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Re: Seven Rules for Making a Science Documentary

The Calculus of Science Documentaries

Regarding the production of science documentaries, it's all about making money, remember. Producers decide on matters of content (e.g., dinosaurs) and delivery vehicle (e.g., Nigel Marvin) as business/marketing issues.


Science documentary producers try to maximize profit (ROI, or Return on Investment) derived from some carefully-targeted set V of viewer. It takes financial investment to create a program. Producers do not merely try to maximize |V| i.e., the size of set V. They also tune their product (the documentary) to target a particular demographic. They seek an audience that is both large AND willing to spend their money on the products of their sponsors. To attract this demographic, what sells?

1) science sells [= attracts science-predisposed viewers, call that set S]. S is a subset of V. That is, some members of V are not really members of S, but landed on a given channel and think Nigel is fun to watch. They are really members of set P (see below). Note that to the extent that science sells, dinosaurs really sell.

2) personality sells [= attracts some other set of viewers, call that set P]. Note that sets P and S are distinct, but not disjoint, i.e. some members of S are also members of P, but |P| >> |S|.

3) sex sells. That's always there in show biz. Just think about "derring do", of wrestling crocodiles, and pith helmets, and safari jackets, and of course, some people find intelligent, witty people attractive. But it might really be just the safari jackets.

Producers understand that as the scientific content (selling point 1, above) is increased, |S| tends to increase but |V| tends to decrease, other factors remaining constant. Too much science puts off some people. In the limit, as the scientific content is maximized, V reduces to roughly S (where |S| = |DML| approximately). So science is introduced, but in moderation.

On the other hand, increasing personality (selling point 2, above) might turn off some diehard members of set S. This is attested by some recent DML postings to this thread.

Producers know what they are doing. As a consultant/talking head in a dozen dinosaur-related documentaries (BBC's WWD, Discovery, NHK, etc.) I have found that most (but not all) producers are open and explicit that their game is to maximize ROI. While the sound guy threads the lapel microphone inside my shirt, I've been reminded to keep it simple, not use big words, and always look excited and dramatic. "Give the viewer no reason to go to the refrigerator" was a recent admonishment.

My advice to the DML is for you individually to maximize the ROI. It's your hour to invest, either in watching the dinosaur show, or American Idol if that's on at the same time, or to contribute to the DML, or to share with your kids, whatever.

Bottom line: dinosaur shows are not meant for you, the members of S. They are meant for ROI.