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Popular science on TV – call for a scientist’s cut

Apr 25, 2010 1 comment

Films are sometimes re-released as a director’s cut – a version that more closely reflects the director’s vision for the film, free from the commercial pressures of the studio.

Science programme makers could take a cue from filmmakers and produce two cuts: one for the general public and one for enthusiasts.

Take Wonders of the Solar System. This has all the makings of a great science programme: an enthusiastic and knowledgable presenter in Professor Brian Cox, great pictures of space and the earth, travel to interesting locations, interviews with scientific experts and fantastic computer simulations. Yet the programme is hard to watch – it’s like eating cabbage: I do it because I know I ought to, not because I want to. And it’s not just me. A friend of mine, who is also a science and technology enthusiast, said he fell asleep during the programme.

The main problem is that the programme is constrained to a 1-hour slot, and is edited to fit that slot. This means there is a lot of filler to sit through. Shots of Brian Cox walking up to a telescope, unnecessary shots of him driving in his car (and, of all forms of filler, presenters driving in their car is the most clichéd and overused), scenes that are portmanteaux of earlier scenes, and so on.

The second problem is that the programme, by necessity, targets a wide audience: since there are relatively few science programmes on television, such programmes have to target both the general public and those who have a deeper understanding of science. This means these programmes generally need to include explanations of the basics, and even when these explanations are good, they are not that interesting to people who already understand what is being explained. A good example is when Brian Cox explained the size of the solar system, by placing planets in their relative positions on a table, and then driving to the position of the Oort cloud. This was a dramatic illustration of the solar system’s size (and, incidentally, appropriate use of a shot of him driving), but not that interesting to someone who understands the vastness of space.

Both these problems could be solved by having two cuts of the programme – a standard version and a scientist’s cut. The scientist’s cut would differ from the standard cut in that it would not include the filler and the basic explanations. But it might include more detail in other areas.

Programme lengths no longer have to be totally dictated by the TV schedule. Perhaps the main showing needs to fit a one-hour slot, but repeats on BBC iPlayer certainly do not. There is no reason why two cuts of “Wonders of the Solar System” should not be available on iPlayer – the full version and the scientist’s cut. The programme is repeated on BBC1 and BBC4, often in the middle of the night – there is no reason why one of these repeats should not be a scientist’s cut. The programme is to be sold on DVD – there is no reason why there should not be a DVD scientist’s cut.

Despite the fact that it contains some wonderful material, I won’t be buying the DVD of Wonders of the Solar System. But if Professor Brian Cox was given full editorial control and was allowed to make a scientist’s cut of the programme, I would buy that.

Film enthusiasts get a special cut, science enthusiasts should get one too.

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