On the Air

From its beginnings the power of television to inform has often been undercut by the commercial demands of the medium.

By Paul Halpern | July 20, 2015
Science made it on air soon after the first appearance of the television. But from the beginning science programming has faced the challenge of being both entertaining and educational.

Science made it on air soon after the first appearance of the television. But from the beginning science programming has faced the challenge of being both entertaining and educational.

Flickr user James Vaughan

Marcel Chotkowski LaFollette. Science on American Television: A History. University of Chicago Press, 2012. 296 pp. $45.

When television began in its experimental form in the 1930s, the medium was indeed the message, to echo the words of philosopher of culture Marshall McLuhan. For the first time, an audio-visual recording from anywhere on Earth could be transmitted into viewers’ living rooms. Nobody knew the implications of such an intimate form of communication.

Science was certainly on people’s minds as they gazed into the green glow of the sets on display at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, which took as its motto “The World of Tomorrow.” Those who might have shuddered in horror at Orson Welles’s radio broadcast of an alien invasion in “War of the Worlds” the year before gasped as they confronted shimmering, equally alien images. Cameras picked up fairgoers’ amazed reactions, which were beamed out to the barely 1,000 families who owned televisions.

By the early 1950s Americans were becoming more accustomed to television, and having a TV set in the house was a popular trend. Though the TV was still a novelty, the focus turned to what was on the tube rather than to its mysterious mechanisms. Even at the dawn of national broadcasting, science was part of the new medium’s flexible repertoire. Television offered an unprecedented means of science education on a massive scale for audiences who hungered to learn more about the world around them, and, unlike radio, it offered the visual component essential for displaying the wonders of science.

As Marcel Chotkowski LaFollette demonstrates in Science on American Television, from the very beginning of broadcast television there has been a tension between informing and entertaining viewers. The balance has slowly shifted over the decades, transforming serious but dry science broadcasts into a whole industry of production companies churning out flashy, science-related programming on a variety of channels. Many of today’s science shows are bursting with special effects, eager to capture the attention of those enthralled by Star Wars, Avatar, and eye-catching video games; such shows bear little relation to the staid, pioneering programs of the 1950s and 1960s.

In short order network executives sought to tweak science programming to garner better ratings. That was especially true for advertising-dependent commercial programming.

Some early science shows simply presented science faculty or museum personnel discussing their work. These pioneering programs, well documented in LaFollette’s book, include The Johns Hopkins Science Review, starring the university’s public-relations officer, Lynn Poole. Newspapers compared Poole’s low-key review of scientific projects with the zany and popular Milton Berle show, asserting that the former proved that TV could be educational. With so few programs on the air Poole became a surprise star.

Another popular early show, What in the World? was hosted by Froelich Rainey, director of the Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. The show enlivened its presentation of science with an element of competition; televised contestants, each a noted scholar, battled to identify archaeological artifacts. Viewers learned about archaeology while rooting for their favorite expert.

In short order network executives sought to tweak science programming to garner better ratings. That was especially true for advertising-dependent commercial programming. Researchers in lab coats gave way to more dramatic renditions of science, some of which neglected to show even a single scientist or explain the underlying principles. Nature programs emphasized the theatrical side of wildlife—such as mighty stampedes and lions attacking their prey—sometimes combining real-life footage with playful cartoons, as was done in the popular Disneyland show (later renamed The Wonderful World of Disney).

As television developed, scientific programming began to specialize. LaFollette’s comprehensive survey includes chapters about medical shows, children’s shows, and other genres. She explores the long-lasting phenomenon of Mr. Wizard, a program aimed at kids and focused on memorable demonstrations that often used household items. The show turned a generation of youth on to the promise and perils of science in the 1950s and early 1960s, an age of satellites and atomic weapons. Interest in such shows waned from the late 1960s to the 1980s but revived in the 1990s with such programs as Bill Nye the Science Guy and The Magic School Bus, which starred Lily Tomlin as Ms. Frizzle, a teacher who uses magic to expose her pupils to the wonders of nature.

LaFollette also documents the role of women in science shows. She points out that early programming either “perpetuated stereotypes of female scientists as superwomen whose achievements came at the expense of normal lives” or in many cases simply ignored their efforts. Women have been tremendously underrepresented in science programming, and female science celebrities shown on TV, such as anthropologist Margaret Mead, were few and far between. Even today it is hard to think of a major science show hosted by a woman scientist.

Several years ago Germany launched a national initiative to attract more women into science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) professions. Its government funded a program called MINTiFF (a German acronym for STEM in entertainment media) that looked to American television and cinema as models for presenting science in a fun, attractive, and egalitarian manner. The German researchers involved in the project, such as media experts Marion Esch and Christoph Falkenroth, didn’t look to fact-based science programming for guidance. Rather, they examined fictional American television shows that included science elements—House, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Numb3rs, and The Big Bang Theory—as examples of entertainment that also educates.

In 2013 I attended the third MINTiFF conference and delivered a talk on science in The Simpsons. I was struck by the group’s reverence for American television. Many attendees argued that inserting science references into popular programming would be a great way to attract youth into science and technology careers. For example, the character of Lisa Simpson, the savvy member of that television family, might inspire girls to see science as cool (despite that character’s own self-doubts).

Today viewers interested in scientific programming have many options. However, the omnipresent quest for ratings has continued to pressure broadcasters to mix science with entertainment. That’s fine if viewers understand the difference. (No one takes The Simpsons seriously.) But shows that ponder topics like extraterrestrial life and cosmic catastrophes exploit interest in scientific questions in ways that confuse rather than educate.

I’ve noticed in some contemporary programs a distressing tendency to balance scientific and pseudoscientific (or even fundamentalist) points of view. The shows zigzag between evidence presented by scholarly experts and the unproven speculations (or even rantings) of so-called prophets and prognosticators. I experienced that trend when I participated in a program I was told would be about the scientific and medical background of Nostradamus. Instead, I found my comments interspersed with prophetic speculations about the end of the world. Such a juxtaposition of science with sensationalism is clearly done to maximize potential viewership, while stirring up controversy (and ratings). Yet there is an undeniable cost. By switching back and forth between actual science and pseudoscientific hype, viewers undoubtedly become confused about what is established fact and what are unsupported opinions.

Despite such muddled examples, there is much excellent science programming on television today. Neil deGrasse Tyson’s reboot of Cosmos, for instance, has achieved enormous popularity by rooting reasonable speculation in scientific fact.

All in all Science on American Television offers a hopeful message. Despite its shortcomings, television at its best can serve as a vital educational tool. LaFollette documents many examples in which television achieved its loftiest aims of providing an entertaining, accessible way to learn about science.