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Media: A Blizzard Of Wizards

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Likewise, the producers of CBS's Beakman's World, another science show for the MTV generation, pay homage to Mr. Wizard with two wisecracking penguin puppets named Don and Herb. Don Herbert first appeared on NBC's Watch Mr. Wizard in the early 1950s, and the latest incarnation of his show, Mr. Wizard's World, still appears on the Nickelodeon cable channel.

But new science shows such as Science Guy and Beakman look very different from Mr. Wizard, which for years has featured Herbert in the role of a gentle teacher showing children how to do simple home experiments. The new shows combine humor, slick graphics, fast editing, and other whiz-bang gimmicks to appeal to the shorter attention spans of today's youths. "Everyone has a remote control now,'' Nye says, "and children are used to the pace of MTV and Nickelodeon. If you don't like this bit, just wait 40 seconds, and it will be something new.''

Science Guy is distributed to local television stations by the syndication arm of the Walt Disney Co. On each half-hour show, Nye examines various angles of a single science topic, such as the moon, dinosaurs, or skin. Beakman's World, which began running on CBS last fall after one year in syndication, features performance artist Paul Zaloom as a zany scientist who answers such questions from viewers as "What are bacteria?''

While there have been science shows on television for years, particularly on public broadcasting stations, the medium is undergoing a wave of new interest in the genre. Most industry observers agree that the impetus was a 1990 federal law, the Children's Television Act, which mandated that stations air educational and informational programming for children. The law did not really have teeth until a crackdown last year by the Federal Communications Commission, which threatened to withhold the license renewals of several television stations that did not air educational programming tailored specifically to children.

The television industry took notice. Before long, CBS picked up Beakman's World, vastly expanding the show's audience from syndication, in which shows are sold to individual stations in each market. Disney, meanwhile, ordered 26 episodes of Science Guy.

The ABC television network had already given the go-ahead for Cro, an animated series for children that introduces basic scientific principles. The show, about a Cro-Magnon boy and a smart bunch of woolly mammoths in the Ice Age, made its debut last fall and weaves in the teaching of such principles as buoyancy and how simple machines work. The show is the first series for commercial television from the Children's Television Workshop, the producers of such public television hits as Sesame Street and Ghostwriter.

Other new shows available on the syndication market this season include The Edison Twins, Science, and Mad Scientist Toon Club.

And even more science shows are in the works:

  • The Public Broadcasting Service next fall plans to air The Magic School Bus, an animated series about a teacher (whose voice is supplied by comedian Lily Tomlin) who takes her class on unusual science field trips. The show is based on a popular series of children's books.
  • The Children's Television Workshop has begun developing a weekly science game show based on the "Dr. Brain'' mathematics and science software from Sierra On-Line.
  • The American Chemical Society has teamed up with Lucky Duck Productions on a pilot for a new science series called Reaction-Action!
  • Even Mr. Wizard is adding something new. Herbert is working on Teacher to Teacher With Mr. Wizard, a science series for Nickelodeon that will go into classrooms to show science teachers at work. The program will likely be telecast in the wee hours for taping by other science teachers.

There may soon be more science shows on the air than latenight talk shows--a gratifying trend to many observers. "I say the more the better,'' says Hyman Field, head of public education programs at the National Science Foundation. The federal agency has spent several million dollars supporting some of the new science shows, including Science Guy, Cro, and Magic School Bus.

What is significant, say those in the television industry, is that the NSF is willing to support not only public television shows but also several intended for commercial networks. "We will be supporting new programming on PBS, but there are a lot of kids watching Saturday-morning cartoons,'' Field says. "By putting good programming with substance into these other venues, we have the potential for reaching more children. We are very interested in reaching minority children, and they don't watch PBS as much.''

Thus, the NSF has backed Cro to the tune of $1.3 million in its first season, a significant sum that has covered part of its production budget and outreach efforts. "They are experimenting with how can you really do something on Saturday morning that is entertaining and have some substance?'' Field remarks. "The first season has had some successes and some problems, but I think ABC has been convinced that some good science built into the story line can be successful.''

Franklin Getchell, executive producer of Cro, says the NSF funding was important because it allowed the creators to do more research on the educational components of the show. "We were trying to demonstrate to everybody, not least the networks, that you can do a show with educational messages and an audience,'' Getchell says. He notes that when Cro comes on the air, it doesn't carry a "science education'' tag. The shows feature a narrative story line with many characters, and the scientific principles are almost slipped in.

Beakman's World, based on a syndicated newspaper feature, also attempts to blend entertainment and education without coming across as an instructional program. "I didn't want to make this a sixth day of school,'' says Mark Waxman, the show's executive producer. "The thinking was, if we do a quality television show, they will come.''

During the program, Beakman responds to viewers' queries by performing experiments or explaining scientific principles. He is aided by two laboratory sidekicks, an apprentice named Liza and a lab rat named Lester. The show addresses several topics per half-hour episode, at a dizzying pace.

Science Guy is also fast-paced and peppered with comedy and hip graphics, but Nye concentrates on just one topic during each 30-minute show and comes closer to having a coherent science curriculum. "If you come to a show with no knowledge about how airplanes fly, you won't get any lift from Beakman's short discussion of it,'' Nye asserts with a competitive edge in his voice. His own show attempts to impart two or three major learning objectives about a single topic.

Nye also chides Beakman because it features a mere actor in the title role. "Not only do I play a scientist on TV, but I am one,'' says Nye, a former engineer for the Boeing Co. in Seattle who turned to a career in stand-up comedy when he won a Steve Martin look-alike contest. Along the way, he also appeared in science videos for the Washington State Department of Ecology and other productions before developing his own science show. "We weren't trying to create a show to comply with the FCC,'' he says. In fact, after the NSF provided funds for a pilot, Nye hoped that the show would be picked up by PBS. But PBS officials told him it could take two years to get the show on the air. Then Disney stepped in last spring, and the show was on commercial television by the fall.

The NSF has provided a grant to distribute Bill Nye teaching kits to 4th grade classrooms around the country. And Nye has already published his first book, Bill Nye the Science Guy's Big Blast of Science (published by Addison-Wesley).

So what does the dean of televised science education think about the new shows? Don Herbert says he has not seen many of the shows, but he adds, "I've gotten reports.'' He criticizes such shows as Science Guy and Beakman because, in his view, they don't "just do plain science. They have to sugarcoat it.''

"It's not the way I would do it,'' Herbert says. "If you are only trying to get [children's] attention and not get them involved, that's one thing. What we try to do on Mr. Wizard is to get them involved intellectually.''--Mark Walsh

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