Bill Nye the Science Guy to run on PBS simultaneously with commercial syndication

Originally published in Current, May 9, 1994
By Karen Everhart Bedford

Program managers who last year bemoaned PBS's inability to afford the KCTS-produced children's series, Bill Nye the Science Guy, this fall will find the show smack-dab in their afternoon kid's block, five days a week.

In the first deal to bring a syndicated children's program to public television while it's still airing commercially, PBS and the Walt Disney Company's Buena Vista Television announced plans to continue production of the series and, beginning this fall, offer it to both commercial and public TV stations.

At a press conference May 3 [1994], PBS President Ervin Duggan said the deal illustrates two "major strategic directions for PBS," in its support for the nation's education goals and in its partnership between public TV and a major media corporation.

PBS can now reclaim partial ownership in a show that, ironically, was piloted for public TV with funding from the National Science Foundation, but turned out to cost more than PBS would pay.

Now PBS is chipping in $2 million for the second broadcast window for 65 shows with a total budget of $14.5 million. PBS will feed five episodes a week; Buena Vista will syndicate just one a week, for airing on weekends.

The programs come with rights permitting teachers to tape them off-air and use them for three years.

Commercial stations this year aired the first 26 Bill Nye episodes, and those will be the first to air on public TV. The next 26 shows also will debut in commercial syndication and then come to PBS on Dec. 5 [1994], according to PBS spokeswoman Karen Doyne.

Disney and the National Science Foundation are the series' major backers, contributing roughly $7 million and $4.5 million, respectively. LIN Television, a commercial station group, invested $1 million in the series.

Had 98 percent coverage

When PBS passed up the series proposal, Disney's syndication arm picked it up with the expectation that many stations would be looking for children's educational programs to satisfy the FCC's edict on that subject.

And, indeed, Disney sold Bill Nye to 205 stations covering 98 percent of the population for broadcast last fall, according to Rich Frank, president of Walt Disney Studios. For next season, 148 stations with 87 percent coverage have signed up so far, he said.

But the program hasn't been a big moneymaker, judging from Frank's remarks.

"Right now the only way we can financially figure out how to get this going without losing a fortune--I promise you, the first year Disney didn't make any money on this show--is to have some kind of a partnership [in which] everybody puts in a little," said Frank.

He added that, if Disney had made the "gigantic mistake" of getting KCTS to make the show in Los Angeles, the cost of the series "would be like $40 million."

"What they're able to do up in Seattle for cost of each episode is truly amazing. Take that from somebody who does 30 hours of programming a week."

KCTS itself has been the only public TV station to carry the show, but that limited experience in Seattle indicates that simultaneous runs of Bill Nye increase rather than diminish viewing. Frank said Seattle ratings showed "very little duplication" between the audiences of KCTS and the commercial station airing the show there. "In fact, you're multiplying your reach almost 100 percent." He estimated that about 11 percent of the show's audience watched it on both stations.

KCTS continues to turn out episodes. If PBS and commercial stations want more Bill Nye after the third package of 13, Frank said, "we can do 50 new ones a year."

Bill Nye, the quirky and enthusiastic host, gasped audibly at that remark, feigning weariness to a room full of smirking reporters and charmed observers. Introduced by KCTS President Burnie Clark as "the most successful comedian in mechanical engineering," Nye entertained his audience by demonstrating the principles of air movement. Deputy Secretary of Education Madeline Kunin and Rep. George Brown (D-Calif.) stood in as lab assistants.

"This is absolutely the most exciting time in my life," he exclaimed.

Fourth-grade target

"There's nothing more interesting to a fourth-grader than the world around you, and there's nothing more empowering than science," said Nye. The show targets kids in fourth grade because that stage of primary school is where young people, especially girls and children of color, decide not to pursue careers in science, he explained. Encouraging them otherwise is one aim of the show.

To further that cause, much of NSF's contribution to the series supports educational materials for kids and teachers. An "Amazing Box o' Science"--a kit the size of a large shoe box with tools and instructions for easy at-home experiments--will be developed for season two; this year, 50,000 children who responded to Bill Nye received them free. NSF also will fund a new packet for teachers: the first one, developed by Disney Educational Productions, KCTS and the series science advisors, was distributed to every fourth-grade teacher in the country.

Frank noted that Disney is trying to figure out "a major way" to publish Bill Nye on video at a "very, very low price."

Current's home page
Nye's second series caught in problems of KCTS, 2003.
Bill Nye's website

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