Science communication as TV spectacle

The reviews are in for Neil de Grasse Tyson’s reboot of the classic Carl Sagan TV series Cosmos and the reception has been overwhelmingly positive.

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The first episode of the series, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey debuted on Sunday night in the US with an estimated 8.5 million people tuning in to watch it across Fox channels. According to Neilsen, 40 million people worldwide will have watched it by the end of the week. That’s pretty staggering reach when it comes to a science TV show.

The series debuts here in New Zealand on Sunday night on Sky TV’s National Geographic channel. Those using a virtual private network to stream video from US TV shows can watch the first episode on Fox’s website or on the Hulu TV portal. I’ve seen it. I was very impressed. It honours the brilliant original series while updating it, content wise and graphically. Neil de Grasse Tyson does a great job fronting it.

The series shows what can be achieved when top notch talent and a large amount of money are thrown at a TV project. But science-related TV events like this are rare. President Obama even recorded a promo for the show in which he said that Cosmos reminded Americans of their capacity to reach for the stars:

“There are no limits. So open your eyes and your imagination. The next big discovercould be yours”.

Imaginations captured

All very inspiring stuff. But what will the real impact of Cosmos be? Do popular TV series like this have the power to inspire and capture the imagination the way they did back when Sagan made the original?

Others have been mulling the same question. From The Atlantic:

Looking back on the 1980s, it’s hard to say how much public support for scientific research, including the planetary exploration missions so dear to Sagan’s heart, can be credited directly to programs like Cosmos, and how much depended on Congressional support for a space industry that might play some yet-to-be-determined role in World War III. Today, the federal government continues to invest in R&D, but those funds skew toward defense projects, health research, and technology-oriented innovation. Instead of space war, defense R&D focuses on cybersecurity, remote-sensing technologies, and neurowarfare. NASA, meanwhile, limps along. That seems unlikely to change, whether Cosmosscores 5 or 500 million viewers.

I don’t think anyone should be looking to a show like Cosmos to be doing anything other than entertaining and to an extent educating people about our world and the universe. The impact of such things is cumulative – exposure to them can change perception and foster interest over time. When I think about what got me interested in science and technology as a child it was a mix of BBC documentaries, sci-fi books, enthusiastic teachers and my father, who as a technician at Philips in Dublin, got his hands on some of the newest consumer electronics devices first. I fondly remember Sagan’s Cosmos, but it was a small part of the mix of influences.

If children sit down in front of the box to watch Cosmos and come away with what I took from the original it has more than achieved its purpose.

Away from the US, down here in a small country like New Zealand, its interesting to ponder what the impact of a locally-produced science-related show like Cosmos could be. We have few real TV events in this country that are not sports or election related. Late last year a fantastic series called Wild About New Zealand aired that, I think, stands out as a series that really got people thinking and talking about the wonderful place we live in.

The production values were outstanding. This was TV that was well thought-out, well constructed, and followed a format that ignored faddish TV conventions. It will still be a good doco in 30 years time.

Do we have more shows like this in us? Do we have a science show that could get the nation talking the way Cosmos has in the US?

Some of the Cosmos reviews

Scienceblogsthe first episode is a win

The VergeMaking science cool again

VarietyCosmos review

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