Selections from the newspaper about
public TV and radio in the United States

'We are in the business to serve a mission.
But we also have the right, indeed the responsibility,
to redefine that mission.
Anyone who watched our series Made in America
saw what happens to organizations
that do not revise their goals
in the face of changing conditions.'

Is public TV aiming at the right target?

Nova rebounds with a new selection of subjects

Originally published in Current, Aug. 24, 1992
Commentary Paula S. Apsell

Every career has a low point — mine came in May 1990, at the "Exploring Prime Time'' conference held by PBS on the beautiful island of Hilton Head, S.C.

It was at that conference that it became clear that things were going to change. The ratings were down, audiences were shrinking; an ominous trend that would not be allowed to continue.

I left that meeting very upset. For much of my career in public broadcasting, it was an article of faith not to think about ratings at all. We worried about the quality of the programs, and the ratings would take care of themselves. And, of course, for many years before cable, they did. I remember Nova almost routinely achieving ratings of 4, 5 and 6 — numbers that would make us ecstatic today.

In those days, we focused almost exclusively on our mission: to convey the adventure of science and technology in a way an ordinary person could understand and appreciate, to be the agent of science literacy in a culture that was largely ignorant of science, and to do this with such close attention to craftsmanship that the programs would be highly regarded by any standard.

This is still our mission. But the astonishing changes in the broadcast environment are forcing us to think about other things as well — specifically, how to reach a larger audience and how to reach a more diverse audience.

We would no longer have the luxury to think about mission alone. We would have to balance it with other needs as well. This, to me at least, was clearly the message of "Exploring Prime Time,'' and I will tell you that for quite a long time I found it very depressing.

I remember on the airplane ride home, the taxi ride to my house, feeling very concerned about the future of Nova. This venerable series that I had been hired to run and protect suddenly seemed very vulnerable. I felt we had to do something, but I worried that whatever we did might fail to increase our viewership and at the same time destroy something very valuable and unique about Nova.

What we decided to do was a study — a safe enough approach. With WGBH Research Director Pat Harris's help, we took all the past Nova programs, more than 250, categorized them according to their subject matter, and computed the average Nielsen rating for each category. We also graded the programs on the basis of watchability — five levels ranging from ``very watchable'' to "somewhat watchable,'' "average for Nova,'' "somewhat dense'' and "dense.''

The problem wasn't "difficulty''

The results were a little surprising to me. We learned that with the exception of the very densest and difficult programs — a five on a scale of five — challenging material did not seem to be much of a deterrent to viewers, or even much of a factor. What was clearly the decisive factor was the topic choice.

1 Disasters
3 Bones & Bodies
4 Boys & Their Toys

And those preferences will not surprise you at all. The most popular programs by a landslide — if you'll forgive the pun — were in the disaster category: tornadoes, hurricanes, volcanoes. Following close on the heels of death and destruction was the group of shows we called TRSH, short for Transparent Ratings-Seeking Hype — pop science such as the Bermuda Triangle, ESP and UFOs. Next came "Bones and Bodies,'' the umbrella category for dinosaurs and human origins. Then there was a topic grouping we called "Boys and Their Toys'' — aviation and military technology.

None of this was surprising. But what was very disturbing was the relatively poor showing of programs that focused on medicine, the environment, space, the natural sciences and scientific profiles — in other words, just about everything we were put in business to do.

These results were very clear. Topic choice was extremely important, too important to ignore. Feeling we had no option, we slowly and cautiously began to rethink the way we commissioned and scheduled programs. Very tentatively, we began to expand our range of subjects beyond those traditionally considered appropriate for Nova. We opened ourselves up to many areas of applied science that lend themselves to more accessible and watchable programs, but retain at their core the process of scientific inquiry. Last season's programs on art forgery and baldness are good examples of that.

We are facing the fact that not all interesting science, not even all important science, lends itself to television, and we're being more discriminating in our choices. We have had to work hard with our producers, both staff and independent, to educate them to bring us the kind of ideas that will serve the interests of the series. Some producers have not made it in this new system, but many have responded with enthusiasm, and our more-than-open attitude has attracted many new producers to Nova.

At the same time, we made what I consider some of the most rigorous programs ever. "The Case of the Flying Dinosaur'' confirms that challenging material will not deter an audience, if the subject is right.

I was sitting a few weeks ago in my house with a group of 12-year-old girls, one of whom was my own daughter. You will appreciate how amazing this is: we were watching a repeat of our program on art forgery. You may remember the section where the German artist is going through the step-by-step process of creating a fake. The girls were enthralled and insisted upon watching the entire program, and I had a clear example right before my eyes of what we can do to bring people to science.

The three-part series "The Russian Right Stuff'' is an example of a project not in one of our popular areas — space, ironically, has never attracted big audiences to Nova — that we could not turn down. Open access to the Soviet space program came at a moment in history we thought might not present itself again. That series came to us from a friend at one of the networks that would not take it on because of the risk and cost involved. The series, as we expected, performed adequately in the ratings, but it brought Nova the kind of critical acclaim that we understand our reputation depends on. This is exactly the kind of program only PBS will do. No network or cable company is prepared to take the risk of a program of this sort.

We call it "This Old Pyramid''

As part of our developing programming philosophy, we're also putting a great deal of emphasis on production techniques, developing a wider variety of storytelling devices to match the broad array of content. We used first-person reportage in "The KGB, the Computer and Me,'' and over the next two seasons you will see the fruits of our labor in developing new talent to present some of our programs and mini-series. We've recently teamed up Egyptologist Mark Lehner from the University of Chicago with Roger Hopkins of This Old House on a program that we have nicknamed "This Old Pyramid.''

And that program illustrates another area of emphasis for us — active, action-oriented programs that show science in the making when the chips are down and the stakes are high. Last season, "Hellfighters of Kuwait'' was that type of program, and next season when we go to Egypt to study the great pyramids we wind up building one of our own, with 180 stone blocks, 1/30th scale to the Great Pyramid of Giza, and plenty of the blood, sweat and tears endemic to pyramid building.

It is this attention to story-telling that will keep us fresh and original. In my opinion, this is the key to maintaining our distinctive identity as the premier science series on television.

So, how are we doing with our cautious but clearly new approach? As far as viewers, we are doing well. We have reversed the erosion of our ratings, and we are building audience. There is no question that last season was a very successful one.

But popularity in public television is a necessary and not a sufficient condition.

How are we doing in our role as science educators and promoters of public understanding? Have the changes we have made eroded our commitment to science literacy? Is the new Nova a pale imitation of its former self? These are hard questions, and we ask them all the time. Here are some of the answers we've come up with.

Nova does not exist to attract viewers and must not exist just to attract viewers. But without viewers there's no possibility of science education. With the vast amount of science phobia that exists in this nation, just to reach people with a science program that entertains them and perhaps changes their view of what science is — that is a value in and of itself.

The dichotomy between learning and environment is as false as the one between hard and soft science and, I am coming to believe, between mission and audience.

Obliged to redefine our mission

We are in the business to serve a mission. But we also have the right, indeed the responsibility, to redefine that mission. Anyone who watched our series "Made in America'' saw very graphically what happens to organizations that do not revise their goals in the face of changing conditions. And over the past 20 years, many things have changed in our industry and in our society. Like it or not, today we are all involved in a tricky balancing act, where mission and audience are part of the same equation.

I don't know whether our insights from Nova will be useful to any other series or whether the research that helped us is more universally applicable. But I know I share one concern with all my colleagues in the signature series: combining the demands of audience and mission in a single program requires a level of production complexity greater than we have faced before. And to build audience in a series needs a pipeline of these programs.

And so I must take this opportunity today to share with you my concern that the budget restrictions under which we operate will compromise our ability to take on these highly complex projects just at the time we are learning to do them well.

Paula Apsell, executive producer of Nova and head of the WGBH Science Unit, made these remarks at the PBS annual conference in June. She has supervised Nova since 1984, when she returned to the station after five years as a science producer at commercial WCVB, Boston. In her first decade at WGBH she created the children's drama series The Spider's Web and was a news producer for WGBH's radio side and produced eight Nova programs on the TV side.

Web page posted July 14, 2003
Current: the newspaper about public TV and radio
in the United States
Current Publishing Committee, Takoma Park, Md.

Paula Apsell


How Nova came to be.


In 2007, Nova and Tufts University recruited 13 out-of-shape New Englanders to train for the Boston Marathon. Like the program's producers, the runners went to great lengths to demonstrate what the human body can do.


Nova's approach, as defined on its website.