Home SCIENCE! SCIENCE!: Science Television and the NOVA Equation

SCIENCE!: Science Television and the NOVA Equation


Last night I had the joy of attending the UAF Research Showcase, a weekly seminar sponsored by the Undergraduate Research & Scholarly Activity (URSA) office. The point of these seminars is to introduce undergraduates to potential career paths as well as to expose the greater Fairbanks community to science in general. Last night’s guest was a real treat.
Paula S. Apsell is the Senior Executive Producer of NOVA (and yes, my inner nerd squeed a bit, but I kept it to myself). She works at WGBH in Boston, a partner of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) that produces a majority of the content provided by PBS. Paula has been with NOVA off and on during its 39 seasons (fun trivia fact, it’s one of the longest running TV series in television history, outlasting I Love Lucy, Friends, and Seinfeld, but not General Hospital). She first started work with the science show in 1975, but left in the 1980’s to work for an ABC affiliate on a show that took one of the first looks into Alzheimer’s as a pathological disease. She returned to NOVA in 1985 and started NOVA ScienceNow in 2005.
When NOVA first started in 1973, there was virtually no science programming on television, because most television companies believed that “science wouldn’t sell” in a ratings based system. However, the BBC was having good success with “Horizons” at the time, and so PBS decided to give publicly broadcasted science programming a go. Her presentation, titled “The Art of Science Television” focused on the four themes that have made NOVA a long running and award winning science television show.
1)      Tell A Good Story – This starts with knowing where to end the story. When talking about science and research, there has to be a clear endpoint. Once the end is identified, NOVA develops two main components to tell their story. The first is a short promotional video that sets up the story, the characters, the challenges, and the end objective.

Once you have the promotional framework in place, then NOVA inserts the science. Telling good science stories requires scientists who can tell a story without a lot of jargon, and who can draw on personal experiences and practical examples to simplify the science in a way the broader general audience can digest. A great example of such storytelling can be found in the episode on Watson, IBM’s “thinking” computer that competed on Jeopardy.
2)      Visuals – TV is a visual medium, so it goes without saying that great television programming demands great visuals to relate information in a way that people can understand. NOVA puts a lot of work into designing and developing their visual metaphors, sometimes racking up hundreds of man hours for a single scene or segment. The results are entirely worth the effort.

3)       Selecting/Creating Great Characters – A great story with great visuals is useless without storytellers. When developing a very topic specific science program, you often don’t get to pick and choose who your storytellers are. You simply have to go to the experts. In those cases the director has to put in extra effort to make sure that the storyteller is avoiding jargon, simplifying the language so that it can be digested by a broader audience, and developing relatable examples. Scientists aren’t always the greatest communicators outside of their technical fields, and so often this can be the greatest challenge. When it’s done right, it’s the cherry on top of a great program.

4)      Speed (Time) – This component is a new addition to the NOVA toolbox, and is only used in certain instances. In todays 24 hour news cycle, some “breaking” events require immediate action. These Quick Turn Arounds (QTA’s) require a tremendous amount of organization and a bit of luck. When a meteorite hit the Earth’s atmosphere over Russia, NOVA jumped at the opportunity to round up some experts and hit the streets to reconstruct exactly what happened, how, and where. Using citizen media, they were able to reconstruct the trajectory, size, and impact location for this colossal once in a lifetime event.
One important thing that Paula pointed out was that ratings still matter, and as such NOVA is always looking for ways to contemporize the show. This keeps it fresh and relevant for a growing changing audience. Because of modern demands, the traditional three part story telling framework (Story, Conflict, and Resolution) doesn’t always work. NOVA generally feeds its audience tidbits of “resolution” along the way as it builds up to the bigger story. She also mentioned that NOVA avoids being too quantitative in its approach, relying more on conceptual and analytical science instead of numbers and statistics.
All in all, she gave an excellent presentation. It was funny, informative, and inspirational. Now I need to go catch up on past seasons…


  1. As an Anchorage Science Pub Coordinator but speaking on my own personal behalf only, I want to say that I am very impressed that the presentation you speak of was successful in stimulating both your discussion among friends (“I got into a discussion with friends over the difference between ….”) and then your most interesting (primarily philosophical) posting. After all, presenting information on science topics and promoting discussion is what ASP is all about.
    Beyond this, yes, there is no doubt that folks use and interpret facts and science to promote private, even vested interests. We see it all the time and in so many settings. Even in courts, juries and judges must decide between facts and science presented in defense of totally opposite positions. This is reality. And, in the end, I think we all hope, the best science and the most accurate facts win out. Otherwise, all we have is politics.
    But, just because there may be more than one interpretation of a set of facts does not mean verification for/of them should not be pursued to the nth degree.
    In the case of the Wet Dog Race presentation (the basis of your comments), invitations were extended to both the promoter and the state to help present the picture. The promoter did not respond and the state (via Division of Mining, Land & Water of AK Department of Natural Resources, the permitting agency) declined the invitation.
    The parties noted in the presentation that have actively and openly commented on and/or are opposed to the Wet Dog Race called upon the best science available to, first, make their comment and raise questions about the plans presented to the state for the race, and, then, after the permit was granted, to appeal the decision. These are all a part of the record with the permitting agency available for all to view. Many of these organizations are well known and highly respected. The smaller and locally-based organizations involved may have obvious interests (why shouldn’t they?) but to imply that the comments they have presented are, willy-nilly, based on mere “conjecture” as opposed to fact (with a science base) is without merit.
    So, be honest here. If there were facts stated in the presentation that you question, please say so and be specific. That is the way science works, not with mere blanked allegations like: “the bulk of the message was built on vague subjective statements and conjecture.” Before you do so, however, please take some time to go to the DNR office and take a look at the record on this matter.
    Beyond this, I must say that while your discourse on “inductive” and “deductive” reasoning is interesting, it may actually be more philosophical than scientific in nature. But, then, since science, at its best, is a methodology rather than a mere topic, how do we so concisely separate philosophy, mathematics, engineering, biology, zoology, psychology, policy, regulations, even government, the cosmos, health, wildlife, fish, whales, airplanes, etc., from science. That is the real challenge for science pub planners and I am certain they will always welcome your comments and suggestions.