AAAS Kavli Lecture: Paula Apsell on the Art of Science Television

Earl Lane

NOVA, the weekly science series on PBS, is in its 44th season of educating and entertaining audiences with programs driven by engaging story lines, striking images and glimpses into the human side of science and technology.

Paula S. Apsell, the senior executive producer of NOVA, described the process behind the long-running series during a AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Award lecture at the University of Oregon on Nov. 10. The lecture series brings winners of the distinguished journalism award to campuses for public talks and classroom workshops. Apsell is a three-time winner of the award.

About 70 people from the university and the Eugene community attended Apsell’s talk, which included snippets of some memorable NOVA programs and a preview of two works-in-progress, “Black Hole Apocalypse” (to be aired in January) and a five-part series on secrets of the solar system to be aired in 2019.

“We go to great lengths to tell good stories,” Apsell said. The emphasis is on using powerful visuals to help the audience see and understand the world in new ways, she said. But she added, “None of this really adds up too much without the human touch.”  

Apsell acknowledged that science has been under siege of late, with a sizeable percentage of the public still believing that researchers continue to disagree over long-settled evidence on climate change, for example. But she remains optimistic about the public appetite for good science reporting.

“Millions of Americans love and appreciate science,” she said. Some 46 million have watched NOVA programs during the past year, she said, and a Pew Research Center survey found that Americans rank science right up there with the military as professions that act in the best interests of the public.

“All we hear about is the science-phobes and the attacks from Washington,” Apsell said. “We can’t let it cloud our vision of real people who are interested in this.” Scientists must be more willing to speak out on their work and to get involved in public debates over uses of science, she added. Fortunately, many are doing so and are “no longer considered show-boaters as they once were,” she said, for talking to the media.

NOVA, which aired its first program in 1974, has been helping to bridge the gap between scientists and the public. To do so, Apsell said, requires good storytelling above all. She estimates that only about six out of 100 “pitches” she receives for program ideas ultimately go forward. “What most pitches have in common,” she said, “is that they are topics not stories. One hundred facts on even the most interesting topic is not going to make a NOVA story.”

“We are looking for topics that have a natural story line, a mystery to be solved, a mission to be accomplished, an obstacle to be overcome,” Apsell said. As an example, she cited the issue of artificial intelligence, a topic she worked on as a young producer and had been eager to revisit with a NOVA program. But what could help tell the story in an engaging manner? When she heard that IBM was developing a computer, named Watson, to compete against the best contestants on the game show “Jeopardy,” she knew she had her hook. The result was “Smartest Machine on Earth,” a program that looked at the making of Watson and some of the underlying issues surrounding artificial intelligence.

NOVA story telling has been evolving in recent years, Apsell said, thanks to dramatic improvements in scientific visualization, computer graphics and high-definition cameras. Programs can visualize both the outer reaches of the cosmos and the inner reaches of the atom. “We can transport them to worlds they can’t otherwise visit or see,” Apsell said, noting that programs on theoretical physics, cosmology and space exploration have been among the most popular over the years.

One program, “Inside Einstein’s Mind,” succeeded not only because it dealt in a convincing way with the complexities of theoretical physics, but also because it revealed a very human drama as Einstein raced to complete his general theory of relativity in 1915, even as the world seemed to be falling apart during World War I as was his marriage.

NOVA’s own world has been changing dramatically in recent years with the rise of the digital revolution. Apsell and her colleagues have had to attract a younger audience with different needs and tastes than traditional viewers of broadcast television. NOVA Labs, an online site, uses games and interactives to foster scientific exploration by teens and lifelong learners. NOVA also produces digital short features for Facebook (the program has more than a million Facebook followers) and posts lots of stories on its NOVA Next online site that are quite separate from the content of its broadcast programs. Surveys show that only a small percentage of the online audience comes to the NOVA site as a result of watching one of the broadcast programs, Apsell said.

On its various platforms, NOVA has not shied away from dealing with more policy-related issues such as the opioid crisis, climate change and the debate about vaccinations. “The science behind these issues is too important to be ignored.” Apsell said.

In May, NOVA aired “Poisoned Water,” an in-depth look at the distortion and dismissal of scientific research to support a misguided policy that exposed thousands of residents of Flint, Michigan to elevated levels of lead in their drinking water. “While bad science nearly destroyed Flint,” Apsell said. “Good science ultimately saved it.” The program, produced by Llewellyn Smith and Kelly Thomson, won a 2017 AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Award for in-depth television reporting.

Apsell said NOVA also has been aware of the need for diversity in its reporting on science. “We are very conscious that there have to be diverse faces on the screen,” she said. Kids will not be interested in science if they don’t think anybody who looks like them is a scientist.” NOVA’s contracts with its producers specify the need more diversity, she said, and interviews with researchers other than the principal investigator on a project have become common.  “We’ve been having great success in putting these affirmative images on the screen,” Apsell said.

In the end, she said, NOVA programs must not be boring and must tell stories in ways that viewers can understand and appreciate. One viewer who wrote to the program agreed: “NOVA is living proof that turning your brain on at the end of the day is actually more rejuvenating than turning it off.”