Science Broadcasting: Join the Production Line


You don't have to be mad to produce science TV, but it definitely seems to help. If you have caught a glimpse of Science Shack new Open University programme screening on BBC2 on Fridays at 7:30 p.m., you'll understand where I'm coming from. It is fronted by the ebullient, archetypal " mad scientist", Adam Hart Davis. The series tries to answer scientific conundrums posed by the general public on the Science Shack Web site; questions such as--'How do flies walk on the ceiling?', 'Why does the Millennium Bridge wobble?' and 'How can I survive a lightning strike?'

Interestingly for all you science TV wannabes, the Science Shack production team at Screenhouse Productions, an independent production company that specialises in science and history programmes with hands-on demonstrations, is almost entirely composed of science graduates, who decided "to do something less boring instead". (If you grew up in Britain in the 1970s and don't get the latter reference then perhaps the world of television is not for you.) Jonathan Sanderson, a co-producer of Science Shack, had a burning desire to communicate science to the public as an undergraduate. While studying natural philosophy and history of science at Cambridge University, he wrote science articles for the British Association. Having decided his future lay in science television, he managed to land a job working as a researcher on ITV's children's science programmes How 2 and The Big Bang. That in turn led to his current position as a producer at Screenhouse Productions.

Jonathan's advice to anyone who would like to get involved in science television making is "get as much experience in the practical demonstration and communication of science as possible, either in schools or science centres." He also suggests that another way to get a foot in the door is by doing some formal training, such as the 1-year MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College. Sophia Collins, a researcher on Science Shack, landed her job at Screenhouse Productions after completing that course. Screenhouse, which is based in Leeds, offers work experience placements from time to time, so it is worth visiting their Web site to see what is on offer.

How do you know whether you've got what it takes to be a brilliant broadcaster? Jonathan considers that one key skill is being good at storytelling. This is a sentiment echoed by Toby Murcott, the commissioning editor at, a new digital science channel that shows short, 5 to 10 minute science features. The programmes are backed up by a dedicated Web site, which provides science links and programme transcripts. Toby reckons that being able to write up his PhD in biochemistry at Bristol University in 3 months, while others toiled to complete theirs, was a significant sign. He always had a flair for storytelling and was always the first to volunteer to show new people around the lab explaining what was going on.

Toby started a postdoctoral research job but thinks that he was "too flighty" to be really good at it. His break came when friends asked him if he would like to do men's hour on Fem-FM, the first all-female radio station. In his spare time he and some friends made a radio series about unusual sports, and he gave science talks in schools. All of which was good experience and got him his break in television as a researcher on a BBC2 programme called Big Science. He says, "I didn't particularly enjoy that experience: I was really thrown in at the deep end and told to get some stories."

However, radio was his first love. Toby admits to being a bit of an "Archers fan" and advises that the medium that you like to use, be it radio, television, or text, is most likely the medium in which you will be happiest working. So he was delighted to be offered a 3-month trainee producer's post when he failed an interview for a radio producer's job. After working "frighteningly hard", he became a producer at the BBC Radio Science Unit in London, making programmes for all the main radio channels, and finally became chief science correspondent for the BBC world service, broadcasting to about 150 million people. Now he has taken his fast turnover radio skills into a new medium at

A final piece of advice from Toby is that "persistence usually pays off". If you have good ideas (and that is what broadcasting relies upon), and you are able to explain them with passion, then most media people will listen for fear of "missing the next David Attenborough". This of course is the other way to get that vital first break. Helen Alexander, who is head of factual programming at Scottish Media Group, offers this advice on pitching proposals: "Producers don't want to read pages and pages of finely researched work, one page of A4 describing the idea and how it will be executed is enough." Helen says that a programme proposal should explain the USP (Unique Selling Point): Is it a new area of research that people don't know about? Is it linked to a special event or news story? This should be followed by a brief outline of how it is to be done. Will it be shot in a studio or on location? Will graphics be required? Will it have a presenter or will it be voiced over by a narrator? The producer will also want to know who the target audience is and where in the schedule the programme would fit.

For anyone in the UK, the BBC may be the obvious place to start when trying to break into broadcast media, and you can find out more about jobs or training opportunities at the BBC Web site, which carries case studies illustrating how people have got started. But all the producers Next Wave spoke to pointed out that there are many small independent production companies that are also on the lookout for new talent. Andrew Thompson, a producer at BBC Scotland whose recent credits include a Horizon documentary called "Life Blood" about cord blood transplantation, says that producers are always willing to give someone a break if they come up with a good enough idea. Of course, "you may run the risk that the idea will be stolen, and that does happen," says Andrew, "but the trick is to have several well worked out ideas and don't use your best one."

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