YORK FILMS News and Views

Raili Taylor, York’s administrator, asks: Why do we bother producing  science shows for television?

by Raili Taylor, of York Films of England, London. This is a chapter from Astronomy Communication, edited by André Heck and Clause Madsen and published by Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2003.

Abstract. Science programming on television is in decline. There are fewer programmes and those that remain tend to be made for wide audience appeal. Serious science programmes – programmes with some substance – do not appeal to those who decide what appears on our screens. Scientists, too, are often critical of science programmes and scientists are sometimes unhappy with the way they are portrayed on television.

1.  T + S = $$
If, in some parallel universe, Albert Einstein had been a producer of science programmes for television rather than a scientist he might well have come up with a different equation than the one he made famous. Instead of E=mc2 we might have T+ S=$$. Here, T stands for time, S for space and $ is the universal symbol for money. But whereas scientists might assume that $ in our equation means money earned – or at least, money made – in the world of television production it means money spent. For the truth is - it costs money to make TV programmes about space or science and the more time you spend in the making, the more it costs. For it is the time itself that costs: the time charged by the production staff and for the facilities hire. And it takes time to produce quality programmes, anywhere from 8 to 12 months for one hour of screen time. This will translate into a production budget of up to quarter of a million pounds. At York Films we have always followed a dictum from Sir Paul Fox who initiated popular science programming at Yorkshire Television in the 1970s: “Put the money on the screen”. In practise that means that while the core personnel has clocked some 75 years in television programme production our profit from the enterprise over the years would make most research scientists feel rich in comparison.  

Let’s see where the money goes. This is the typical expenditure for a one-hour documentary on space, say: on Sun and its influence on Earth. The production team at York Films would typically consist of an in-house Writer / Executive producer and an Animator to produce the Computer Generated images. The cost: £6600 per month plus office overheads (rent, stationery, telephones, courier) and payroll costs. Then there are legal costs (for producing production agreements) and insurance, both for the production and for Errors and Omissions which is a content insurance. The production team consists usually of freelance personnel hired for the project: a Science Producer or a Consultant, a Producer, (£ 800-1000 p.w.) an Assistant Producer (£500-700 p.w), a Researcher and a specialist Film Researcher (£600-700 p.w).  There would also need to be a Production Manager (£850-1000 p.w) or a Production Coordinator (£650-750 p.w) and an Assistant, the latter often a student or recent graduate who wants to gain experience and is prepared to work for a low wage.  If some of these fees seem substantial it should be borne in mind that these are freelance workers, often unemployed for long periods, and without any sickness or holiday benefits or pension.

Of the above, the Producer, the AP, and the Researcher would need to be engaged for virtually the whole production period. In this case, let’s give them eight months to produce a commercial hour (50-52 minutes). The first three months are spent on research and firming up the story, in making sure that all the vital questions are asked and answered: What, Who, Where, When, Why, and How. The interviewees on the screen and off it need to be identified, won over and sold to the Commissioning Editor as good choices. At the same time the Producer is briefing the Animator who will be working in parallel with the rest of the production team – usually 24/7 in the last weeks before the final edit. The specialist Film Researcher will start identifying sources for any archive or library footage and negotiate a license fee within the budget. The Production Manager will be in charge of the budget and tries to negotiate the best possible deal on crews (two man crew with basic camera kit starts at £800 per day) and post-production facilities (rough edit with an editor supplied starts at £1500 p.w, final edit and audio finish £200 p.h). The PM or the Coordinator will also work on the shooting schedule together with the Producer and is responsible for all the logistics for the shoot. The shoot will take up the next 4-6 weeks, including travel, followed by weeks of viewing the material and assembling edited sequences. This is when the outline of the programme is hammered out – often to be changed in the edit suite because it didn’t work on the screen.

Post-production is the final stage – first a rough edit of the whole programme is laid down in long form and then gradually and painfully whittled down to the required length. This is when the last sacrifices are often made: an interview will have to be lost because it distorts or skews the storyline, an argument does not seem to support itself or a theory which sounded so convincing round the table doesn’t stand up in the context of the programme.

When the rough cut is completed a copy goes to the composer and another to the writer. Some production companies produce the script before there is any shooting or editing. This is at the request of the Commissioning Editors who like to assure themselves without too much trouble that the production team knows what it is doing and – more importantly – that this is something the Commissioning Editor can approve. The big problem here is that you are, in effect, harnessing the carriage before the horse. You are also determining what an interviewee is saying before the interview has taken place. At York Films we always write the script when the programme is completed. That way the picture, the story and the words support and enhance one other. This is also the final chance to check facts.

At York Films we have always used the same composer, Ernie Wood, and the same writer, David Taylor, the company founder, to write the narration script. Both men produce at about the same speed, about one minute in every two hours. At that rate, 50 minutes of airtime requires some hundred hours of writing/composing time. By the time their work is done, the programme has been through the final edit where any special effects are added and it’s now ready for the audio finish. A narrator can usually read the whole 50 minutes in one day. This is preceded by track-laying when any special sound effects are added and followed by the final mix when the narrated voice-over is mixed with music and effects.

Most production companies working on commissioned productions have to face the screening by the Commissioning Editor before the programme is approved and paid for. York Films has been very fortunate with its Commissioning Editors. By and large they have left us alone to produce the goods and their comments on the rough cut have always been constructive and to the point. Other companies, mainly in the UK, have more bitter experiences. The CE can be a person who may not know much about the subject and very little about anything else. They may have the tact and finesse of a hippopotamus on heat. They also hold the purse-strings and have the ultimate power. They know your future work opportunities depend on them and they like it that way. If they say your programme is rubbish and needs to be totally re-structured and re-edited you may, of course, argue that this could have been discussed in an earlier screening – or, indeed, that if the CE would have cared to screen the programme earlier on any comments could have been taken aboard then. On the other hand, you may hold your tongue in the hope of another commission so you smile a sickly smile and do as you are told. Those interested in secrets of history should know that none of the famous dictators have really ever gone away; they live on in the guise of various Commissioning Editors in the world of television.

As the expenditure outline above suggests, York Films has diligently re-distributed millions of pounds during its 20-year existence. We have also put quite a lot of hours on the screen. The fifteen space / astronomy titles produced by York Films total some 30 hours of programming, most of it seen in every territory on the TV distribution map. It is near impossible to estimate accurately how many millions of viewers our programmes have had over the years but there must be more people on this earth who have seen a York Films space programme than have read “Brief History of Time”.

Over the years, York Films has been privileged to work with numerous scientists who have generously given of their time to help us produce good programmes – for let’s not forget that without scientists there would be no science programmes. We have also been lucky to work closely with people who know how to communicate astronomy to the general audience. The first of these was Terence Murtagh, a man who carries an image bank of space pictures in his head and whose special gift was the ability to tease space images out of computer animators when that craft was still in its infancy. The animated comet’s tail Terence created for our Halley programme in 1984 was way ahead of its time and remains impressive nearly two decades later.  But technology has moved on; what took Terence months of modelling and rendering time on massive computers can now be generated on a medium price Apple Mac with suitable software – and talent, of course. Terence, too, has moved on and forsaken the small screen for the bigger sky of the planetarium dome.

After Terence came Dr John Mason, a physicist with love of astronomy and a passion for explaining scientific matters to those of us without a science degree – or even a basic understanding of scientific principles; in other words, the large majority of television audiences. With John Mason York Films has valiantly offered quantum physics and nuclear science in easy ten-minute capsules. Doc John has also aided in explaining the Solar System, our Galaxy and the Universe as well as eclipses and black holes in various York Films productions. Thanks to Doc John, many a viewer now understands darkness at noon or why magnetic levitation works but, more importantly, thanks to him, there are a lot of people who have become interested in or curious about space and astronomy.

2.  Science and the Small Screen
Scientists can have ambivalent feelings about television. For them, like the rest of us, television is an easy way to relax after work but the relaxation can turn into irritation when a science programme is on offer.

The accusations most often levelled at programme makers by scientists are that television simplifies and trivialises. Sometimes the accusation is valid, sometimes not. Even complex issues can be discussed on different levels without necessarily trivialising. A scientist would not communicate effectively if s/he uses the same terminology when explaining issues to a colleague or a child or a layperson.  Television is a broadcast medium, with a broad spectrum of viewers.  We must assume that our viewers are interested enough to switch on to see the programme but not that they have any specialist knowledge – nor can we take their continued interest for granted.

Especially in the USA this latter point has lead to great anxiety on the part of the broadcasters who now believe that audiences have an attention span so short that they must be constantly reminded of how amazing and wondrous a programme is – otherwise they might switch off or drift on to another channel. Broadcasters base this belief on audience research, having measured every measurable reaction and having listed and tabulated all expressions of like and dislike.  

These viewing statistics are an important influence on programming decisions and go a long way to explain why we have seasons of sameness on our television schedules. Once one channel has a hit with, say, mummies its competitors follow up with their own mummy programme. A former research chief for one of America’s prime documentary channels gives this advice to producers offering programme ideas to the channel: “ Armed with the details of a broadcaster’s network distribution, primetime household ratings, target demographic and male/female split, a filmmaker will have good perspective heading into a pitch.  Still, these facts are most useful as a complement to the more qualitative elements that can only be gleaned from watching a channel’s programs.”  In other words, if you think you have a good programme idea, take it to the channel which has shown similar programmes in the past or whose competitor has aired a similar programme to good ratings. When York Films’ 2-hour special for the Discovery Channel, “3 Minutes to Impact” (back in 1997, before “Deep Impact” or “Asteroid”) achieved a ratings success it was followed by a veritable fleet of other comet – impact  – asteroid - threat programmes. Similarly, our “If We Had No Moon” on Discovery Channel has been followed by several other programmes on the same theme.  

It takes courage to be different, to back up a gut feeling against a trend.  The people in television who decide which programmes get made have not reached that position because they have great personal integrity or enthusiasm for making interesting television.  Most often they have been promoted because they have demonstrated a knack of ratings success, of making money. And the type of programmes that achieve the highest ratings tend to have a high human interest element and a high WOW factor (the biggest, fastest, strongest). Not necessarily qualities easily found in science programmes. Documentaries very seldom get the highest ratings, science documentaries hardly ever. And the ratings do matter. This is how the audience researcher summarises the broadcaster’s needs: “All broadcasters strive to deliver a concentrated slice of the television audience to advertisers”.  If the audiences are not big enough, the advertisers go elsewhere and the broadcaster loses revenue.

But what about public service broadcasters? Should they not be relied upon to operate free of commercial pressures? Alas, no. In Britain, for example, the public service BBC, funded by licence fee, is required to compete with the commercial television.  If BBC’s share of audience falls below that of the commercial ITV, there’s an instant demand to stop the public funding. A minority channel is perceived to be serving minority interests and should not be funded from the public purse, i.e. by the general public. The same phenomena can be observed at various degrees in Scandinavia and on Continental Europe. All challenging and “serious” programming is gradually pushed out of prime time into the twilight zone and beyond. Once upon the time it was argued that with the advance of multi-channel viewing all minority interests could be comfortably catered for on specialist channels. This argument has quietly folded its tent and gone away. The figures have done for it: there simply is not enough money to fund good quality programming for minority channels. Subscribers are thin on the ground, advertisers are not eager to buy time on a specialist science channel and no foundation or trust has the means or the inclination to keep the eggheads of this world in good programmes. Channels like the Science Channel in Japan rely on being able to buy programmes originally produced for some large broadcaster – but their choice of programmes is gradually diminishing as fewer and fewer science programmes get made.

3. Simple Television or Simply Television
The reason why television must simplify issues is two-fold: by its nature it is a simplistic medium and there is a great pressure to make programmes with the widest possible appeal – not a recipe for exploring complex issues. It is not so easy to respond to the accusation of trivialisation. Television is better at reaching emotions than initiating complex thought processes. That can be a great asset. If you want people to sit up and take notice you stir their emotions and you have their attention. All depends what you do next. If you manage to keep your audience engaged they are far more receptive than if you had caught them cold. Television is a medium of great power and vast limitations. Yes, you often do have to simplify an issue to get it across on television but it does not mean that the issue have to be trivialised. That is just lazy programme making, a medium misused. On the positive side, if you use television’s visual power effectively you can create images that stay on the mind. With clever combination of images and words you can explain some things much more effectively than with words alone. Sometimes this can backfire and the programme turns from an exposition of facts and ideas into a computer animation spectacular – often fronted by a famous face mouthing words written for him without any inner conviction. The end result can be disappointing to most: scientists blame the programme for banality and shallowness; viewers retain the memory of clever images with little understanding of the concepts explored, and the high cost of the production means that there is less money left for other science programmes.

There are other common accusations from scientists who have personal experience of programme making, either as interviewees or contributors. Most feel that the time they spent on the making of the programme is completely disproportionate to the time they appear on the screen. A five second sound bite comes at the end of two-day taping which was preceded by several meetings with researchers and the producer, long telephone calls, earnest discussions of interview background and what to wear. But at least they did appear. Much more annoyed is the scientist who gave his time and co-operation just to receive a call or a note to “let him know that the contribution had to be left out”  - either for no specified reason or for “technical reasons”.  

Worse still, you give an interview for a programme that you feel deserves your support. The programme is shown and forgotten until much later, maybe years later, when you sit peacefully at home watching some rubbish on television your very own face pops up and that same interview, possibly radically re-edited, appears on the screen. There you are, apparently fully participating in a programme quite beneath your contempt. Indeed, had you been invited to participate at best there might have been a “Thank you but no” note from your secretary. What can you do about it? At this stage, very little except to hope that none of the people whose opinion you value have seen the wretched show.  But it is possible to safeguard your position in the future.

4.  Insider Information
In the following we try to show you how and why these things happen and suggest some ways for you, the prospective interviewee / consultant to make it through relatively unscathed.

Your first inkling of the programme in making is either a telephone call or an e-mail from a researcher. Most often s/he is young and keen, peppy and with at least a rough understanding of your field of interest. They ask you about the work you do, they might ask you about who else has done or is doing work on the same field or on a related subject.  They are fishing and they are casting their net wide.  Or maybe it would be more apt to call them hunter-gatherers who, at the end of the hunting and the gathering bring their haul to the producer who picks it over and asks pertinent (if s/he is any good) questions about the subject matter and penetrating questions about how well and easily the scientist talked. The producer is interested in the story, of course, but he is also assessing other attributes in the prospective interviewee: charisma would be really good but appealing or pleasant personality is a good substitute. There has been some progress in this world and good looks as such are no longer the most necessary requirement for a female scientist to make it into the television screen (although they still don’t hurt).  

The question of the looks is not entirely frivolous. The producer needs the scientist to communicate to the viewers. If the viewer is well disposed toward the communicator the message is better received. Anything that distracts the viewer detracts from the message. Some male viewers may not necessarily believe a word a female scientist says but as long as they look at her they stay with the programme.

Researchers will talk to a large number of scientists for every programme. Not everybody is intended to appear but especially when the subject matter covers ongoing research or is in any way controversial it is important to get as comprehensive and clear idea of the issues as possible. A television researcher may have been talking to you every day for a week and then you never hear of them again. This may feel like a rejection but the cause is likely to be quite impersonal. The whole project may have collapsed, the researcher may have been fired, the Commissioning Editor may have told the producer to drop a particular line of inquiry and concentrate on something else. It may rankle, it is bad manners but, believe me, it is nothing personal, it’s just television.

You have now been interviewed about your work by the researcher, by phone, maybe face to face. You may now get to meet the producer or the assistant producer and taping dates are discussed. By now you should have a clear idea of the type of programme the team is putting together. If you feel uncertain or uneasy, put your reservations in writing and ask clarification. It is also sensible to ask who else appears in the programme – and to be updated with the list of other participants. It’s one thing to hear that three of the most eminent scientists in your field are lined up for an interview in the programme and then learn that they all declined the honour. You might still want to go ahead, as long as the replacements are not the two guys you detest most in this world after the comments they made on your last paper. In other words, make sure you are informed of the way the programme progresses.

At this stage you should also ask to see the release form you will eventually be requested to sign. Do not leave this to the day the crew arrives to tape the interview. By the time the whole team has arrived you might feel under too much pressure to chuck the lot out because you do not like the wording of the form.

Like so much of legal growth the release form originates in the USA.  It was devised to make sure you couldn’t stop the owner of the programme from using your interview or sue them later if you were unhappy with the programme. The basic form takes from you all rights to the interview and allows the owner of the programme to make any use whatsoever of it to the end of time and beyond. You can, of course, refuse to sign but it may be that the interview – if it goes ahead – will not then be included in the programme. You will also effectively lose control over the taped interview if you go ahead without a release form. It would be much smarter to see the form well in advance and think about it carefully.  Most things can be negotiated. One scientist wanted a clause stating that his interview could not be included in a programme where sponsors or advertisers promoted environmentally unfriendly products.  That is a non-starter because it would make the programme commercially unviable. What is eminently possible is to restrict the use of the interview to the specific programme for which it is recorded. Any further use would require your written permission.  Do not ask a right to veto the edit. Instead, you can stipulate that nothing you say can be used in a way that undermines your position or presents your opinions in a distorted way. This ensures that if you later have a falling-out with the producer he can’t take his revenge by clever editing which turns you from a respectable and responsible scientist into a gibbering buffoon.

5.  In the Beginning
You may have sometimes idly wondered why some programme ended up on the screen – or why some good idea you have has not been picked up.

In the beginning there’s always an idea. No television programme has ever gone through the cathode tube without an idea having occurred. When an idea and a producer meet we have the very genesis of a television programme.  Let’s take a particular case: the case of The Man Who Discovered a Planet.

York Films had been fortunate to video a series of interviews with Clyde Tombaugh, the man who discovered Pluto back in the 30s, together with interviews with Jim Christie and his wife – Jim Christie discovered Charon which can be considered Pluto’s moon so Mrs Christie is justified when she states: most men promise their wife the moon, Jim delivered.  There was also footage of White Sands where Tombaugh worked during WWII and at Lowell Observatory where Pluto was first seen.

It seemed to David Taylor, the principal of York Films and a veteran producer of scores of science programmes, that this footage would make a very good episode in a series of programmes on the Solar System York Films had been commissioned to produce. He presented the idea to the Commissioning Editor of the American cablecaster. It was not well received. The basic problem was that it was not sexy. Clyde Tombaugh was too old. The age group this series was targeted at, 19-34, simply do not want to see wrinkly old men on the screen.

The idea was put aside for the time being and then taken out and dusted when a new opportunity presented itself – a NASA commissioned probe to Pluto. Surely this was a wonderful opportunity for a programme on Pluto and its discoverer. The Race for Pluto would not only tell the story of Clyde Tombaugh but also of the race to get a space craft to Pluto while its orbit presents the only opportunity for another 150 years.  Well, it seems that the world can manage quite well without a 50-minute programme on the discovery of the last planet in the Solar System – if, indeed, it is a planet or the last one – and after all the excitement and television hype of the Galileo and the Mars Explorer the world at large has done with planet probes. Our Pluto idea may have been a good one but that was not enough to make it into a television programme. Most production companies do not expect to strike lucky more than once for every ten or twenty programme ideas they develop and present to the Commissioning Editors.  And quite often you also need to secure funding from several sources before the deal is sealed. Increasingly, broadcasters expect to share the costs – and they expect the production company to find the partners. The most complex example of this was York Films eclipse programme in 1999. The production was co-funded with some 15 broadcasters and distributors in Continental Europe and USA. The only European country uninterested in the venture was the UK with the small plucky Westcountry regional station the only UK partner.

6.  Who Cares?
But York Films is just one of hundreds of production companies in the UK and our Pluto proposal is just one small space programme fewer on our screens so why  should we worry? Ideas are twenty to a dozen and only the successful ones count. More seriously, though, the same fate seems to be lurking for science programmes at large. There are fewer and fewer opportunities for factual documentaries on television schedules and science is fighting a loosing battle for airtime. As with all television, the USA and the UK seem to be trend leaders. Both countries may have more channels and more actual airtime than ever before. But less and less of it is available for factual documentaries and the hours of serious science programming in the UK in the first years of the new millennium will barely reach double figures. Serious here does not mean dense or worthy but simply a programme with some substance rather than an attempt to disguise yet another “trivial revelation” as science programming.  

But, in the last count, if serious science programming does not attract the viewers or non-commercial funding then we must conclude that these kind of programmes are not wanted and we must go away and do something else. Most of the science production companies we know have done just that and branched off into more popular television. Being a voice in the wilderness may be morally sound but it does not fill the belly.