Monday, January 7, 2013

Marcel Chotkowski LaFollette's "Science on American Television"

Marcel Chotkowski LaFollette is an independent historian based in Washington, DC. She is the author of Science on the Air: Popularizers and Personalities on Radio and Early Television and Science on American Television: A History.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to Science on American Television and reported the following:
Page 99 of Science on American Television: A History concludes a chapter about 1960s science and nature documentaries. A new generation of filmmakers were accompanying researchers into laboratories, tropical forests, mountain caves, and deep-sea habitats and making celebrities of Jane Goodall and Jacques-Yves Cousteau. Their projects began to combine education, entertainment, and political and ethical discussions into programs ostensibly about science. At the same time, the consolidation of decisionmaking power within media corporations meant that money, rather than creativity (or, in the case of science, importance and accuracy), determined what eventually appeared on the air. Without commercial sponsorship or charitable subsidy, even the most inspired, prestigious projects would not be produced.

Histories of science popularization have tended to analyze what audiences have read or watched and to ignore the harsh realities of media economics and competition. Page 99 concludes a summary of something proposed but never produced: a mini-series idea from extraordinarily accomplished, internationally known scientists and scholars, involving well-regarded creative talent, and backed by a renowned institution. By proposing to explore the interdependence of human life with the natural world, and the environmental consequences of decisions made for the sake of economic progress alone, the team had anticipated today’s contemporary political debates. To read the script treatments preserved in the Smithsonian Institution Archives is to long to see those imagined programs, to marvel at their foresight, and to glimpse the outcome of negotiated popular culture.

That unfunded television proposal represented one of many worthy ventures that never made it on the air. The records of such lost opportunities offer useful perspectives for the history of science popularization. By the 1960s, marketplace assumptions about viewer preferences were routinely shaping television’s science and nature presentations. To capture airtime on commercial television (or to secure funding), science filmmakers were being pressured to entertain, to entwine dramatization and re-creation with brief animated tutorials. Such subsuming of the science has become standard practice on television today. The poet Hughes Means once moaned that “Yesterday, upon the stair,/I met a man who wasn’t there” and then wished that vision away. If lucky, historians of popular science can experience the opposite: catch a glimpse of what was “never there” and locate archival records that help to explain why.
Learn more about Science on American Television at the University of Chicago Press website.

Writers Read: Marcel Chotkowski LaFollette.

--Marshal Zeringue