Slick and Fast, Science Shows Emulate MTV

By Mark Walsh — January 19, 1994 8 min read
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Bill Nye the Science Guy has nothing but praise for his television ancestor and the pioneer of children’s science shows, Mr. Wizard.

“You can’t say anything bad about Mr. Wizard,’' Nye, the host of the syndicated show “Disney Presents Bill Nye the Science Guy,’' says. “Half of the stuff on my show is what Mr. Wizard taught me.’'

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 “Watch Mr. Wizard’’ on NBC in the early 1950’s, and the latest incarnation of his show, “Mr. Wizard’s World,’' still appears on the Nickelodeon cable channel.

But new science shows like “Bill Nye’’ and “Beakman’’ look very little like “Mr. Wizard,’' which for years has featured Herbert in the role of 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, and children are used to the pace of MTV and Nickelodeon,’' Nye says. “If you don’t like this bit, just wait 40 seconds, and it will be something new.’'

Federal Law Spurs Action

“Bill Nye the Science Guy’’ is distributed to local television stations by the syndication arm of the Walt Disney Company. On each half-hour show, Nye examines various angles of a single science topic, such as the moon or structures.

“Beakman’s World,’' which began running on CBS last fall after one year in syndication, features the 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, that mandates 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 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 “Bill Nye.’'

The ABC television network had already given the go-ahead for an animated series for children that introduces basic scientific principles. “Cro,’' 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 in New York City, 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 the “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 the 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 C.T.W. has begun developing a weekly science game show based on the “Dr. Brain’’ children’s mathematics and science software from Sierra On-Line.
  • The American Chemical Society has teamed up with Lucky Duck Productions on the pilot for a new science series called “Reaction-Action!’' Lucky Duck’s Linda Ellerbee produces and anchors the popular children’s news show “Nick News’’ on the Nickelodeon channel and in syndication.
  • Even Mr. Wizard is adding something new. Herbert is working on a new science show for Nickelodeon, “Teacher to Teacher With Mr. Wizard,’' which will go into classrooms to show science teachers at work. The show will likely be telecast in the wee hours for taping by other science teachers.

Seeking New Audiences

There soon may be more science shows on the air than late-night talk shows--a gratifying trend to many observers.

“I say the more the better,’' says Hyman Field, the head of public-education efforts at the National Science Foundation. The federal agency has spent several million dollars supporting some of the new science shows, including “Bill Nye,’' “Cro,’' and “Magic School Bus.’'

“The interest I have is in getting a new audience for science,’' Field says.

What is significant, say those in the television industry, is that the N.S.F. is willing to support not only public-television shows but also shows 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 N.S.F. has backed the animated series “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 to children.

“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, the executive producer of “Cro’’ for the C.T.W., says the N.S.F. funding was important because “it allowed us to do more research than we would have been able to do’’ about the educational component 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,’' he says.

Getchell points out that when “Cro’’ comes on the air, it is not tagged as a “science education’’ show. The shows feature a narrative story line with many characters, and the scientific principles are almost slipped in.

Answering Viewers’ Queries

“Beakman’s World,’' based on the syndicated newspaper feature “You Can With Beakman and Jax,’' also attempts to blend entertainment and education without coming across as an instructional show.

“I didn’t want to make this a sixth day of school,’' says Mark Waxman, the executive producer of the show. “The thinking was, if we do a quality television show, they will come. So we set about creating a live-action cartoon, with sound effects, drama, and suspense.’'

In the show, Beakman responds to viewers’ queries by doing 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.

“By having two kids, I see the pace of what is coming at them,’' Waxman says. “They have been trained to absorb a lot. We just try to take advantage of all the stimuli that are influencing kids.’'

“Bill Nye the Science Guy’’ is also fast-paced, but Nye concentrates on just one topic during each 30-minute show.

“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, whether flight, skin, or dinosaurs.

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 Company in Seattle who turned to a career in standup 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 starting efforts to develop his own science show.

“We weren’t trying to create a show to comply with the F.C.C.,’' he says. In fact, after the N.S.F. provided funds for a pilot, Nye hoped that the show would be picked up by PBS.

However, public-broadcasting 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 last fall.

‘Science Is Cool’

Nye peppers his show with comedy and the same fast editing and hip graphics as “Beakman’s World,’' but “Science Guy’’ appears to come closer to having a coherent science curriculum.

The N.S.F. has provided a grant to distribute “Bill Nye’’ teaching kits to 4th-grade classrooms around the country. And Nye has published his first book, Bill Nye the Science Guy’s Big Blast of Science (Addison-Wesley Publishing).

Nye’s basic message is that “science is cool,’' and that the nation will need more scientists to solve the challenges of the future. That includes getting more girls and minority-group members interested in the field, so he frequently features them on the show.

“Science is not just for boys; girls and kids of color have been excluded,’' he says.

So what does the dean of televised science education think about the new crop of shows? Don Herbert says he has not seen many of the shows, “but I’ve gotten reports.’'

He criticizes such shows as “Bill Nye’’ and “Beakman’’ because, in his view, they don’t “just do plain science. They have to sugar-coat it.’'

“It’s not the way I would do it,’' Herbert adds. “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.’'

A version of this article appeared in the January 19, 1994 edition of Education Week as Slick and Fast, Science Shows Emulate MTV


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