As a little girl, some of my fondest memories were watching science and nature shows on American public television with my family: NOVA, National Geographic, Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom, and The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau. I recall as a preteen being transfixed as I watched an episode of NOVA that demonstrated a magnified image of cardiac muscle cells sparsely arranged on a cell culture dish, beating asynchronously. Once the cells grew closer together and contacted each other, they began to beat in unison. Little did I know at the time that ultimately I would become an expert in cell culture and histology (and sharing this knowledge with thousands of college students over the years), possibly in part to this inspiration. I am proof that excellent science TV programming does more than educate, it can inspire one's life work!

I found an interesting article a couple of years ago called "Science on TV: forms and reception of science programmes on French television" by Suzanne de Cheveigné and Eliséo Véron in the journal Public Understanding of Science (vol 5 (1996) pp.231-253). Science programs, of course, are big in the US and (even more appreciated) in the UK, and France has a long history of enjoying more intellectual fare, supported primarily by the French government.

Granted, the information from this paper is a bit dated, and the way we share science on TV these days has changed, yet, I appreciate the conclusions de Cheveigné and Véron drew as they conducted interviews and categorized reactions that the general public had to watching science programs.

Overall, they discovered the audience reactions depended upon two factors:

  • the legitimacy accorded to television as a source of knowledge; and
  • the type of memories left by their school experience

From these two, they were able to schematically plot four main readings: Beneficiary, Intellectual, Intimistic and Excluded

A table indicating the characteristics of science TV Viewers

Science TV viewing parameters

Their findings led them to summarize:

"That means that there is no single, ideal way of presenting science. Different strategies must be adopted for different publics. For some people, the mediation of a television host or reporter is essential, protecting them from an unfamiliar world. For others it is unacceptable. A clearly defined didactic situation where the knowledge differential between the viewer and the scientist or the TV host is underscored can be happily accepted by one category but rejected by another. Behind these differing reactions to form, we can see different relations to the media, different expectations of science, and even different ideas about what the popularization of science can mean: the transmission of practical, every-day knowledge, or the chance to meet a scientist close-up. All these different expectations and different relations to knowledge must be taken into account to understand the success--or failure--of science on television."

A link to the abstract is here.

It is possible that their sample is quite strongly culture dependent. These were French people watching French television, although their conclusions seem valid enough from discussions I've had with many people about science on television. It would be interesting to conduct the study with Americans and with the type of fast paced programs with repetitive sequences/sound bites to catch the channel surfer that is common these days. And, there is nothing in this study about the appeal of a story for the audience which is also an essential element of modern science TV. We will address these trends in science TV in a future post.

Carin and I would like to know in the comments section below:

  • Did a science TV program ever inspire you to choose science as a career?
  • What are some of your favorite science TV programs?
  • What characteristics of your favorite show do you favor? Is it the host? The pace of the program? The level of science?
  • And, in what category do you think you belong?

I fall in the category of an intimistic viewer: I've learned plenty from television (more from books, of course) so I would have a favorable view of TV as a source of knowledge. The acquisition of knowledge is not problematic but I do not particularly enjoy if I feel the show is "talking down" to me. And I can go either way with a host or not...it just depends on what I am watching!

Original infographic by Joanne Manaster