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Science Summit: The World Congress Convenes

By Patricia Aufderheide

At the 9th annual World Congress of Science Producers, held in Washington, DC in October, some 315 delegates from 20 countries attended panels whose subjects ranged from programs for kids to productions for the education market. Keynote speaker Nathan Myhrvold, the Microsoft cyberscience guru-turned-science adventurer, also extolled the role of popular science in inspiring future scientists. In the context of the congress, the term “science” covered such topics as health, wildlife, space, archeology and engineering—as well as bioterrorism.

The annual convocation began in 1984 when TV Ontario’s Wally Longul and his producing partner from NHK co-sponsored an international meeting to consider creating an informal club to share information and create a platform for co-productions. The small group evolved into the congress in 1992, when 75 people attended. The congress was an all-volunteer organization until two years ago, when the Banff Television Foundation began running it for the group. The congress remains a largely volunteer organization, with an emphasis on content and education. “It takes a lot of work, but I agreed to serve because I find it fulfilling and stimulating,” says steering committee member Ann Julienne of France’s La Cinquième. “I love this congress because people here are not looking for a market, but for well-produced sessions of interest to producers.”

Session formats highlighted both substance and creativity. A favorite format from earlier years, “Broadcast Wars: Films I Wish I'd Commissioned,” featured commissioning editors picking their favorite science productions from other shops. Sara Ramsden of Channel 4 surprised some with her choice of a dramatic series, “CSI,” for its heroic presentation of forensic scientists. Paula Apsell of “NOVA” claimed to be gnashing her teeth at having passed on a show on breakthroughs in ulcer treatments, which went to the BBC’s “Horizon.” Ann Julienne celebrated “1900 House” for presenting technology information in a “viewer-friendly” way.

A session entitled “Expand Your Market: The Museum Industry” featured three museum curators—all lapsed science producers—who suggested leveraging resources by forging relationships between media producers and science museums. “Let us use your clips, and we will tout your upcoming science programs,” suggested Carol Lynn Alpert of the Boston-based Museum of Science. A late addition to the congress was a session on science programming, post- September 11. Producers Dugald Maudsley and Jonathan Hewes discussed their docs on smallpox as a bioterror agent. Commissioning editors noted that they were quickly resetting priorities. Panelists also discussed politicians’ and journalists’ impatience with the nuances and caution of scientists on topical issues. And then there was the never-ending challenge of making science viewer-friendly, especially in uncertain economic times. Donald Thoms of Discovery Health Channel noted, “We’re fighting for ratings and ad sales, so it’s a big challenge. Budgets are tight. And on the health channel, it’s absolutely crucial to be right—you’re talking about people’s health.” This focus on commercial viability has served to stretch the definition of science programming into new shapes. “Junkyard Wars,” a British-produced show carried on TLC, features teams of testosterone-happy men competing to build machines out of junkyard parts in what is essentially a game and reality show. At the higher end of the spectrum, WGBH’s “Evolution” series and the BBC’s immensely popular and lavishly supported “Blue Planet” series (which drew record ratings, even though it debuted on September 12) were highly regarded.

The Congress also addressed the problem of making quality work with too few resources. Holly Studtler of Dream Catcher Films, like other natural history producers, came to the congress with the hope of diversifying her natural history portfolio. Evan Hadingham of “NOVA” noted that a recent 20 percent budget cut at PBS has impacted long-term projects, with potentially grave results. “NOVA’s” timely program Bio-Terror, for example, which aired in November, had been in production for many years. A session on alternative funding looked at tax breaks for films and television productions in the UK and grants for cash-strapped producers from the European Union. In addition, a representative from the National Science Foundation indicated that the organization hoped to increase funding to help offset cuts in corporate support for science productions.

Given that science programming requires many resources, co-production was an aspiration among many congress attendees. The traditionally autonomous National Film Board of Canada screened a videotape designed to signal, with broad humor, Director Jacques Bensimon’s driving interest in co-productions. German producer Carl Fechner, who was trolling for partners for a series on the solar world, and Miami-based Colombian producer Mauricio Acosta, looking for co-partners for his Latin American productions, found the congress rich in possibilities.

Discovery Communications and “NOVA” co-hosted the World Congress of Science Producers, with a variety of producers and channels hosting individual events. The 2002 Congress will be held in Berlin, Germany, from October 24 to 27; German broadcaster ARD will host.


Jane Snyder is an independent producer based in Bethesda, Maryland. Pat Aufderheide is a professor and director of the Center for Social Media at American University in Washington, DC.