In Depth

PBS Set the Course With 'Nova,' 'Nature'

By Elizabeth Jensen

When “Nova” debuted on PBS in 1974, the subject of its second program was a film about overreliance on the capacity of the Colorado River. In other words, PBS was examining environmental topics before it was cool.

But while “Nova” in particular has a history of looking at how science can help explain and improve the environment, not every PBS program was always so eager to lead viewers to environmental topics, despite holding the long franchise on an audience fascinated by the science, history and beauty of the natural world.

“The conventional wisdom had been for many, many years that environmental programs had been ratings poison,” said Fred Kaufman, the executive producer of “Nature” since 1991 and a founding member of the show’s staff in 1982.

Ratings still can be a tricky proposition but there’s no hesitancy in tackling the topic now, and there can be other rewards. “Nature,” for one, was honored with a Peabody Award for its 2007 program “Silence of the Bees,” which looked at the worldwide dying off of honey bees and the serious implications for the food supply. (It’s also the most-viewed “Nature” episode on the PBS.org Web site.)

“Nova” teamed up with National Geographic Television last year for the well-received global warming program called “Extreme Ice,” and the show has a number of other high-profile environmental programs in the works. Nonetheless, “The reality is you have to take a deep breath before you do environmental programming,” said Paula Apsell, senior executive producer for “Nova.”

“Nova” looked at technological advances in solar power in 2007’s “Saved by the Sun” and at the “Car of the Future” last year, and neither rated as well as she was hoping.

“I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say they are ratings poison, but they’re not ‘Shark Week,’ ” Apsell said, referring to Discovery Channel’s annual summer stunt, adding, “They’re not big ratings getters.”

But ratings aren’t everything, she said. “We would be amazingly irresponsible if we didn’t do them. Finding a solution to global warming is one of the most important, if not the most important, science and technology issue of our time, so how can a series like ‘Nova’ turn its back?”

And with “Nature’s” cable competition “more and more really chasing ratings,” Kaufman said, “I felt more of a responsibility to be unique.”

“Nature” came around and embraced environmental subjects once Kaufman realized that inattentive audiences weren’t so much to blame as the producers themselves. “It clicked for me what the problem was,” he said. “What seemed to be happening is that the people who were really interested in producing environmental programming tended to be people who had an agenda.

They would come to me wanting to use their film as a club to beat the people they thought were destroying the environment or creating a problem for nature.”

It was not, he said, “compelling TV,” just someone “who wanted to get on a soapbox for an hour.”
Instead, he said, the stories need to have “depth and character, a surprise, a twist, something multidimensional that makes it very engaging.”

All “Nature” programs have to have “a strong natural history component,” Kaufman said. Animals, as in the case of the bees, have to be built up as characters in themselves, and not just serving as pretty pictures to go with the talking heads and experts.

So when “Silence of the Bees” aired on Oct. 28, 2007, it looked very different from the way CBS’ “60 Minutes” tackled the same subject on the same night. The “60 Minutes” segment was “beautifully produced and well told,” Kaufman said, but “it looked like a news piece,” compared with the “Nature” bee close-ups shot with special cameras and lenses.

“Nature” has a number of environmental programs in the works, including one for next season that will examine the decline of Pacific salmon stocks in the American West, and another on the invasion of giant pythons in the Florida Everglades.

It is also finding ways to work the environmental aspects into its programs online, as with the upcoming “Cloud: Challenge of the Stallions,” the latest installation of its ongoing look at the wild mustangs of Montana. Kaufman called it “a pure natural history film” that will direct viewers to the Web site for more on efforts by the Bureau of Land Management to cull the herds.

The “Extreme Ice” “Nova” program worked, Apsell said, because it ended up being an adventure story, as National Geographic-funded photojournalist James Balog “got himself into the most horrendous situations” investigating disappearing glaciers and ice sheets in Greenland and Iceland. “It was an environmental story, but this guy put himself in jeopardy in order to understand more” about the topic, she said.

“Nova” has fundamentally changed its approach to environmental programs in recent years, Apsell said. “We’re not doing that global warming doom and gloom. Nobody wants to be lectured to and nobody wants to watch a gloom-and-doom program.” Nor should the show “be wasting our time banging people over the head convincing” skeptics that global warming is real, she said.

Instead, the show is taking a “positive spin,” she said, and looking at “what we can do about it.” So there’s a program in the works on whether technology can solve global warming, and “what technologies are there that are so promising that we should bet the farm on them?” It might be ready for airing around Earth Day.