What's Wrong with Science on TV?

Have you noticed that the science documentary networks that used to present 100% factual science content have now started drifting into an odd abyss of reality programming? I’m not saying it’s all bad (there are some great ones out right now), but there seems to be a diversion from good science – the stuff I remember loving as a budding filmmaker. The situation has been on my mind a lot lately, having now done several shows for various networks, including a TON of pitching various programs. I present the problem I’ve found with the current trends here:

The real problem I see isn’t the network, or the executives. The problem may be that the networks are basing programs on a faulty rating system. There are shows that are getting ratings that most of us science communicators think are terrible – all the ‘Real house wives of’ shows are testament to that. Is it because people love the show, or because people are shocked that there is something so odd on TV. Is it essentially a race for the most viral-type program. I hope not as I’ve made it my career to make good science programming. I think shows on discovery actually are reversing the trend right now. I give much of that credit to a few visionary execs at the top. But will it last? 

I’m not sure what the solution is. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the trends, the problems, or ways to reverse it.

Written by Rob Nelson

Rob is an ecologist from the University of Hawaii. He is the co-creator and director of Untamed Science. His goal is to create videos and content that are entertaining, accurate, and educational. When he's not making science content, he races whitewater kayaks and works on Stone Age Man.

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3 thoughts on “Science Filmmaking Problems

  1. Mermaid was an interesting film, but not one that should have been aired on a “science” channel. Sci-Fi maybe. It blurs science and entertainment too much, I think. I did not see the shark show, but think that deliberately distotorting what a genuine scientist says to enhance the entertainment or shock value is actually worse than mermaid, which (I hope) most people realized was art.

    I enjoy Mythbusters, it is fun, is in the general temperament of the scientific method without being pedantic.

  2. The issue of “pseudo-science” shows over the last several years has become a common rant topic among my peers. As with many other biologists, I grew up glued to higher quality wildlife documentaries on popular networks that inspired my obsession with studying some of the most misunderstood or feared creatures, carnivores. Those same networks now seem like they’re going against everything they originally stood for, concerned only with ratings instead of education. I get it..ratings = money, and when viewer numbers drop, formerly respected networks will do just about anything to bring them back. This may unfortunately result in lower quality programs, “mockumentaries”, or specials that encourage more negative attitudes against species that are already persecuted. All this in a desperate attempt to attract any level of attention, good or bad. Its more about entertainment now, even if viewers only watch a train wreck of a show simply because its so awful and ridiculous that they can’t bring themselves to look away. So viewer numbers go up again and those networks end up in an infinite cycle of poor quality programs in exchange for lots of ratings. But at what cost? Ignorance, a most dangerous element within society…

    Perhaps the change in what viewers seem to be interested in (when it comes to nature programs at least) is from an increase in “nature deficit disorder”. People are spending less time outside, less time exploring, less time inquiring. Therefore, networks feel the need to go to obnoxious extremes, regardless of the true impacts they’re having.

    I think for science communicators, a delicate balance must be obtained. One that delivers the entertainment element that viewers crave, while also sharing well researched information from credible sources. Easier said than done, I know. Its a trial and error process. To bounce off this “naked” theme, why not strip back down to the basics of those “old school” documentaries, without the extra embellishments?

    Nature is dramatic enough on its own. Its violent and unforgiving. It has its own “soap operas” unfolding everyday, from the savannah to under the log in your backyard. However, the naive public will not realize this unless there are dedicated people to tell those stories with the same passion they felt while watching “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom”. With the technology today, networks are capable of creating pieces that those in the past could only dream of! As scientists, we owe it to the public, ourselves and this incredible universe we live in to showcase the world to the best of our ability for long lasting affects toward inspiring future generations, or even altering perceptions from current generations.

    I’ll now leave my 2 cents….or more like 20 cents with one of my favorite quotes by the late microbiologist and environmentalist, Reńe Dubos. “True conservation is all about fashioning human attitudes and activities that foster a working relationship with nature”.

  3. What always bugged me about science shows, even good ones, is how they pretend to show you the process or tools but they’re really trying to hide it. They make it look like “scientists use this special science software to do complicated shit” and the software is adobe photoshop or audacity or something that you don’t have to go through a university to get. I know that now, but when I was a kid that stuff seemed so far away and the shows never gave the impression that this was something you could actually do or try out, that to be part of these discoveries or process you had to go through a PHD program just to get into that locked back room where all the scientists work and THEN you could find out what tools they were really using.

    I also hate the fact that when they release pictures of space, they only release the pretty color-manipulated pictures and they don’t explain or provide what’s REAL, what something really looks like. If it weren’t for the internet you might never figure out what pictures of the milky way are actually visible from earth and which ones are pure fabrications.

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