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Science Commissioners: Go Big or Go Home

2015-06-10 15.16.46

If you are tasked with developing science programmes you face a number of challenges: the number of channels that actively embrace science is small, and sometimes those channels – in an attempt to attract as broad an audience as possible – can disguise their science content so thoroughly that it ceases to be science in the eyes of actual scientists. This makes for some uncomfortable conversations when trying to research and develop a science series or talent scout potential onscreen experts. Nonetheless there are commissioning opportunities out there for those dedicated and determined enough. A panel of science commissioners at Sheffield Doc/Fest discussed what science programming means to them and what they are looking to to commission in the coming months. Interestingly although many programmes and approaches were mentioned, few of them were recognisable as science.


Helen Hawken, VP Production & Development Factual at Discovery Networks International, explained that their shows transmit in 200 countries, which means that it can be a challenge to find onscreen talent that will connect with viewers in every territory. Idris Elba: No Limits is an exception to that general rule as he does have widespread international appeal, but the format also proves the rule that onscreen talent must be seen to be fully immersed in the action not merely observing, commenting or explaining. They must be expert and passionate and involved.

DNI solves this talent problem in a different way on Incredible Engineering Blunders Fixed, which pairs the main presenter, Justin Cunningham, with a team of local reporters from all around the world who help him cover the stories and provide local expertise and relevant insights. This also gives the channel a low-risk way of road testing new local talent as the success of format doesn’t wholly rest on them.

Global events are a natural fit for a network with a global network of channels and so DNI often commission specials in response to natural or man-made disasters, such as Aftershock: Disaster in Nepal.

Other shows mentioned included Predators Up Close, a natural history/adventure hybrid, which pairs up former Navy SEAL Joel Lambert with various experts to go to remote locations to study lions, hyenas, polar bears and sharks. Also feature documentary Racing Extinction, which ticks all the Discovery buzzword boxes of Event, Engagement, Legacy.

Discovery Networks International are actively in the market for new ideas that will attract their core UK audience of 35-50 year olds (although producers are advised not to get too hung up on the age of the audience as it is different around the world; in Brazil and India, for example, the audience is younger).

National Geographic International

In this age of Neflix and Game of Thrones, traditional networks have to create a big impact in order to tempt audiences away from online content. In the light of this, Ed Sayer, speaking as ‎VP Commissioning at National Geographic Channels International (but just announced as moving to rival Discovery), had one key message for producers pitching to him: “Go big or go home”. Science on Nat Geo must “smash through”: headline grabbing, must-watch, event TV.  His example of a show that did this was T. rex Autopsy.

The challenge was how to bring dinosaurs to life in a way that was accessible to families and not purely aimed at science geeks. The producers contacted the world’s leading dinosaur experts and pulled together all the relevant research papers before using a peer reviewed scientific process (checked by Nat Geo’s  Standards & Practices department) to create a life-size anatomically correct dinosaur ‘corpse’. This model then gave scientists a way of discovering, through the device of an autopsy, the inner workings of a dinosaur by counting the growth rings in bone or dissecting the heart to reveal its structure. The premise was: “If we find out how it died, we can find out how it lived”.

Producers are advised not to worry about money to start with or you won’t come up with a truly big idea. Instead, imagine what you could do if money was unlimited. What would make front page of Nat Geo Magazine? What are the big questions you want to answer? If there’s a will there’s a way.


Tom McDonald, Head of Commissioning for Natural History and Specialist Factual Formats, wants programmes that innovate,  inform and react to the changing needs of the audience. He referred to science and natural history shows that borrow their approach from factual entertainment shows, such as  An Hour to Save Your Life, What’s the Right Diet for You? Inside the Factory: How Our Favourite Foods Are Made, Human Universe, Shark, and Trust Me I’m a Doctor (a show that originally ran on BBC2 from 1996 to 1999). He is looking for big ‘event’ programmes that can be stripped across a week, ‘as live’, along side the perennial ask for returnable series.

The BBC wants to innovate its landmark science programmes by including ordinary people as well as experts, such as 9 Nine Months That Made You or Bodyshock (Channel 4) type content in a science-rich format. They are looking for programmes that are immersed in real life, and “less BBC”, like Six Puppies and Us

They are keen on finding new “non-vanilla” presenters: people with a new voice, idiosyncrasy, eccentricity and authenticity. When pitching a new science show to the BBC, you need to be able to articulate: why now, what’s new?

Channel 4

Sara Ramsden is the Commissioning Editor for Science for Channel  and favours shows that are fronted by talent with attitude and authorship, for example Speed With Guy Martin, Grayson Perry: Who Are You?, and Notes From the Inside with James RhodesChannel 4 is keen to find more distinctive presenters such as these, particularly women and BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) with attitude, idiosyncrasies and issues that they care passionately about (or maybe just have their own issues; it was unclear, which). Experts also need authorship and expertise. Where is the next Mary Beard?

There is also space in the schedule for big returnable series. The Secret Life of Four Year Olds, was commissioned for a series after a one-off documentary proved popular. It was entertaining, funny and the science was applied with a light touch.

Channel 4 is also on the hunt for  wants cheaper schedule fillers that appeal to a male skewing, upmarket audience and user generated content might be one way to do this.

And there was also a call for difficult, complex, hard to deliver films, such as My Last Summer, The Paedophile Next Door, Our Gay Wedding: The Musical, and The Cruel Cut. Channe 4 is open to co-producing with other networks, so that they can afford to commission the most ambitious projects. Live From Space was a co-pro with Nat Geo, and the two channels are also co-producing Experimental,  a comedy-fact ent-science show that recreates dangerous stunts from online videos.

Don’t worry if a subject has done before – audience doesn’t remember – you just need a new way of telling the story. There was a note of caution though: whilst new technology, such as camera rigs and drones, can help you revisit old subjects in news ways there have to be new insights. New tech on its own is not enough to win a commission.



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