o The Frog Blog: What Kind of Science Programmes Should RTÉ Commission?

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

What Kind of Science Programmes Should RTÉ Commission?

Last week the Irish Film & Television Network (IFTN) reported that RTÉ are seeking ideas for science based programming "that focus on the impact science has on contemporary life in Ireland". RTÉ are looking for concepts and formats that "transform scientific understanding of the world into stories that will attract and engage prime-time audiences". This is a welcome development from Montrose, with our national broadcaster practically neglected science based programming over the last number of years, while the BBC have provided some excellent series in that period including items like Professor Brian Cox's "Wonders of the Universe" or Adam Rutherford's wonderful "The Gene Code" on BBC4.

RTÉ seem to be quite open to suggestions on the format of the programmes, which will be aired post watershed, but have clarified that they DO NOT want programmes on "the history of science, biographies of scientist, laboratory life or expositions of scientific concepts". But what kind of programmes should they commission and how should the Irish science communication community get themselves involved in the commissioning process? Submissions through a production company will always be looked on more favourably by RTÉ so should Irish science communicators open up discussions with production companies to discuss formats, topics and ideas? Surely they are the best placed in deciding what will engage the Irish public?

Below I outline my own rough idea of what RTÉ should look to produce - a long term project mixing interviews, news & features. If you have an idea or suggestion, add it as a comment below. I would also be interested to see if science communicators would like to meet up to discuss ideas and how best to put them to RTÉ? Anyone with links to production companies would be most welcome!

Here's my idea: A weekly 45 minute long programme different from anything else on RTÉ. The programme should be presented by a team of four or five scientists / science communicators and possibly one non-scientist. I envisage a mixed format including a science / tech news section, a weekly interview, a weekly feature (on various topics in popular science, visits to places of scientific interest like CERN, NASA, ESA etc), a science education slot (which would provide a animation of video resource for one of the Leaving Certificate science subjects - building up a library of resources over time). The programme should engage the audience using competitions, social media, a website and blog. I think it's important to have a team of presenters as casual discussion and banter would aid the programme's establishment. In essence, it would be similar in structure to BBC "Bang Goes the Theory" but with a slightly older target audience (15 - 40). People who come to mind as possible presenters include Jonathan McCrea (from Newstalk's Future Proof), Ian Brunswick (from Science Gallery), Ellen Byrne (from Dublin City of Science), Marie Boran (from the Internet), Aoife McLysaght (TCD) and Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin (celebrity physicist) to name but a few. I'd love to hear what these folks think or anyone else for that matter?

Whatever format RTÉ eventually go for, it is a welcome shift in policy in relation to science programming and an important development to help attract young people to the sciences. And, with Dublin soon to be crowned European City of Science I am sure that there will be a wealth of funding available to RTÉ and the willing production companies who are commissioned.


Marie Boran said...

Hey Humphrey,

Your idea for a topical magazine style science show sounds really interesting. I'd say it's definitely along the lines of what they want and if you're organising a science communicators night to get together ideas for a show/number of shows I'm there!

@OneYearAfter said...

They may not want exposition verbatim, but it would be helpful to include an element of debunking of pseudoscientific (and that's being kind) quackery. A lot of us are reasonably familiar with homeopathy for example, but a huge proportion of the public still see it on par with legitimate medicine, because the distinction is rarely expressed.

Triona said...

Heh, Marie from the interenet (though tbf, she'd be perfect for the job, as long as she can stay with Scibernia....)

Jonathan McCrea said...

Hey Humphrey,

Flattered you'd include me on the list. Presume you mean 45 mins of content for an hour-long prog? Think a magazine style prog would be interesting, but not sure RTE would go for it. Think they're looking for a much more subtle pop-sciencey approach. At least that's the chatter from the production companies. Think: scientific versions of who do you think you are or scientific slants on popular irish culture. They don't have the budget to do big budget stuff like Cox has done for BBC.

Sylvia said...

I agree with Jonathan - I get the impression they wouldn't go for anything overtly 'sciencey'. Check out new 'science lifestyle' magazine Guru - http://gurumagazine.org/. I reckon the kind of content they're after could be along these lines. Lots of 'smuggling' going on!

Happy to meet up to help brainstorm ideas too.

CAD Monkey said...

When I was a child, BBC had a program called Tomorrows World, some of your older readers may remember it.

Tomorrows World was all about new and interesting developments in science and technology. Best of all, it didn't try to see you anything, it just informed you.

I feel a show like that would be of interest to both children and adults alike.

aoibhinnos said...

Hi Humphrey,
Also think it's a great idea and really like the idea of a leaving cert resource of topics and experiments.
Could even include new Maths discovery learning lessons!
Think it's incredibly important to include some current science research projects that are happening throughout the country and link their possible impact on the world at present or in the future.
To include 'pop science' you could look at gadgets and games manufactured (or even just sold) in Ireland.
If you want to organise coffee/drinks meeting with everyone I'm there & could probably arrange to meet with (a) production company (ies) if there's any agreement!
Thanks for including my name on your list, it's a show I'd love to work on!
Aoibhinn Ni S

Michelle O'Flaherty said...

May I also register my interest in a brainstorming session. As scientists/ technologists I think we have the capability to put forward a viable proposal but agree with previous posts that RTE seems to be looking for the more subtle approach to the science programme. Michelle O'Flaherty

shirtandtie said...

Agree with all of the above.
Would also suggest that there be a section on the nature of science and medicine. You can focus this on not just research in Ireland, but industry too. Example : heart prosthetic valve production, pharmaceutical production etc. A medical slant would underline the "hand in glove" nature of science and medicine and highlight the learning, knowledge and career possibilities too!!

Excellent ideas.


(AKA ShirtnTie)

Aoife said...

Hi Humphrey,

I would be delighted if there was some really good science TV on RTE. Has RTE put out a call for science programmes before? What kind of programmes resulted?

I think it's really important to find a good fit between the science people and the TV people - they will need to understand each other and be able to get the best out of each other. It's not the case that any production company will do, and it's not the case that any scientist or science enthusiast will necessarily translate well onto TV. I think the ideal would be to find a production company that has experience in making factual TV programmes.

In any case, an interesting initiative. Thanks for getting the conversation going (and for including me in your list!)

Aoife (@aoifemcl)

draziraphale said...

The most successful science programmes start with being entertaining and work backwards into the science. This is why the CSI series is one of the most successful science-y programmes. Good looking people solving a murder - who incidentally do so using scientific methods. Science by stealth. Mythbusters is a bunch of people vicariously having your fun, generally blowing things up or the like - who incidentally perform reasoned sceptical analysis on a myth.

Science promoters often start at the other (or as I call it "wrong") end. Which is a better story, a biological investigation of patterns in the mating rituals of mammals or using an eye tracking device on some good looking people in a night club to notice that a woman unconsciously checks the ring finger of a good looking guy? THEY ARE THE SAME SCIENCE but a very different story. And admit it, only the latter made you sit up.

I would similarly REVERSE entertainment into science topics, thereby showing them why the science is cool. (This also makes such programmes considerably easier to cost and budget for).

I can work through hundreds of pages of dry science and still find it exciting, but that makes me the exception (and possibly weird).

Remember that Wonders of the Universe was, in its first impression, about a good looking and awestruck Mancunian working with an excellent producer. The physics followed and the jaws dropped.

I would say think about 10 science ideas and see how well you can hide them behind something entertaining. The entertained will be entertained and will also get the point.

If I can be of any help, please let me know.

sciencecalling.com said...

Brilliant post Humphrey!

Maybe this could be the topic for our next science tweetup??

We could all get together with the aim of putting a proposal into RTE for a science programme. And to have a group like the online science community behind the proposal would add more weight to it I think.

Eoin Lettice said...

Some useful ideas here. I've always thought that good science programming should mirror the scientific process - you should start out with a problem and then go through the various avenues (what do we already know, talk to the experts, design some experiments and analyse the results) to find a solution.
I'm not saying spend an hour showing people how to write a scientific paper, it can be made entertaining.
My idea is the scientific equivalent of 'Time Team' on Channel 4 - real scientists, solving real problems in real time. If history can do it, so can science.


Humphrey Jones said...

Thanks everyone for your comments and suggestions. I think it's great that science communicators want to get involved in such a project. I hope that if you have any contacts with producers that you might draw their attention to the piece.

I'm going to try to respond to everyone in this post - some briefly some in more detail. So here goes!

Marie: Cheers Pixie! I think I will organise a tweet-up on this topic, maybe sometime next week. If you could come that would be great!

OneYearAfter: Thanks for the suggestion - I think that would be a great idea but I think the presenters / producers would need to be subtle about it. The Irish public might not like an aggressive anti-quack approach.

Triona: You can still keep Marie for the Internet!

Jonathan: Firstly, I think you deserved to be mentioned as you have proven yourself a great science broadcaster. I did indeed mean 45 minutes of content over an hour long show. I certainly acknowledge that RTE may take some persuading to go for a magazine style programme but with the right backers / funders they might just take the risk. I think some of the reason the production companies are talking along conservative lines is they themselves know how conservative RTE are and are fearful that if they propose a radical format they may not get commissioned - they will prefer to propose a format that RTE have a history of accepting. As for the budget, I'm sure there would be additional funding from DSE or Dublin 2012? But I take your points. Could be useful to discuss this further.

Sylvia: I agree that smuggling is needed and I think the weekly features should be along these lines - taking a simple concept or everyday event and revealing the wonders behind.

CAD Monkey: Tomorrow's World was an amazing production and I think inspiration would be taken from some of their ideas.

Aoibhinn: Thanks for your input and delighted you approve of the format. I agree that maths should be included in the educational section. Havok, the computer game company, have produced some excellent maths resources which could be transferred to a video format. As for current Irish research - absolutely. Again, will look to organise a meeting next week with those interested in inputting ideas and will get back to you.

Michelle: Thanks Michelle - will contact you shortly.

Paul: A medical twist would be excellent for the weekly features and interviews. I certainly hope you can give more input.

Aoife: Your experience in this area will be imperative but I don't think we shouldn't put a proposal to a producer purely because RTE have no history of adopting this format. I agree with choosing the right presenters (which will ultimately be the producers choice anyway) and with working with the 'TV people' closely. I was thinking a production company like Cross the Line would be well suited to the proposal. Thanks again and I hope you can make the tweetup.

Draz: Spot on!

Maria: Be there!

Eoin: An excellent idea which could work by itself or blend nicely into the format proposed above. I was thinking that there could be competition between the presenters to complete challenges / experiments as you described.

Thanks to everyone and please keep commenting. I am just a science teacher eager to enthuse about science and would love to see RTE take the same approach. And isn't that the ultimate goal - to get the public excited about science and bring it into their everyday lives.

Ellen Byrne said...

Hi Humphrey,

Thanks for including me on your list and great to see an open and informed discussion happening about this. (Rather than the ‘see what happens and then give out about it later’ approach!)

In fairness to RTE they have done some really great work for science on their young people’s programmes as they all appear to have a heavy science stream (elev8, twotube etc). So seeing them push this agenda towards an older audience a little more is absolutely fantastic.

I was also delighted to hear they specifically requested that proposals are not “"the history of science, biographies of scientist, laboratory life or expositions of scientific concepts". While series like “The Investigators” (http://www.rte.ie/tv/theinvestigators/) etc certainly have their place, they are just not provocative enough. The stereotypical scientist in the lab format can sometimes reinforce all of the negative connotations that science communicators work so very hard to shake. Yes, science can happen in a lab but the depth of science reaches far beyond that.

Dublin, as you say, is being crowned the European capital of Science next year and I can’t stress how much of a big deal this is for Ireland. (I’m biased I know!). We have the world's top scientists from each of the different disciplines descending on Dublin next year to discuss the burning questions of science that are facing us all as a society. Not to mention a year long programme of provocative engagement events across the country. So timing couldn’t be better.

I like your idea of using a multi-person format (mix of scientists, science communicators, educators and non-scientists) and utilising a cross platform approach including social media (which true to science communication will give people a voice). I think the goal here is to engage people by making science open, accessible and provocative and maybe this format could do that– with the right content and the right production. Aoife’s points on this are really valid but maybe it would be better to have production from a drama perspective informed with factual content rather than a factual perspective informed with drama?

REVERSE engineering the content as Draz put it earlier is really important. A few years ago I created a project as part of a scicomm MSc which first explored an audience (women 18-30) and what formats they consumed information from and engagement with most (women’s magazines – the amount of space taken up in any newsagents confirmed this!) and I developed a way to bring science to them in a way that they might want. An online magazine about the science sex, beauty and fashion and within this I weaved in current research, applications and the scientific method. Along with some strange looks a lot of people at the time cringed at the thoughts of my ‘sexy science’ project. But my long rambling point here is that it is important to bring science to the audience rather than bringing the audience to science – make it relevant and provocative for people to engage with so it will benefit them and not just promote science for science’s sake.

So rather than a magazine style, ‘gadget show’ that explicitly screams SCIENCE IS COOL maybe think about weaving valuable thought provoking ideas about science into a format that people already watch, or get enthused about. Science is a part of everyone’s life – labelling it and boxing it on its own can sometimes be counter-productive.
Would love to meet up to brainstorm – I promise my #scicomm rant ends here, mostly! :)

Ps. Marie isn’t from the internet, she IS the internet! :)

@OneYearAfter said...

Agreed Humphrey, no one likes to be preached to, as if they were actively ignorant in enabling pseudoscience instead of being passively so in simply not paying it any regard. Thus, it would probably be best served as only a small segment rather than a Dispatches-style effort.

Many of these things are so ludicrous that, if the facts are simply presented, the truth sells itself. Also, saying less leaves one less open to litigation. That's probably a fear of all broadcasters despite the lack of supporting evidence, the burden of proof rarely seems to be on them.

Donna McCabe said...

Hi Humprehy,

Well done on a great post (and apologies only getting to respond now!). DSE as you may know, have had some science show experience with RTE in the past. The SCOPE TV show was aimed at teens and the general public and tried to strike a mix of pop culture-meets technology-meets Tomorrow's World and was presented by Kathriona Devereux and Danann Breathnach and ran for a few years (http://www.rte.ie/tv/scope/rewind.html). At the time the difficulty was really in getting a decent time slot - the show went out too late in the evening I felt. We did support it with a website and video-replay of the shows which I think worked well http://www.rte.ie/tv/scope/scope06/SCOPE3_video20060327.html

I agree with Ellen that recent youth programming has been quite good in including science and tech, but we do need much more in the later time slots covering areas that are more closely linked to popular culture, entertainment and not too heavy on the 'white coat' end of things.

We have worked with different producers in the area, but notably with Agtel (who do Ear to the Ground) and in particular Diarmaid Mac Mathúna who also runs http://www.sciencecommunicationreview.com and has a keen interest in science communications. I fully agree that production companies with experience in science broadcasting are worth getting on board for this and that RTE are far more likely to take proposals from them.

Sadly DSE doesn't have any budget for funding a show like SCOPE this year, and are even less likely next year, but I am more than happy to get involved and help in any way I can..and we can certainly help with the PR/promotion of such a show through our existing channels.

I definitely think it's an idea worth pursuing.

Donna (Discover Science)

Deirdre Kelleghan said...

The programme should be interactive with the audience. Pitched to be inclusive by informing lets say the audience about the Moon phase for example - challenging the public to submit drawings or images that the show would exhibit each week in a small slide show format. A bit like Vision On by Tony Hart in the 70's where he invited drawings from children that were featured the following week. Tony Hart also pitched the show to the hearing impaired by using sign language and speech to invite the viewers to draw and send to the programme.
The targets could and should be naked eye drawings of atmospheric phenomenon , the Moon, constellations , et cetra to make it suitable for everyone. Astronomy is for everyone , but not everybody knows that and that is something worth changing.

Catherine McGuinness (Natural History Museum) said...


Agree totally, such programming is long overdue, happy to help/focus group!

Catherine (Natural History Museum, @SpotticusNH handler)

Diarmaid said...


This is a great discussion and thanks for starting it Humphrey!

As Jonathan mentioned, making great science TV is all about finding creative ways to engage the audience. Irish people are really interested in science (and there's even surveys to prove it) but to get programmes made we need to make sure they'll be winners in the ratings too in terms of audience numbers.

To be successful the show will need to appeal to a wide range of people - and as Aoibhinn pointed out it'll need to have a uniquely Irish take on things too.

I think meeting up soon would be a great idea because the submission deadline is at the end of September. Any suggestions on where and when?

As Donna said, I'm really interested in science communication and here at Agtel (www.agtel.ie) we're definitely submitting several programme ideas to RTÉ. Feel free to get in touch with me on e-mail at diarmaid.mac@agtel.ie in advance of meeting up if you've a specific idea you'd like to explore!



Cathy Gri said...

Hi there - some interesting comments about science programming and what RTE might want. It will definitely not be "pure science", nor will it be big budget unfortunately and it will need to be someone with a recognisable face fronting it, regardless of whether or not they understand science. They can be ably assisted by scientists but please understand the thinking process of commissioners across the board. Interactivity is also very important. We are working on ideas and would be very happy to talk to people - so if anyone is interested drop me a line at info@reddiamondmedia.ie

Mary Mulvihill said...

One simple and very effective thing everyone can do, is to tell info@rte.ie that you would like to see more science on TV and radio.

RTE needs to know there's an audience for science, and they won't if you don't tell them. Other sectors, especially the arts, are good at campaigning for airtime. The only science campaign I can remember was the outcry over plans to drop meteorologists from the RTE 1 forecasts some years ago.

With this latest call for proposals, RTE is partly responding to recent pressure to improve science coverage. More science programming was actually a condition of the licence fee increase a few years ago, which helped create 'Science Friction', a good issues-based series with Liz Bonnin.

To be fair, RTE radio has aired a lot of science down the years. Producer Peter Mooney, now retired, was very proactive in creating space for science. And I was lucky to have had several science series there, of one kind or another. 'The Quantum Leap' ran for three years, until 2007, but there's hardly been a science series since.

It will be good to see what comes of this latest call.

Claire O'Connell said...

Hi, interesting discussion, thanks Humphrey for kicking it off.

I'm in the camp that reckons a magazine style programme might not be the way to go - if you label a programme as being about science, you could lose a wider audience, for one thing.

I echo the sentiments that starting with the problem or idea of engagement and building a programme around that would be a better hook, both for producers and viewers.

I worked on a series on radio a few years ago (Making Sense of it All) where we took topics or questions that can be quite complex, and we invited in an expert to have a chat about it. It was really quite science-based (and Mary, you are right about P Mooney, he was producer on that!) and it went down really well.

Listeners/viewers/readers are caught by topics or stories that interest them, then you can weave in the science as you go.


Humphrey Jones said...

Thanks again to everyone who has commented so far - a lively discussion is always welcome. It is clear that there is some difference of opinion on how science programme should be modelled and I look forward to talking to many of you in person shortly.

If I can reply to the most recent comments:

Donna - cheers for your contribution - sad to hear DSE wouldn't have any funding. I agree that any programming shouldn't be overly "whitecoated". However, I do believe it shouldn't be so far removed from science that it looses its appeal to the eager science audience. Look forward to catching up soon.

Deirdre: Some great ideas - could easily be developed!

The Giraffe Whisperer: Thanks Catherine - will be in touch.

Diarmuid: Great to see someone like yourself - a science communicator and producer - getting involved in the discussion. I believe that shows like these do need an Irish twist on things but must be genuinely science focused too. For too long we have tried to hide science within programming - almost afraid to mention the word. I think the Irish public are genuinely interesting in learning more about science and science communicators need not fear a lack of audience.

Thanks for joining the conversation - looking forward to meeting you.

Mary - Cheers Mary - I agree science friction was a decent effort and Liz Bonnin is an excellent communicator and a loss to RTE. No wonder the BBC snatched her up so quickly. I also agree that RTE need to hear the demand for more science programming - but I often wonder if they ever listen to public opinion?

Claire: Thanks again. I too have some doubts about the magazine style show. I've no experience in this regard and would need to seek the advice of professionals. However, I don't completely agree with the assertion that if we label a programme as science based we'd lose the audience. I firmly believe there is an deep interest for science amongst the Irish public and I don't think we need fear putting science out there. If you look at some of the BBC's most successful programmes over the past year (in terms of critics and ratings) obvious science programmes feature prominently. Wonders of the Universe was in your face science and people loved it. Inside the Human Body was brilliant TV and unmistakeably science focused and people loved it. The key was good production and presenters who themselves were scientists / science communicators. For too often, RTE have used "celebrities" to front their science based programmes. I think of Blood of the Irish. While there the programme had come merit, I resented the fact that Diarmuid Gavin - a flipping gardener - was presenting the show. I have no doubt that if that show was presented by a geneticist and science communicator it would have had far greater appeal and would have been captured the interest of those generally interested in science.

This is why I was slightly upset when I saw Cathy Gri's comment above - showing the conservative approach of some production companies who are content to follow the same old RTE pattern. I love the saying "If it ain't broke don't fix it" - well it's broke and we need to fix it.