Ten episodes in, Wired Science is out

Originally published by Current, March 3, 2008
By Jeremy Egner

Wired Science, the hip science and tech series designed to satisfy a detected demand for more science shows and selected in a bake-off among producers last summer, won’t come back with new episodes.

PBS opted to cancel the show because its 10 episodes aired between October and December didn’t generate “enough measurable momentum” to justify a second season, John Wilson, PBS programming chief, told Current in an e-mail last week.

Wired Science was co-produced by Los Angeles’ KCET and the Condé Nast tech monthly Wired, based in San Francisco. Neither responded to requests for comment before Current’s deadline.

“Through KCET’s talent and hard work, they delivered a top-quality, multiplatform project,” Wilson said.

Wilson didn’t say specifically why the project is being canceled beyond the “momentum” issue, though Wired Science’s audience numbers surely didn’t help its cause. The show’s on-air rating never reached PBS’s primetime average.

Wired Science was the first new series created for PBS in response to CPB’s four-year series of studies on primetime audience preferences. The program was conceived as an offering to a young, tech-savvy audience segment that was identified by the research as being “innovative” in its media choices and “inclined” to watch public TV, especially science programming, even though they weren’t devoted PBS viewers. 

PBS and the producers never publicly revealed how much they and CPB spent on the series. It was backed by the Opportunity Fund, created by CPB to invest in programs emerging from its primetime research. Previous grants from the CPB fund have bolstered existing core series such as Masterpiece Theatre and Nova. Last year’s CPB budget included $9 million for the fund to cover the new science series and other projects.

PBS asked viewers to help pick the production team to launch a new science franchise. The Wired Science pilot beat two contenders in an competition last year. PBS made the final call about which program to choose, though its decision was informed by minute-by-minute Nielsen ratings, focus groups and e-mails from more than 7,000 viewers.

But after Wired Science launched last fall on 381 stations, airing in more than 97 percent of the country, public TV’s audience wasn’t especially inclined to watch it.

In its brief run, the show averaged a 0.61 rating, compared to the PBS primetime average of 0.87. Viewing lagged behind the primetime average in every age group other than men aged 35-49.

“It just goes to show that there is a level of art beyond the science” of researching and developing new shows, says Steve Bass, president of Oregon Public Broadcasting. At OPB, ratings started low and stayed there, he says.

As of last week, the Wired Science website continued to feature new blog postings, and there were no plans to cease operations, says Jackie Kain, v.p. for new media at KCET. The portal’s a finalist for best TV or film website at this month’s South by Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas, she says.

As for the on-air component, it’s on hiatus, according to a message in the top right corner of the Wired Science homepage.

“It’s a dilemma—you go back to that [New York Times] Feb. 17  article that says everything we do is musty,” Bass says. “Okay, so maybe there’s a kernel of truth there. Then you try to break out of the box and be a little hipper and lighter, and people don’t watch. So what does that tell you?”

“It’s a very confusing message,” he says.

Too hip or too hidden?

The reasons why Wired Science never gained much traction depend on whom you ask.

The show was designed to bring a younger segment into the pubTV fold. But some saw the hipper, lighter approach as a fatal flaw destined to alienate public TV loyalists.

Even though focus groups indicated that they wanted some longer segments, the program remained “very, very busy,” says David LeRoy, pubTV audience research consultant and co-director of TRAC Media Services in Tucson, Ariz. “It had too many stories.”

“Basically,” he says, “when you make a program for an audience that doesn’t typically watch you, why are you surprised when they don’t watch you?”

Others, however, believe Wired Science was never given the proper chance to find its audience. Or, to put it more accurately, the audience was never given a chance to find the show, says Nicholas P. Schiavone, the consultant who designed the CPB research and the science-pilot vetting process.

Considering how little public TV can spend on promotion, compared to other networks, 10 episodes don’t give nearly enough time for a new program to draw a crowd, Schiavone says. To make matters worse, Wired Science was essentially buried on Wednesday nights rather than placed alongside Nova or another established show to give it an early boost, as commercial networks regularly do with new series. Schiavone is a former head of research for NBC.

“It was in a sense thrown into the pool without floaties to see whether it could sink or swim on its own,” he says.

Part of the dilemma facing PBS in such situations, Bass says, is that in addition to a show’s performance and potential, the network also has to consider stations’ feelings when it comes to scheduling decisions.

Promotion is not exactly a guarantee of success either. “American Family had a huge promotion budget, and it utterly tanked,” Bass says.

Wired Science’s demise points up “the challenge we all have in breaking and developing new shows,” he adds. “You really can’t predict this stuff. I was the guy at WGBH who heard about Antiques Roadshow and said, ‘Aw, that’ll never work.’”             

Web page posted March 3, 2008
Copyright 2008 by Current LLC


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