Whatever happened to TV science shows?
I read with a certain sadness that NHNZ Ltd where I spent 16 years is being dissolved and relaunched as NHNZ Worldwide. I have no idea what direction the re-constituted company will take under Dame Julie Christie, but I do have a plea to the new owners: make science television shows for New Zealand your number one priority.
I spent much of my television career in Australia and New Zealand reporting and producing science stories for domestic and international TV markets. I began as a reporter on Quantum, a weekly half-hour show on the Australian Broadcasting Commission which ran 32 weeks a year and screened in a primetime mid-week slot. We covered science and technology stories from medical innovations to robotics, nanotechnology and cosmology.
I got to interview inspiring science communicators like Sir David Attenborough and Dr David Suzuki and meet some of the smartest people on the planet like the IBM scientist who manipulated individual atoms to spell out IBM, the researchers in Scotland who created Dolly the sheep, the first cloned mammal, and Australian astronomer, David Malin who invented new ways of visualising galaxies, producing stunning, coloured images of space. We profiled cutting edge research at Australian, New Zealand and US universities and institutions, told stories with journalistic rigour in an entertaining and accessible way that made great family viewing. We won top awards in Australia and overseas.
Thirty years on, the ABC still broadcasts a weekly science show called Catalyst.
From Quantum, I moved on to reporting for Beyond 2000, an Australian produced hour-long show that ran in primetime on Channel 7 and then Channel 10. We made 46 hours a year of science and technology programming that was filmed all over the world. From Cameroon a theory about how carbon dioxide gas from Lake Nyos killed nearly 2000 people, from Siberia a technique for performing hypothermic heart surgery on children using ice instead of heart/lung by-pass machines, from the US I reported excitedly on the development of a new means of communication called email and interviewed Dr Anthony Fauci about the research program for treating and managing HIV/AIDS.
A top rating show in Australia and around the world, Beyond 2000 was at one time US Discovery Channel’s highest-rating show and was sold to over 100 channels worldwide.
Those science shows provided viewers with a window on what was happening in their world, how science and technology were changing almost every aspect of their lives, from transport, medicine and communications, to climate, environmental issues, and cool gadgets. The shows appealed to all the family, boys and girls and to techies. Many of the young fans of these shows were inspired to go on and become scientists, inventors, technological entrepreneurs. I know, because as a presenter and reporter on Quantum and Beyond 2000, I have met people around the world who told me that these shows were their absolute favourite and got them excited about science and technology. That still happens occasionally.
We need to bring back that connection with science and technology, and make them exciting, relevant and, most importantly, trusted.
The digital age has revolutionised how we learn about the world and how we communicate, while at the same time displacing or undermining the business models of other media. It is a disruptive force, often driven by the Silicon Valley catch-cry of “move fast and break things”.
But there is a crucial catch to instant information. You are limited by your ignorance. How do you know what to search for? You’re unlikely to search for a technological or scientific research project if you have no idea it exists. Your search patterns are largely driven by your interests and your social media connections. Meanwhile the algorithms that drive search engines and social media platforms are directing you to content you have expressed an interest in. That produces the phenomenon known as the echo chamber where people just hear back what they already know or believe or want to believe.
These trends have come at a heavy price to our knowledge of science and our social behaviour, producing a lack of trust in science and the rise of bizarre conspiracy theories.
One bonus of Covid-19 is that we have become used to seeing and hearing a lot more of scientists on TV and radio. It’s reassuring that we turn to scientists when faced with a life-threatening pandemic, but they shouldn’t just be the “boffins” called in to get us out of a fix.
The question is how can we get science back to being more mainstream, a regular feature of how we see and understand our world? Bringing back Science TV shows should be part of the answer, along with training more science teachers, teaching science in primary school, having more business leaders and politicians with science backgrounds and encouraging students to take science degrees instead of business and commerce.
We should remember that science and technology underpin just about every aspect of our modern lives, they form and inform our everyday reality. Without them, we wouldn’t have the quality of life we take for granted. Indeed, our future survival as a species will ultimately depend on scientific and technological knowledge, research and innovation.
That’s why it is crucial that we restore communication channels between scientists and the public at the everyday level. That’s what TV Science shows do so well. That is what the new NHNZ should do. And guess what, it can be fun, informative, entertaining and profitable.