Some numbers for documentary makers

As part of my recent whinge about poor quality science documentaries I muttered about audiences and conceded that it was understandable that given that the makers either need to make money (most) or get value for money (public broadcasters) then they want to attract as a big an audience as possible. However, I don’t think that means that they necessarily need to dumb down the science.

You would hope that most people who are involved in science one way or the other might at least be interested in a good science documentary. Of course not all particle physicists will watch shows on dinosaurs and not all vertebrate palaeontologists will watch a show on the chemistry of helium but there would be, I suspect, a fair bit of overlap. And ‘science’ at the level of the average documentary covers quite a range of subjects – not just biology, chemistry, physics and medicine, but engineering of all kinds, psychology, geology, maths, environmental sciences and more. A good general science documentary might expect to drag in quite a number of scientists, or people who have a science background or profession.

There are quite a few of these. A quick play on the internet gives us various numbers for the UK and while these are often estimates or not very specific, I think the picture itself is clear. There are around 450 000 new students attend university in the UK each year. Obviously this covers all subjects, but it’s probably reasonable to think that half of them are on some form of science degree or other (again with engineering, maths etc.). Even if it’s well under half that means that say 200 000 people are learning about science and the vast majority of them will graduate suggesting that in the last 10 years around 2 million people have graduated with a science-based degree (though numbers are likely a bit higer recently than before). That’s a pretty big set of people who know quite a lot about science and don’t need to be dumbed-down to. I only graduated in 1999, so this only deals with people who are mostly under 35, or even under 30.

And that’s just recent graduates. There are about 400 000 teachers instate schools in England (admittedly a number of which will overlap with my graduates of above, but is for England, not the UK and does not include private schools, though of course less then half will likely be science teachers) and some 100 000 doctors (so not including nurses, midwives, surgeons, and various technicians or lab workers) and then there’s the engineers, academics and the rest, as well as those in industrial chemistry or the pharmaceutical industry and so on, not to mention people who are just generally interested in science or even kids studying at school.

While this is all obviously all a bit approximate and there is overlap etc. making it a rather more complicated, I think it’s fair to say that there are an awful lot of ‘science literate’ people out there. Hundreds of thousands of people are employed to teach science, millions have degrees in science and perhaps millions more are employed doing jobs that require a knowledge or interest in science.

In other words, while you might want to attract as big an audience as possible there is potentially a very big audience who have the knowledge and ability to enjoy something more technical than the current output. Indeed, I would suspect many of them *want* that and dumbing down will put off a large number of people from watching. In short, there is a big audience out there for good science so why not target it? Not all science shows have to be dumb and simple as Feynmann, Sagan, Attenborough and others have shown and continue to show, so can we just have a few more please?

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2 Responses to “Some numbers for documentary makers”


  1. 1 David Stern 06/02/2010 at 1:46 pm

    The question is: is this demographic interested in watching documentaries. I know that I’m mostly not. If I’m watching TV I want to see something different (i.e movies/reality TV, though I do watch news) than what I deal with most of the time. Also I find the video medium a bit slow for this kind of thing. Or maybe the programs are too dumbed down as you say. Recently I watched a documentary on time with Brian Cox. It didn’t teach me anything I didn’t know and my last formal physics course was the O-Level in 1981 (I did do biology and chemistry A-Levels and some physical geography and ecology in my geography BA is my formal natural science education). Of course I’ve read quite a bit about physics in the likes of Scientific American and other magazines, and popular books etc. in the meantime but not very recently. It’d be nice if there was something really new or cutting edge in the program but there didn’t seem to be.

    • 2 David Hone 06/02/2010 at 4:01 pm

      Well of course not all of them will be, but then equally they seem to spend their whole time trying to reach a demographic who are not that interested in science either, while not actually giving them much science (since it’s badly presented or inaccurate) while alienating those who do like science. I mean you get football shows for sports fans and film and music shows (even whole channels) for culture buffs and so on, but the science stuff is always very lightweight compared to say literary criticism or sports analysis. I suspect the audience genuinely is there.

      If nothing else, I’ve not seen anyone ever try to reach it in the last 15 years as they did in the past.


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