The best science television is far from dry and worthy. Science documentary maker Michael Rosenfeld, now head of television and film at Tangled Bank Studios, gave some insights into his company’s work in a MIPDoc keynote today, while also explaining how the studio is keen to support other producers with similar ambitions.
Tangled Bank launched last year, and is a studio funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) in the US. “It’s a somewhat different model from what is really common in the doc world,” said Rosenfeld. “An effort to engage not just with teachers and students in the classroom, but with the public at large. Our goal was simply to produce great science content.”
That’s primarily for TV broadcast, but the studio is also investigating digital, theatrical, giant screen and full dome productions, running the full gamut of scientific topics. And the name? Tangled Bank comes from a paragraph in Charles Darwin’s ‘Origin of Species: “It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank…”
Rosenfeld admitted that it might seem “a little counter-intuitive” for a scientific education institute to launch a production arm, but he suggested there are plenty of good reasons behind the move: bringing important science stories to the public, making sense of complexity and “to address what we see as a science deficit… there’s been a big decline in science journalism… there’s less science on TV than there used to be, and it’s harder to get big science stories going.”
Tangled Bank’s TV focus is mainly on event-level specials and miniseries, which Rosenfeld sees as filling a gap in the market currently. Giant screen and full dome projects are definitely on the agenda, and the studio is keen to work on “informal educational outreach” through schools, museums and websites.
Two examples so far: Your Inner Fish is in production. It’s three 60-minute episodes telling the story of the human body, based on a bestselling book by Neil Shubin. “This is taking all the different bits of you and tracing them back to all these prehistoric ancestors: these characters in your family tree you never knew you had,” said Rosenfeld.
The second: The Quest to Map the World, co-produced with National Geographic, covering the history of cartography, which is expected to air in the Autumn of 2014. “We’re really interested in telling stories about science,” he said. “We’re making entertaining films. The fact that we are a subsidiary of a big science non-profit doesn’t mean we’re out to make boring educational television… We really believe in the power of story to get science across.”
Rosenfeld was then interviewed by Stewart Clarke, editorial director at TBI Magazine, to dig deeper into these issues, starting with his views on the “science deficit” in television.
“In the States, there’s a real need for more science,” he said. “And for some science that really explains things. We’re in a climate where the science community, the scientific world, there’s a countervailing force of people who doubt climate change and doubt evolution. It’s a contentious situation at least in some parts of the science space. And TV is a powerful medium for telling science stories and getting science across.”
Clarke wondered if the issue may be that there isn’t an audience for these shows, playing devil’s advocate. Rosenfeld accepted the possibility, but said the answer is “we’ve got to try harder” even when it’s difficult to get a science-based project up and running.
Tangled Bank is funding development “at a deeper level” for most of its projects, added Rosenfeld. “Just giving producers more time to dig in to a subject, talk to the right people, think about it, plan it, come up with creative ideas. I think the combination of better budgets and more time, and a real commitment to quality hopefully is going to make a difference. But as I said, the entertainment piece is really critical.”
Rosenfeld said he hopes producers will take some creative risks as a result, and find “some new ways of doing things that can work”. All in all, Tangled Bank has around 12 hours of programming on its slate, and he said this amount (at least) will set the studio’s ambitions going forward.
What is he looking for in a producer, and when/how should they pitch the studio? “We’re open for business all year, we’re not like a foundation where we decide every June or something,” said Rosenfeld. He suggested that producers research the studio on its website, make contact via email, and seek his colleagues out at events like MIPDoc. “We don’t have a really good earth science series at the moment,” he said by way of a tip.
Rosenfeld also talked about the business model, scotching the “myth of the non-profit world that it’s just about giving money away… we’re playing by commercial rules, which is why I’m trying to replenish the pot to do more stuff and keep it going longer… There’s always more you can do.”
Hence co-production relationships, which Rosenfeld thinks creatively enrich the filmmaking experience, as well as providing the obvious benefits on the distribution side. Including outside the studio’s home market. “We’re an American company, so we start with the premise that we need to reach the US audience. But then the international piece is also really important.”
Theatrical releases of films are on the horizon too, even though Tangled Bank is starting with TV. But what about digital content: online and apps? “There will be a programme website for each project. It will link to our broadcasters’ websites we hope, and it will launch to the educational website at Howard Hughes. It’s feeding out into the educational community as well.”
What about a Tangled Bank-branded online channel? “We’d be foolish not to think about that,” said Rosenfeld.
He was asked about the “countervailing forces” mentioned earlier in the keynote: evolution and climate change deniers. Are those views having an active impact – a threat even – on science television in the US?
“I don’t think they’re playing out in television,” he said. “They’re playing out in the school system, they’re playing out in the media and other ways. But I’ve never encountered a situation where a broadcaster’s been under pressure of that kind. It’s more playing out in society as a whole.”
And he finished off with some goals. “We’re in production, so we’re probably off the starting block. But a year or two from now the goal is to have delivered two or three really good projects and had them succeed on TV, getting ratings, getting attention, making noise. But doing it with some real substance there.“