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My Trip to a Science TV Conference in Hong Kong

Dec 13, 2014


I had an extremely exciting opportunity this November – I was awarded a scholarship to attend the World Congress of Science & Factual Producers in Hong Kong! I was incredibly lucky to be funded through the conference’s Emerging Producers Bursary Program; this trip certainly isn’t something NASA would have paid for. There were amazing producers and television commissioners from all over the world. Check out the impressive list of attendees!

*Disclaimer: The following information is based on notes I jotted down throughout the conference and I haven’t thoroughly fact-checked all of it, so please excuse any minor inaccuracies.


What’s the Buzz

The opening session of the conference described this past year’s trends in factual media. Here are some of the trends and examples that were presented:


Authenticity is back

Apparently, authenticity is in vogue now. Sometimes. Cosmos was the first example, and obviously Cosmos made a huge mark on factual television this year. The trend is to combine old-fashioned aspects with new CGI. “Old-fashioned” seems to mean both actually talking about science or history, and using the simple format of a person talking about it.


Gonzo hosts

“Gonzo journalism” is when the reporter is the protagonist of the story. “Gonzo hosts” is a trend in factual television where basically the host experiences terrible things for TV, such as subjecting himself to infections or the pain of childbirth. I noticed all the examples they showed were male… I’d like to think women simply aren’t this stupid.


Social experiments

Examples included putting together people who all had a limited time to live (due to medical conditions of course; the producers weren’t going to kill them, TV hasn’t gone quite that far); recreating the prison experiment; and setting up real marriages between people who had never met.


Live events

They showed clips from the live tightrope walks, Live From Space, and 9 hours of live knitting in Norway.


Survival shows

Those are always popular, aren’t they.


Nudity

A huge trend lately has been to do everything in the nude, from survival shows, to dating shows, to real estate shows. Yeah, that one was news to me; apparently there’s a show about purchasing property on nudist colonies.


Social impact

I would think or hope this would always be a trend. The examples included programs discussing ADHD, poverty, and new medications.


New technologies

New technology both allows the telling of new stories that couldn’t have been told otherwise, and is sometimes itself the focus of the story. One example of technology aiding the story was placing trackers on bees so we could see where they moved and how they mentally mapped an area. An example of technology being a large focus of the story was tracking the digital footprint of selected freshman college students.


Combining old and new media

Their main example was making a TV show about the science of viral YouTube videos. People also later discussed integrating all new media (social media, web videos, etc.) into every TV show. Some TV shows even incorporate live online feedback or reactions from viewers.


First person historical storytelling

“Our World War” was their main example. There are camera angles making you feel like you’re in the battles. Wait, isn’t that second person?


Documentary musicals

Some people were really excited about this one. Forever on the quest for new methods of storytelling, there were a couple shows where the producers had the interviewees sing about their experiences instead of simply talking. Hey man, all the world’s a stage.


Going Live

One particularly interesting session I went to was about creating live factual television programs.


Live From Space

National Geographic and Arrow Media worked with NASA to create a 2-hour live program from the International Space Station on March 14, 2014. Naturally, a few people wondered if I had any involvement in that. No, Goddard has very little involvement with astronauts and the ISS, (we’re primarily a science and engineering center), and actually I never even heard of this program until the conference! I’m trying to do a better job though of keeping up on all major NASA-related news and events.


From what I learned in this session, Live From Space took two years to prepare. The producers went through NASA Headquarters, who said they were only willing to do this program if the astronauts were on board with it, and luckily the astronauts were very enthusiastic about the idea. JAXA astronaut Koichi Wakata said they received some training in camera operation and lighting, and said he was very glad to be part of a program raising awareness of human space exploration. The producers had to work with the realities of the space station’s 90-minute orbit, the Earth locations it would be able to see along its path, and the periodic loss of communication. They had to make back-up plans, like filming facilities at the Johnson Space Center if something were to go wrong on the ISS.


Everest Jump Live

This was an interesting example, because it didn’t actually happen. Like for Live From Space, a lot of preparation went into creating this live event of a man jumping off Mt. Everest in a wing suit. However, when on the first day of the trek an avalanche took out 16 sherpas, no one wanted to continue with the event. Instead, within 24 hours the producers switched gears and decided to document the story to raise money for the Sherpa Education Fund, and they aired the program about a week later.


Live Tightrope Walks

Discovery broadcast a man walking on a tightrope across the Grand Canyon, in an all-or-nothing situation with no safety tethers. They later followed it up with a live broadcast of the man walking between skyscrapers in Chicago. The Grand Canyon event got about 13 million views, and Skyscraper got about 7 million, perhaps because it was shorter and there was a “been there done that” feel. They emphasized in the session that for both the tight rope and Everest events, it was the adventurer driving the programs, not Discovery. The adventurer would be doing that sort of thing anyway, and Discovery was just there to broadcast it.


Other interesting sessions

There were a lot of interesting sessions and workshops. Two were particularly entertaining.


TV on Trial

The charge: factual television has lost its focus – there is no education, little information, and the internet is the best place for serious intellectual fodder. The judge, prosecutor, and defender wore fashionable 1700s wigs, and first asked us, the jury, to vote on TV’s guiltiness. I voted not guilty, because I know not all of television is guilty of this and that surely there are many great examples of informative programs.


The defense and prosecution then proceeded to make their cases. The prosecutor insisted that the few people who make informative programs, i.e. the BBC and NOVA, are “ghettos” in an otherwise mindless world of junk television. The defender made the point of… well, I’m not exactly sure what. I think he was saying that regardless of the abundance of informative television programs, we still learn information from television. He and his witnesses didn’t take the opportunity to show examples of great informative television or actually address the charge, so when it came time for the jury to vote again, I voted guilty.

Sorry, factual television! Hire a better lawyer next time!


Funny Factual

This session also involved voting from the audience. We all had a card with a “gently smiling” face on one side and a “laughing out loud” face on the other. Representatives from a variety of countries showed clips from their funniest factual television shows, in a bid to win the knowledge of knowing they won. (I don’t think there were any actual prizes.)


Before the competition started, they introduced the session by explaining how comedy can be a great way of conveying information (I totally agree.) They showed a clip of comedian John Oliver having Bill Nye appear on the show for a statistically accurate climate change debate.


Factual television producers are not comedians though, and their comedic entries included shows about flies and pee that elicited a lot of “gently smiling” faces. As one might expect, the Japanese entry won by a landslide. Japan’s video clip was from a bizarre game show about finding new species, which had an animated bearded face intermittently pop up to share interesting facts. Oh, Japan, you strange little country.


I definitely think everyone should keep trying with the funny factual. A lot of the most popular science shows, both factual and scripted, have included comedy – Bill Nye the Science Guy, The Magic School Bus, Big Bang Theory, and MythBusters.


Hong Kong

I did get a little bit of time to see Hong Kong outside of the hotel. In particular, I went over to Victoria Peak and took the tram up to the viewing platform that overlooks the entire city and island. The viewing area had neat audio tours with a screen where you could tap the different buildings and areas to hear information about what you were looking at.

Overlooking Hong Kong from Victoria Peak


It turns out my late grandpa visited this same spot in 1955. He probably wouldn’t recognize it now, though! I wonder if a single building is the same. And of course, now there’s a lot more haze.

My grandpa’s picture of Hong Kong from 1955, and my picture from 49 years later

Follow-Up

After the conference, I sent an email to all the participants offering some background info on the media resources we offer at Goddard, and asking how else we can be of help to TV producers and commissioners. I offered a couple ideas – a monthly email update of things going on at NASA and possible story ideas, and a NASA workshop for producers. Several people expressed interest in both options, and my boss particularly likes the workshop idea (actually it was his idea). So we’ll see if we can make either of those a reality!


I also got emails from several producers talking about their space-related projects and asking various space-related questions, which I’ve tried to answer to the best of my ability. It is very exciting to have all these new contacts! And of course, I told several people that I’m also interested in hosting shows and being on camera, because I love talking about space.

If you’re a producer reading this and are interested in the resources we have at Goddard, here’s what I told the other conference participants:

Goddard’s main campus is located in Greenbelt, Maryland, just outside of Washington, DC, and is a leading center for space science and engineering. We have media relating to
  • Earth science

  • planetary science

  • heliophysics

  • astrophysics

  • the assembly and testing of spacecraft and satellites

All of our b-roll, animations, and science visualizations (as well as our produced YouTube videos) are archived and freely available for download at http://svs.gsfc.nasa.gov. We also welcome and encourage productions to come film at Goddard and talk with our scientists. Filming locations we offer include

  • our studio

  • the hyperwall

  • cleanrooms for spacecraft assembly

  • spacecraft testing facilities

  • the high bay viewing platform overlooking the massive cleanroom where the James Webb Space Telescope is being assembled

  • our Visitor Center

  • mission control rooms


Attending the World Congress of Science & Factual Producers was a fantastic experience, and I hope I can find a way to go again next year!

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