subject, contrary to what many people think, this does not necessarily determine the audience. (“This gives us a great deal of editorial freedom.”) Six years ago, a rather untypical programme set about explaining the European Institutions. “We explained the mechanisms by creating a story and although the subject was not very sexy, the people watched.” Although C’est pas sorcier does, from time to time, cover ‘social’ subjects such as life in the inner cities or famine, ‘pure’ science remains its forte. It was a programme on stick insects that earned its producer, Vincent Lamy, the 2004 EU Descartes Prize for science communication, presented by MIF-Sciences. In just over 20 minutes, the programme presented these strange green-blooded insects that need no males to reproduce, discharge toxic gases to ward off predators and can remain motionless for hours to be indistinguishable from a stick. What is more, there are around 2 500 different species of them! 

C'est pas sorcier has won an audience far beyond France’s borders. It is distributed in many French-speaking countries in Africa, and China has just purchased broadcasting rights – which means it will soon be going out to a potential audience of 6 million viewers in the Beijing area. 

  AthenaWeb: ‘audio-virtual’ Europe  
  Two Eurobarometer polls on European attitudes to science and technology (1), show that people generally trust information provided by the media and by television in particular. The television also remains their principal source of information, although young people seem to be turning increasingly to the internet. Yet apart from productions by a limited number of major science programme-makers, such as the BBC (UK), few programmes made by less well-known or independent companies achieve widespread distribution. This is despite the fact that at European level a very interesting variety of short films, documentaries, interviews, etc. is available. “At the present time, science films do not travel well inside the EU,” explains Patrick Vittet-Philippe, Press Officer, Research DG. “There is a lack of information on the programmes available, as well as problems of language and of copyright. Launched in the spring of 2005, the AthenaWeb European initiative serves as a link between science programme directors, independent producers, scientific journalists and all those active in the world of communication in the fields of science and technology.” 

The site is intended solely for professionals who can consult a ‘library’ of productions available in Europe and view documents on-line in high-quality format (QuickTime and Mpeg 4). AthenaWeb has 4 500 registered users. Some 200 titles are available, representing about 30 broadcasting hours. It aims to increase this to 100 hours by the end of 2005.  

One of the initiative’s original features is to offer the audio-visual sector different kinds of contracts. Three types of operating licences are possible: the traditional copyright, copyleft (free use of certain videos – most of them coming from institutions – with mention of source), and copyshare. The latter is new and permits the exchange of videos between users. AthenaWeb also aims to facilitate the development of new productions and co-productions. The network between researchers and professionals that it would like to develop should favour this exchange of ideas and their implementation.

(1) The Europeans, Science and Technology and Social values, science and technology - http://ec.europa.eu/public_opinion/index_en.htm


  Research TV: labs on screen  
  The Skin's the Thing, Sex and Death in a British Orchard, Say it with Flowers… are not the names of romantic fiction films but of documentaries presenting the results of research carried out at British universities. They can be viewed – and obtained – at the Research-TV [ http://www.research-tv.com/ ] website. Launched in 2004 by the University of Warwick to publicise its work through the most popular media, the initiative was later expanded to include the universities of Birmingham, Durham, Nottingham and King’s College London.  

The idea is simple. Researchers open up the doors of their laboratories and explain their work to media professionals. The documents produced – which strictly respect the length and other stipulations of the broadcasting channels – are in the form of brief news releases which can be used in news programmes or longer documents. The procedure is simple: visit the website, read the film summary and consult the details, then view it. If you are a programme planner you can then order the film.

On average, the Research-TV stories are used by around 30 stations within 24 hours of being placed on-line. The organisers estimate that a billion people have the opportunity to view a document obtained from this source. The films are not only of interest to the Anglo-Saxon market but also to major clients abroad – France 2, the French public broadcaster, used five Research-TV stories in the space of three months. All the films have also been broadcast by E-TV, a satellite theme channel that concentrates on technology (in English and Italian) and is sponsored by Epson (www.tech-channel.com [ http://www.tech-channel.com/ ]).

Success breeds success and the British team is currently envisaging launching the Science-TV project, a channel that would present the latest developments in research, the questions asked by and of science and also provide a forum for debates with the public and dialogue between experts. Another project, Business School-TV, will concentrate on subjects in the field of management.