Pioneer Award: An Executive Producer with Exceptional Passion: Paula S. Apsell
PBS’ NOVA is known for innovative, challenging science programming, and with Paula S. Apsell at the helm, it’s no wonder that the series continues to set the standard. A passionate, engaged executive, Apsell thrives on conquering new challenges and exercising her creativity in the editing room and with her collaborators.
The creation of stimulating programming has been an element of Apsell’s career from the very beginning. Early on, when she was employed at WGBH Boston typing up the daily television program logs, she had an idea for a radio show for children called The Spider’s Web. She offered to produce it on a volunteer basis while continuing to do her job as a logger. The program featured actors and actresses presenting dramatic readings of children’s literature, and Apsell did everything from directing the performers to finding music to editing.
While Apsell credits the long-term success of the show to those who came on board after she launched it, she is extremely proud of having created The Spider’s Web. “Considering that I had no idea what I was doing at all, I found it very terrifying,” she admits. “But I’ve always found it to be extremely energizing to be able to start things, to do something that’s original and new.”
Apsell’s radio production career eventually moved on from children’s literature to the news division. She went back to television as an episode producer for the fledgling NOVA in 1975. She next spent time as a senior producer for medical programming at WCVB, the ABC affiliate in Boston, and then spent a year studying at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as a Knight Fellow. Two of the programs she produced that she’s especially proud of are Death of a Disease, which shined a light on small pox eradication, and Someone I Once Knew, the first film about Alzheimer’s disease.
Apsell returned to the public broadcasting system in 1984, when she took over as the executive producer of the NOVA. She loved creator Michael Ambrosino’s concept that science is a story that needs to be told with characters, visuals and dramatic development, and was both excited and nervous about her new position.
“When I came to NOVA, it took a while to get up to speed there,” Apsell reflects. “It's a very difficult, large series to get your arms around. It’s not that easy to make shows that are good science and are also good films at the same time. I had been a producer myself, so I knew what I was doing as a producer, but the idea of directing all these others to do it was terrifying. So I feel a great sense of accomplishment that eventually during my tenure the series found a new voice.” She points to programs such as The Elegant Universe and Einstein’s Big Idea as emblematic of this.
Throughout her career, Apsell has seen a number of changes in the way NOVA’s narratives are told and in the audience that is watching them. She believes that stories are now told more dramatically than in earlier science programs. “Documentaries in those days tended to be flatter,” Apsell notes. “If you look at them, the scenes were very long and they were less visualized. Because we have so much competition, on NOVA we've gotten a bit more commercial in our outlook.”
According to Apsell, this involves looking for ways to keep the pieces moving and structuring episodes in such a way as to create mystery and suspense. Ideally, they should unfold like a good detective story. She also tries to avoid talking heads, instead utilizing subjects—or “characters”—who are actively involved in the storytelling. Another important element of the NOVA formula is the usage of state-of-the-art visuals that go beyond the textbook illustrations most associate with science. Apsell wants viewers to see things on NOVA that they cannot see anywhere else.
While some might accuse the series of becoming slicker and glossier, Apsell thinks that’s a good thing. “I really see it as a strength,” she says. “We are competing for eyeballs and I think you have to do those things to attract an audience. But I also think that, in many cases, it makes them a better program.”
While the core of that audience is still composed of the typical PBS posse of intelligent viewers who want to be both entertained and educated by their television programming, over the years Apsell has watched that group grow slightly younger and more female. This may be due in part to NOVA’s award-winning website, currently the most popular destination on www.pbs.org. The site has exposed the show to a younger, tech-savvy audience that did not previously tune in to the broadcast.
No matter how NOVA programming is delivered, viewers will continue to find groundbreaking stories wherever and whenever they tune in. One might think that the series would have run out of ideas after more than 30 years on the air, but thanks to ever-changing technology, this is not the case. Apsell says that in the early days when NOVA began, every topic was being addressed for the first time. Now the show is tackling topics for a second and third time because the science has changed so much over the years. Therefore, finding the right angle is crucial.
Apsell maintains a hands-on approach to selecting topics for the show. Though it’s always a challenge for her to not get bogged down in meetings and bureaucratic duties, some of her happiest moments are when she is brainstorming for episodes. “I love looking into the future and seeing what we can cook up,” she explains. “I work with my incredible team at WGBH or my independent producers; we have dinner, we start to talk about a program, we get excited, idea builds upon idea. We put our heads together to try to figure out how to do it in an original way. To me this is a charge; it’s really more fun than just about anything.”
Fine-tuning shows in the editing room is another favorite part of the job for Apsell. The executive producer finds that every show has a unique challenge that needs to be solved dramatically and visually in a different way. This keeps the work fresh for her. “Just to have a whole day or two to spend in the editing room working on a script, looking at a fine cut, critiquing it and working with the producer and the writers to find ways to improve it—I just love it,” she enthuses. “I get a charge out of it which has never gone away. And I don’t really think it ever will. I just feel like this old race horse. I sit down in front of this image and start going through it slowly, frame by frame, and my blood starts to race.”
Tamara Krinsky is the associate editor of Documentary and a correspondent for PBS’ WIRED Science.