The Onion on Science Programming

Yes, it’s very funny*, and awfully close to the truth as well, at least in terms of the final product. More seriously, it is worth noting that what they get wrong is the blaming of it on audiences. It is actually more about the channels (not just the Science Channel) themselves and the sort of business models they run. We, the scientists who care to, must carry on contributing where we can as well as encouraging and supporting the film-makers as much as we can. It’s not really their fault so much as the people who call the shots at the head of the money food chain. Most of the film-makers I’ve worked with on the many shows I’ve helped with (either in front of or behind the camera, or both) are passionate about the science, are keenly interested in understanding it more so as to tell the story to the public as well as they can, and are capable of doing so. They most often can’t get their shows past the people at the top who believe that the material is too inaccessible or not interesting to the public. (I’ve heard the same complaint from science journalists working in the print media too.) On the other hand, I get recognized and stopped on the street (bus, subway, grocery store, car wash…) almost weekly (when in the US) by so many people on a regular basis (must do a post on this later) telling of how much they love the shows, watch them regularly, and want more. We need to continue to make the case that there is a strong audience out there, and for good content, not “dumbed-down” material. See earlier posts on this issue for more thoughts. (Look under categories like science and society, science education, television, etc, and the “Tales….” series here….)

Anyway, enjoy the Onion article. My favourite line is the quote:

As evidence of their refusal to further water down programming, network sources pointed to a number of proposed shows they’ve abandoned in recent weeks, including an animal-based bungee-jumping program called Extreme Gravity, and Atom Smashers, a series that was was roundly rejected by focus groups as being “too technical” and “not awesome enough.”

“People liked that the particle accelerators were really huge, but apparently the show didn’t have enough smashing to hold their interest,” said a former employee who wished to remain anonymous. “In the end, it was either add a huge monster truck for no reason whatsoever or pull the plug on the entire project. Honestly, I don’t think I’d be able to face my wife and children had we gone through with it.”

Or perhaps:

“I don’t like it when the science people talk about things no one can even understand,” said Rich Parker, an Ohio resident. “It’s like, just quit your yapping and dip the chain saw into the liquid nitrogen already.”



*Thanks Darryl!

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11 Responses to The Onion on Science Programming

  1. jeremy says:

    I think some of the blame does lie with the audience, though. The reason shows have degenerated into the things they play now, compared to some of the good stuff I remember as a kid, is because they really do get higher ratings. A scientifically accurate show with 10% of the viewership of the ridiculous show with no science simply can’t compete.

    Of course, it is more than possible to make a really awesome, scientifically accurate show, which will get lots of viewers. But it’s so much easier to make a crappy show that, statistically, they will always end up overwhelming the good shows.

    Although the lack of good, scientifically accurate, shows could probably be used to create a large demand for them, by a smart executive. So we could always see an explosion in good stuff eventually, but TV executives are not exactly known as risk-takers…

  2. Jack Levine says:

    yeah, that onion piece is hilarious!!!!

    god bless ’em for calling it out so boldly, not even using a fake name for the network. 🙂

    it’s so hard to know, isn’t it, whether there really *is* an audience out there that is big enough to be on par with those who will gather to watch smashing pumpkins.

    i mean, I complain as much as everyone, but when it comes down to it our “feeling” that there is a big audience is (I hate to say it!) totally unscientific. our experience of compliments you and I get from our fans (bless them all) is merely anecdotal evidence.

    i gotta think (but I really don’t know) that these giant media companies *do* approach the problem of audience size scientifically. they have massive systems set up to track budgets, ratings, advertising rates, profits, etc. and we have to believe that if they saw a way to make a lot of money by making higher quality shows, then they would do it.

    i think what’s so insightful about the Onion article is that it points out that what’s most *insulting* about all this junk programming is that is being *called* “science” programming.

    if it weren’t called science programming, and were instead called Thrill Shows, or Hobby Drama or whatever, we wouldn’t complain so much.

    So, I guess it’s a two fold problem:

    1. We wish they wouldn’t label non-scientific shows as “science”
    2. We wish they would actually make real science shows, that were intelligent, fun, and inspiring.

    Ok, now I’m lighting my torch and I’ll join you in the screaming mob.

  3. Samantha says:

    Holy cow. Punkin-Chunkin is a real show. I thought that it had to be made up by The Onion.

  4. Clifford says:

    Me too! Wow…!


  5. Clifford says:

    Jeremy, Jack,

    Thanks. I think that if the network execs use a business model that is entirely about profits first and foremost, it cannot help but go the way of undiluted junk. This is what seems to be happening, and if the networks feed the public junk, then they come to expect junk, and the standards of what constitute good work goes down and so over time, in testing of programs, the tested public can’t deal with anything that is not junk because that is what they’ve been led to expect… and so on and so forth. So I *do* place the blame more at the door of the networks and not at the public. It is too easy to blame the latter, and missing the root of the problem.

    Now, I am not going to be an unrealistic idealist and ask that all programming follow some higher calling and ignore the fact that these networks are out to make money, but I think it is equally misguided to make it all about money too, which is where we are.

    Somehow there can be a happy medium, I think. Why not, for example, experiment with two separate sets of programs…. there’s the bubble gum with “Science-lite” content, and there’s the other stuff that is held to a higher standard, where film-makers and writers are allowed to experiment, to break the formula and try new bold and rich ideas for how to bring science to the public. If you have the brand name, like Science Channel, you have the opportunity (some would say responsibility) to really make that mean something and try to capitalize on the name and ringfence some of the programming time for making really ground-breaking efforts in program making. The thing is that I think if networks were bold, it could well pay off financially too because I _do_ think that there are people who would consistently beat a path to their door in large numbers if they started doing it well. Look at the HBO model for high quality drama. They hire good film-makers, writers, etc, and largely get out of their way and let them do good work that often the way in dramatic writing on TV which is then copied by non-subscription channels like AMC (Mad Med), Sci-Fi Channel (before it decided that “Sci” was scary or something and went with “SyFy” as their name, sigh) with BSG, etc, all of which raked in dollars for those channels.

    It is a trend that can extend to science programming…. The networks need to just get out of the way of the program makers and let them do strong work that is about the science first and foremost, and not impose a formula, at least for a decent chunk of the week’s programming, and sure go ahead and catapult pumpkins as well for the rest of the week. The History Channel tried it boldly for a while with The Universe, resulting in excellent ratings and several high quality programs (although there are still several weaker episodes of the gee-wiz sort mixed in as well, or where the writer evidently just phoned in some of the research, but it is not too bad, mostly, with a crew of very strong and creative film-makers wanting to bring on the science)… and occasionally they commission excellent one-off programs like Phil Shane’s two hour special about Einstein which is a tremendous piece of work (people stop me on the street a lot about that one too)…

    It _can_ be done.



  6. Jack Levine says:

    Excellent point about the lack of a high quality “standard bearer.” We used to have one in this country, called PBS. Nova & Frontline and a couple of other shows remain, but largely PBS is a shadow (of the shadow) it used to be. As you say, the profit motive is the killer. Discovery Channel, and all it’s sub-channels like Science Channel, exists to make money. Ditto for History Channel. They are aimed at the most profitable demographic: 18-45 year old males. These networks are the equivalent of “Classic Rock” corporate radio, they are not put on the air out of a love for their subjects or for the community that is passionate about it.

    Public Broadcasting could be that way, but it’s budgets are terribly low (or non-existent) because they rely on governments and philanthropy. You mention HBO, but of course they have a very expensive subscription model, which caters to wealthly audiences, and still the real money maker on that network is porn related programming and a handful of well crafted dramas. They are making BMW’s and Mercedes compared to the Dodge & Chrylsers of the other networks. And, notice: no science programming on HBO at all.

    I too am hopeful someday there will be an HBO of science. And I am convinced it will come from the Internet.

  7. Clifford says:


    I was saying something more subtle about HBO. Clearly it works on a different, subscription-based model, and so is not what I have in mind for Science channel, etc, but my point is that some years back we all witnessed the phenomenon where non-subscription networks followed HBO’s lead in realizing that you can build an audience by a return to a few choice high-quality products, while at the same time the major broadcast networks went the other way and kept dumbing down…. It worked. Several cable networks now have a well regarded flagship drama of some sort. Mad Men, BSG, and a host of other shows that people rightly regard as worth watching are showing up, mainly as a result of HBO’s model. I think that the same thing can be done in science programming, and I do not believe that it needs be done by PBS or HBO. It can be done and not fly in the face of making money… you curate your “science” brand carefully and make that mean something.



  8. Jack Levine says:

    Yes, excellent point. What’s needed is the high quality gem of a science program. The Mad Men or BSG of science shows! It is incredible to me that, in my eyes, the closest this country comes to having such a thing is Nova. It’s not always the most amazing show, but it doesn’t shout at you, it doesn’t blow stuff up for the heck of it, it’s thoughtful, and has a very high production value.

    Nova is based on a much older BBC program (programme!) called Horizon, which is one of the greatest science shows of all time, I think. Nova still doesn’t come close.

    Notice however, that both these shows are made by non-profit agencies. I agree that Universe was fine at times, but never (and I imagine, very largely because of budget constraints) reached the high quality of Nova or Horizon. And I don’t think that’s just a matter of taste, it takes an awful lot of time to research and write high quality science television.

    Some would argue it, but I also believe Cosmos was another extreme high point in science television, again on PBS. Neil Tyson’s work on PBS is also quite good, and in a much higher league (in terms of intelligence, thoughtfulness and accuracy) than anything on commercial television. And Bill Nye for children, I suppose, but I’m not very familiar with his work.

    What’s fantastic about the internet is that, for the first time in history, any kind of program can be developed, experimented with, tried out, and if it’s good, it can grow an audience. And if it’s really good, it can explode, probably by being picked up by one of the major media companies.

    There is no longer any barrier to distribution. From my laptop (where I edit my shows) I am directly connected to anyone IN THE WORLD who has an internet connection. That is how we can build an audience. If the audience who would love truly high-quality science shows in the USA is still below some critical mass, it doesn’t matter, because we can reach that same niche audience in every country around the world.

    And science is truly an international enterprise, it deserves programming that reaches a similarly global audience.

    I continue to pitch many ideas to the television networks, taking their big budgets when possible, but those big budgets come with those big strings attached: you are really making that show so they can sell cars and sham-wows.

    We are still in the primitive barnstorming era of Internet television. But we are rapidly leaving that phase. The next five to ten years will, I predict, be like the growth of independent film: there will be a sudden explosive successful show (not likely to be in science). Then another, then a gold rush. I think that a science related show is likely to be somewhere in that early rush. Maybe in the next five years.

    In short, the network monopoly is collapsing, very rapidly. They know it. And that’s why they’re chucking pumpkins.

  9. Clifford says:

    Hi! Yes… I completely agree about the web likely being the best vehicle for future innovation and quality. I’m excited about it too. I don’t want to give up on the current audiences who will stay with traditional media for a while longer.. they deserve better and so we must still try to keep the banner of content flying on TV during the transition…



  10. I’m reminded of the Springsteen song, “57 Channels (and Nothin’ On). Even if quality science programming is crowded out by other stuff for some economic reason, or possibly just lack of foresight on the part of those making programming decisions, it seems possible quality programming that even already exists could exist on the Internet–to add to Jack’s comment. It would seem, for instance, that rights to stream Horizon over the Internet could be gotten relatively cheaply, and watched on some Hulu like interface. Perhaps the value of quality cable based programming can be increased by embedding within that programming urls to sites that explore aspects of the program in more detail. For instance, one could watch online edited out parts of a segment of a cable program that is of particular interest to that viewer. Nowadays, I think it is likely that someone who is watching cable science programs also has a broadband Internet connection. I should also mention that a wonderful countervailing development is that video lectures of some top university professors are available for free on the Internet! Wow!

    I think part of the problem is that the Internet has strengths that are wasted by passively playing content in a TV-like fashion. Learning is individualized, but for TV, and particularly educational science TV, one size fits all and there are no follow-up questions. Two important questions to ask are 1) might it help some genius kid find his way to science?, and 2) will it help create a better informed population, particularly with concern about how the public votes on issues that require some level of scientific understanding. We know we have a problem in regards to the latter point by merely noting that roughly half the population in the U.S. rejects Darwin! I don’t think a higher level of science understanding is enough, though. Even relatively educated people can be fooled and confused by the non-reconciled claims by the apparent (real or falsely attributed) authorities. You’d think if only the apparent authorities could methodically debate each other the falsehoods could be exposed. After all, everyone claims they have common sense explanations. Turns out though that linear-time productions where the panelists simultaneously participate is a fatally flawed model if the goal is to create an effective debate. On the other hand, an effective and sensation-worthy debate can be created by properly incorporating certain available features of the Internet. I am trying to establish a company that does that.

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