Creating NOVA (1971-76)

This entry is part 10 of 11 in the series The Michael Ambrosino Collection
Michael Ambrosino
Michael Ambrosino

I didn’t know what I was doing.

I didn’t know, that I didn’t know, what I was doing.

There are times when it’s a blessing to not know the magnitude of the job ahead. It’s like a road with lots of curves. You can only see so far and at any given moment you’re simply attempting to navigate skillfully to the next curve. If you saw the true length of the road ahead, with all its trials and pitfalls, you might not proceed with that wonderful assurance allowed by ignorance.

How do you go about creating a large national primetime TV project?

Well, I’d created “The 21” Classroom” and been the founding Executive Director of The Eastern Educational Network. I had the resources and prestige of WGBH behind me, and my recent stint at BBC had given me a special status at The Corporation for Public Broadcasting and a number of highly placed international contacts. I could produce, manage people, raise funds and think of the big picture. I thought I was ready.

There was little theoretical work to do; a ready model was right there before me in the BBC’s series, “Horizon,” and it was a happy and willing potential partner.

Why create a science project?

Science is a part of our heritage, our present culture, and a major force in determining our future. Its absence from television, our most public medium of communication, spoke to the ignorance of many of its gatekeepers who thought mostly in terms of news and the arts, and too narrowly at that. Science, medicine, technology, engineering, architecture all impact our culture by determining how we live our lives! They also made for great story telling.

The “science series” was also meant to be a model for the future of public television. “Masterpiece Theater” had just emerged and I saw it as a threat as well as a joy. “Masterpiece” could buy a wonderful drama from the BBC for a tenth of the cost of making it in the United States. Who then could hope to raise the money for US production? By creating a “strand” of programs, some made, some co-produced and some bought, I hoped to show PBS how to create new series that were truly American at a realistic cost.

Science, medicine, technology, engineering, architecture all impact our culture by determining how we live our lives.

And finally, I hoped the strand approach would help train American producers and directors in the journalistic approach that was so natural to the BBC. By hiring some Brits to produce and filling in the lower positions with bright Americans, in a few years we might have a pool of talented producer-directors for the future.

How to start?

I read books.

I talked to scientists.

First to Phil Morrison, always the best source for anything scientifically worthwhile. Phil promised all the time I needed, as long as I never asked him to waste time in a committee meeting.

I attended scholarly conferences.

The annual session of AAAS, The American Association for the Advancement of Science, had lectures and seminars on a wide array of subjects. I found it an inspiration for topics and a good way to meet, and get the support of, scientists from many disciplines.

AAAS had also just received a large grant from the National Science Foundation to interest more people in science. AAAS is the world’s largest federation of scientific organizations and their Committee on the Public Understanding of Science had long been interested in media. It was chaired by Gerard Piel, then publisher of Scientific American. I met with the committee and laid out my ideas. I remember Piel’s head shaking as he murmured. He thought TV and science would never work. The rest of his committee disagreed and in a few days, Jim Butler and his assistant came to Boston to discuss the future.

Science Program Group white paper
Science Program Group white paper

Jim proposed that I write a “White Paper” on how science and TV might get together. I told them that the paper already existed as my science project plan. I asked him how much money he had. “Forty thousand dollars”, was his candid reply. I pointed out that many projects failed because few developers could support themselves through the lengthy period of fundraising. I told him he should give me the forty thousand dollars, that I would give him my project plan to publish as their “White Paper,” and that I’d attach the AAAS name to the TV series when it hit the air.

They agreed!

We went to Legal Sea Food to celebrate.

After shrimp cocktails, lobsters and several rounds of beer, Jim whipped out his American Express card in the lofty manner of a Washington bigwig. Anna, a waitress well known to the Ambrosino clan, eyed him coolly and cracked, “What the hell is that? We take cash here!

I ended up paying for lunch.

It was the first charge I made against my new $40,000 fundraising budget!

Go west young man

A call from California was intriguing. Would I come out to La Jolla and meet with some west coast scientists? The invitation came from William McElroy, Chancellor of The University of California, San Diego, who had until recently been the Director of the National Science Foundation. It was clear they thought I was under the influence of MIT and Harvard and wanted me to know that science flourished among the palm trees as well as the ivy.

I was greeted, toured, feted, and fed. I saw labs, campuses, and scientists. I walked the beautiful grounds of The Scripps Institution of Oceanography and The Salk Institute.

And I had dinner.

Several dozen scientists were gathered at La Jolla to give me a taste of the talent and potential stories west of the Charles River. McElroy had made sure that Jonas Salk, the Nobel Prize winner and developer of a Polio vaccine, was seated near me.

The dinner went well. Many guests outlined recent research that might be of interest, suggested topics for programs, reviewed the resources on the West coast and pledged their strong support.

A special moment occurred when we broke up. Jacob Bronowski, the brilliant English mathemetician and author of “The Ascent of Man,” pulled me aside and said, “Ambrosino, I’ve read your proposal. It’s very interesting. But you have all these advisors. Advisors mean nothing. You are an honest man. You will do a good job!”

Jacob Bronowski, the brilliant English mathemetician and author of “The Ascent of Man,” pulled me aside and said, “You are an honest man. You will do a good job!”

Over the next years, working on NOVA, ODYSSEY, DYING, EYES ON THE PRIZE, THE RING OF TRUTH and JOURNEY TO THE OCCUPIED LANDS, I took strength from “Brunowski’s” faith in me. Whenever I was confronted with confusion or conflict or controversy, I reminded myself that, “I was an honest man, I would do a good job.”

An early opportunity to compromise

Two roadblocks appeared. The first was by David Prowitt of WNET in New York City. He announced the creation of the “WNET Science Program Group.” Sound familiar? That was the exact title I had used in my AAAS “White Paper,” calling for the creation of the “WGBH Science Program Group.”

David was issuing a challenge. He had been doing science programs at WNET for years. They were thirty-minute documentaries on subjects for which he could find funding. That meant a skewed agenda and a possible worrisome incursion of the funder in the decision-making. His new plan was a direct assault on my project. It seemed a desire to defeat it, or horn in somehow.

PBS didn’t want its two biggest stations, already in competition, fighting with each other, and asked me to meet with Prowitt. I did. PBS suggested we work together in some way.

I refused.

My second roadblock came directly from PBS. Not knowing how much money would be in the ‘73 or ‘74 budgets, they suggested that a “pilot” would be the best way for me to start. It would get PBS out of a money bind and might keep me quiet for a year or two.

I refused.

Well, that sounds pretty obstinate for a fella without a project and much in need of friends, money and collaborators.

The way I saw both cases, compromise would have meant defeat.

Working with Prowitt would have reduced the central focus of the new project, dIvided the resources, dispersed the creative staff, gummed up decision-making, increased overhead costs, and would have had me working with David, whose ideas about science programming was vastly different from mine.

In the second case, making a single pilot would have doomed us to criticism by everybody that the pilot was not what the kind of science “they” thought should be done. One program could never stand for the sweeping breadth of programs that was possible, and would eventually prove to be our hallmark. Instead, I insisted that the entire first season of thirteen programs would be my “pilot,” displaying a wide range of ideas, production techniques and program forms.

Refusing to cooperate, however, is dangerous. It can be done only when you’re ready to give up the dream if you are denied. I was trying not to be an obstinate originator. As “an honest man,” in Bronowski’s words, I was sure that I was right, and that compromising now would destroy our one chance of success.

In the end, seeing how far Boston had progressed, WNET pulled out of the running and PBS never mentioned the idea of a pilot again. It was a tense time. I was pleased that we had come through, although both decisions did rob Bostonians of a new season of “Michael Ambrosino’s Show!”

Fundraising, or how to deal with rejection

Raising money in public television is tricky. It’s a bit like playing chess; you have to plan several moves ahead.

Raising money in public television is tricky. It’s a bit like playing chess; you have to plan several moves ahead.

First you need a positive response from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to convince the rest of the funders that the Washington Public TV power brokers have looked you over and approved.

You then need a letter from PBS expressing interest. PBS isn’t going to promise airtime until they see your programs, so they send a letter with the not-so-subtle text that reads something like this:

PBS is delighted to know about your new project. We have tentatively penciled it onto our fall list. Since your proposal and planning up to this date have been carried out with such success, we fully expect to schedule your new series where a large and interested audience will find it.”

Gosh. Where do they find people who can write like that?

OK, now you are ready to grapple with the giants of industry and the foundation world. Well, maybe not the giants. The giants are busy running the store. The giants have minions to run their fundraising departments. These minions are flooded with requests such as mine and, having no staff or time to check them all out. They wait and take their cues from CPB and PBS.

The National Science Foundation was an obvious early target and we aimed at them with several big guns. Ford and Rockefeller were active, but were more interested in politics and the arts.

You quickly learn that some foundations like to be first and some last. The Arthur Vining Davis Foundation had a board made up of the relatives of the founder of the Alcoa Aluminum Company; all in their seventies and eighties. What they want to hear is, “I’ve raised all the money except the last quarter of a million. I’m ready to start producing as soon as you decide. Arthur Vining Davis can make this series happen!”

Others, like The Carnegie Corporation, want to be first. In 1972 I got a call from their Vice President, David Robinson, wanting advice on the future of science and television! Imagine my surprise and delight. There I was, having spent a year thinking about the future of science and television, having a proposal in hand, having the imprimatur of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and David Robinson wants to come to Boston to see me!

Now, the end game begins.

My files are filled with letters telling one foundation about a recent meeting expressing the interest of another foundation. Everybody loves a winner, and I kept everybody informed about each meeting, each decision date, each tremor that might shake the money tree.

The companies were another deal altogether. They were in business to make money and only gave it away in rare instances.

That meant you had to find a specific reason for their giving. Surprisingly, many of the “science-based” companies didn’t jump at the chance to fund us. Like everybody else, they liked the arts. You can have fancy cocktail parties when you give to opera and drama. Big stars come to your parties and the bosses loved that.

My most agonizing turndown came from Xerox. Their administrator kept me on a string for months and then said, “You create such wonderful proposals. Your ideas are so refreshing. The next time you’re in Armonk, please drop in for coffee”.

Why would I find myself in Armonk, except to beg money?

The fund-raiser’s best friend is a quick NO. You could then go on to more fruitful places and stop hanging on thinking that “Armonk is interested”.

You may wonder why I did all this. Why not hire a fund-raiser? Well, the resources of the WGBH fundraising department were available, but they were busy raising money for lots of other series and I felt that only the creator could do the real sell. I’d get leads from them, but felt that there was only one person who could get the foundations and corporations excited about the ideas in the project.

And then there was Polaroid.

I’d sent Polaroid a proposal. They were a local company. They’d been generous to WGBH before. They had funded Julia and given hundreds of cameras to every auction. They were run by a small group in Cambridge, and I could easily get a meeting with Ted Voss, their bright, curly-haired Vice President for advertising.

I sat down and nervously started in on my pitch.

Ted interrupted immediately.

“Michael, I’ve read the proposal.” “It’s not a matter of whether. It’s a matter of how much. How much?”

“Michael, I’ve read the proposal.” “It’s not a matter of whether. It’s a matter of how much. How much?”

I mentioned a figure.

“Too much,” said Ted.

We haggled a minute and quickly settled on a new figure.

“How’s Lillian?” he inquired.

You may think that the introduction of Lillian was an extraneous subject, but I understood it totally. “Tell Ted about Lillian and leave. You got your money. Be a good boy and let Ted get back to work!”

That meeting with Ted lasted just about four minutes. They were not all that easy.

Meetings, letters, proposals, negotiations, and trips to Washington ate up much of the next few months. And then there was an extraordinary three days in spring, 1973. It was the kind of week that project creators dream of.

Each day, on May 2, 3, and 4, I received a letter. In order, they notified me that CPB, Carnegie and Polaroid had each agreed to fund the science project. NSF came in shortly after. There was joy, relief, excitement and fear. Now, we had to make good on our promises.

I had to make good on my promises!

The plan of action

I laid out a three-year plan.

We would present thirteen shows the first season, seventeen the second, and twenty on the third. American-produced programs would start at thirty percent and increase to forty and then fifty percent in three years. The first season would begin in March because the commercial television season ended then, and it would be our best chance to get maximum press. We’d deal with science, science’s impact on society and science’s impact on public policy. We would make programs about archaeology, medicine, biology, chemistry, physics and technology. In addition to documentaries, we’d present plays and ethnographic films.

We’d deal with science, science’s impact on society and science’s impact on public policy. We would make programs about archaeology, medicine, biology, chemistry, physics and technology.

I planned to be the Executive Director and run the project. I would hire an experienced Executive Producer and Producers from BBC and bring in Americans to be trained for all the other slots.

I’d taken several trips back to London to interview potential staff and to try to make a mutually beneficial agreement with BBC. I hoped to “borrow” BBC Producers, have them make films with my money and then give those shows free to BBC. The BBC was interested when it was a fledgling project but when I actually had the money, and the series became a reality, they withdrew their cooperation in fear of losing their best people.

Peter Goodchild was running “Horizon” and his cooperation and friendship never flagged but his hands were tied. We could exchange programs and do co-productions, but his best people were out of bounds.

Interviewing people now started in earnest. I was offering experienced Producers the instability of a one year contract in the unknown world of US public television, hoping to lure them away from secure positions in the best broadcasting organization in the world. It was not an easy task.

First things first: Executive Producers. In the end it narrowed to two exceptional candidates; Simon Campbell Jones and Thomas Marquand. They had both made dozens of “Horizons” and each displayed a commanding presence and good sense. They both said no.

The next day, I was to interview and possibly offer jobs to Producers. Only the Executive Producer could do that.

Over a lonely dinner in my hotel room, I realized that I would have to become the Executive Producer. I’d never run a production unit of one-hour science documentaries before. I’d never even made one.

How could I presume to be the Executive Producer?

When you have no options, decision making become easier.

Simon Campbell Jones agreed to come and produce for one year. He was a very senior producer for BBC, had made many films and would be a good mentor. That was one down.

Among the throng I interviewed were Francis Gladstone, a Producer, and John Angier, a Researcher. I hired them both.

Francis was the great-grandson of a former Prime Minister of England. He carried himself with an air of entitlement.

John Angier was bright, organized, thorough, and pugnacious.

It was going to be a bumpy ride.

The staff filled out with Ben Shedd, a fledging filmmaker from California; Cary Lu, a graduate of Cal Tech; Terry Rockefeller, the brightest woman I’d ever met; Elsa Rassbach, an experienced researcher and associate producer; Marian White, an experienced PA who had worked on WGBH news, and Nancy Trolland, a PA who’d been on the WGBH staff for several years.

WGBH staffers Doug Smith and Dudley Palmer joined us as production manager and assistant. I persuaded Graham Chedd, a science journalist, to leave AAAS and join up as my Science Editor helping to research stories and assist in deciding on acquisitions.

We were ready to start.

And so, we began

Memo: Topics under consideration
Memo: Topics under consideration

Everybody started researching program ideas. A memo I wrote on June 14, 1973, listed twenty-eight ideas under consideration for production, thirty films from BBC under consideration for purchase and fourteen possible names for our science series. Michael Rice returned his copy with a generous scrawl of rather negative comments in the margins. I realized that sending out one-paragraph descriptions of incomplete ideas was a mistake.

The next program memo was shorter and was entitled, “Program Ideas Committed for Production.” I decided that if I were to be second-guessed, it would be on finished films and not premature program descriptions.

The title was a ticklish subject. Everybody had a suggestion. Henry Morgenthau always thought producers should come up with a catchy title first and only then design a series to fit. It might have been easier that way.

I circulated a memo of over fifty possible titles and the staff offered more each day, including “The Asymtotic Struggle,” which did not long survive. One day, Michael Rice called me to his office and when I arrived, I found Michael and Sylvia Davis, our Director of Promotion and Publicity, grinning from ear to ear. A bad sign.

“We have your title for you!” Michael chortled.

“You have my title for me?” I replied warily.

“Yes!” he beamed.

I waited.

“EUREKA,” he shouted.

I waited some more.

“Eureka” is what Archimedes, the Greek philosopher, supposedly shouted in his bath when he came up with a workable idea to test the quality of the gold in his King’s crown. He conceived of a scheme to first place the crown, and then an amount of gold of equal weight into a vat of water full to the brim to see if the water displaced was equal. Had the jeweler replaced some of the gold in the crown with less valuable metal, the greater volume of the “lesser” crown would have displaced more water.

‘Eureka” was the bane of science and scientists because it spawned the myth that science worked by instant enlightenment, in the bath or not. Science doesn’t work that way at all.

Science works in tiny steps, by diligent researchers doing their experiments, writing them up for publication in science journals, having other scientists question those findings by trying to duplicate them, and responding in those same science journals. These steps, within the community of science, are essential to the development of good ideas, tested ideas, ideas in which we can have confidence, become the theories that form the basis of our knowledge about how our world works.

Religion is based on faith. Science is based on facts that are hard won by experimentation that is questioned and tested by peers. Modern science is not, and has never been, “Eureka.”

I asked Michael and Sylvia if they’d read any of my memos about the science project and the way we intended to tell our stories.

I told them I would soon come up with a title and left.

I came up with “NOVA.”

A Nova is a sudden, brilliant star in the firmament; so dazzlingly bright that it’s noticed and admired by all. It delights the eye and turns the mind to a joyful appreciation and questioning about the wonders of the universe.

A Nova, or Supernova, is a sudden, brilliant star in the firmament; so dazzlingly bright that it’s noticed and admired by all. It delights the eye and turns the mind to a joyful appreciation and questioning about the wonders of the universe.

The title, “NOVA” was also my tiny secret joke. It was a comment on the way public television was funded in those days. New series got support for a few years. They burst onto the program schedule where they shined brightly, and were then shunted aside as the funders went on to other, newer, projects. Just like the celestial Nova, many series, after their brilliant introduction and display, floundered because of lack of funds, faded, fizzled, and disappeared from view.

“NOVA” it would be.

What made a Nova, a NOVA?

NOVA told stories of discovery.

We couldn’t make a documentary film about the how The Crab Nebula works. The audience would never understand it. We could, and Alec Nesbitt did, make a documentary about the men and women who sought out the neutron star that powered The Crab Nebula. About a dozen scientists and graduate students in England and America, carried out experiments over a dozen years, sought out answers, shared research, challenged others to create new experiments, shared those answers, and slowly, slowly, came up with the story. It was a human story about the nature of discovery and an excellent example of the way science works.

It was this journalistic approach that set NOVA apart.

NOVA told stories of discovery, human stories about the nature of discovery and the way science works. It was this journalistic approach that set NOVA apart.

It took time and money.

After two weeks of library and telephone research by a team, I would get an “outline” of about two pages explaining the ideas of the film and the participants.

After four additional weeks of on-location interviewing and scouting, the outline would grow to a “treatment”: about a dozen pages of detailed descriptions of each segment in a suggested order. In Boston, there’s a lot of talk among producers about “Act One, Act Two and Act Three,” realizing that even in a documentary, the dramatic sense of story-telling has to invite, excite, explain, challenge, and satisfy the viewer.

After reviewing and revising the treatment, we could now make up a production schedule and a budget for the film.

I usually allowed a team four weeks of filming and eight to ten weeks for editing, a few more for mix, negative cutting and post production.

We were not in the business of making art films. We had been assigned airdates from PBS and had to fill them without fail. It was not a joke when we said of our work, “Our films are never finished, they are only released.”

We “released” a first season examining how nature films were made; how the water of the Colorado river was used; how whales and dolphins communicate; how life began on Earth; and how a primitive tribe, the Cuiva, lived in the Amazon. We produced a drama about the discovery of anesthesia; examined the mysterious explosion that led to the discovery of the Crab Nebula; explored how birds navigate; questioned medical experimentation on patients; delighted in the unique research with Washoe, a chimpanzee who “spoke” with sign language; questioned Paul Kammerer’s research in a famous case of faked experimentation; looked into fusion, a possible energy source for the future; and sought the mystery of the Anasazi people who, after living in the southwest for eight thousand years, suddenly vanished!

That was our first season. That was my “pilot,” a wide-ranging series of delightful and compelling stories.

NOVA’s audience out rated drama, music, opera and dance on PBS. The reviews were positive and the letters poured in. People were actually waiting to see what we would do next!

The reaction was immediate and it was grand. NOVA’s audience out rated the drama, music, opera and dance on PBS. The reviews were positive and the letters poured in. One of my favorites exclaimed, “I never knew what the hell you were coming up with next week!” A sense of appreciation is to be desired, but to engender a sense of expectation, was beyond our wildest dreams. People were actually waiting to see what we would do next!

Another letter praised our programs for their complexity and depth. Attached was a comment that explained that my correspondent was deaf and blind and that she “saw” and “heard” NOVA through the hand signals of her nurse-caretaker playing on her lips! Here, with this agile mind trapped in the prison of her recalcitrant body, was a loyal NOVA supporter.

What did I do?

The conductor of an orchestra plays no instrument. It’s clear, however, that on any given night, the music reflects his wishes and his demands.

The Executive Producer of a major TV series makes no films. But it’s clear that on any given night, the films reflect his vision of what makes a good, clear, exciting science story.

I assigned some topics and accepted others from the producers. I decided which films we would co-produce with BBC and purchase. I set the order of the thirteen-week series, in an orchestrated effort to show us at our best and the range of our talent.

On a day-to-day basis, I tried to keep up with the field; attended scientific meetings; chatted with scientists and took program suggestions from everybody.

Each outline, treatment, schedule and budget was an opportunity to question, revise and help sculpt each film. As much as I might want everything to be made fully to my taste, I had to give each Producer the freedom to do his or her best work. Best work is not done in a stifling atmosphere. I tried to give them the freedom that I would want, within the constraints of time and money that we all shared.

“Rough-cut” screenings were scheduled when enough scenes had been edited to make general sense of the film. A long meeting followed with questions and suggestions coming from the notes all of us had taken. The documentary has few rigid rules. The order of a film is not infinitely malleable, but surprisingly so.

The “fine-cut” screening, about four weeks later, should show a fairly fluid beginning, middle and end, with a rough narration read over scenes by the Producer. This is a recognizable film, with roughness only in animation and narration. It should be only a few minutes over the required length. Another meeting with notes and suggested revisions followed and last minute changes were made.

At a certain point, decided mostly by broadcast schedules and money, we would lock the picture so that the sound work and the negative cutting could begin. This was the last time for suggestions and my input.

It took constant juggling. Once, I remember that we had nine films and revisions going on at one time; all in various stages of filming or editing. I was also going to London three or four times a year to check on the progress of BBC co-productions and look at their recently completed films.

Serendipity takes hold every once in a while too.

On a late Friday afternoon, I received a call from University of Reno Professor, Allen Gardner. He was passing through Boston with his wife and mother-in-law and wanted to know if I would meet him on Saturday to look at a black and white movie that he had made himself. A negative response from an overworked executive producer would have been understandable.

I said I’d be delighted.

Allen Gardner showed me a flawed, badly edited, overly long “documentary” of his work. The technique was flawed but the content was fascinating!

Over ten years, Allen Gardner had documented his attempts to teach American Sign Language to a chimpanzee named Washoe. Because he filmed hundreds of days, and edited out the many hours of unresponsive action, the footage of Washoe’s “conversations” were magical.

Over ten years, he had documented his attempts to teach American Sign Language to a chimpanzee named Washoe. Because he filmed hundreds of days, and edited out the many hours of unresponsive action, the footage of Washoe’s “conversations” were magical. I told Allen that I didn’t want to run his film but I did want to buy twenty minutes of it and make a NOVA around the idea of animal/human communication. I assigned Simon, Ben, and Terry to make the quick and beautiful, “The First Signs of Washoe,” a smash success and a delightful addition to our first season.

Often asked to name my favorite NOVA, I had to mention many we made or presented in our first three years.

In “Where did the Colorado Go?” we showed how the Colorado River flow was measured, and its water distributed, based on a 1933 measurement. Science entered the picture when tree ring corings made in the ’70s showed that the 1933 measurement was made during a thirty year wet cycle, and greatly overestimated the flow: a not so gentle warning about measurement and statistics.

“Why Do Birds Sing?” was a grand examination of something we take for granted until somebody like NOVA comes along and explains, with beauty and grace, what’s really going on when birds communicate. We even showed that birds have accents and those accents can determine whether some birds are “accepted” by others in the area!

“Why Do Birds Sing?” was a grand examination of something we take for granted until somebody like NOVA comes along and explains, with beauty and grace, what’s really going on when birds communicate.

In “The Last of the Cuiva” there is a scene that cries out to redefine the term “primitive.” The Cuiva are hunter-gatherers in the Amazon. Their possessions are few, their homes mere protection from the rain, their clothing non-existent. Their culture, however, is complex, sophisticated and carefully tuned to aid their survival. On a fishing expedition, two men each spear a fish. They cut each fish in half and exchange halves. Neither, now, has more than before, but in the mere act of sharing, the statement is made that, in the future, if only one catches a fish, neither family will go hungry. That’s the way people develop and preserve a culture!

John Angier commissioned the design of an atomic bomb. In “The Plutonium Connection,” we showed how missing or stolen plutonium could be fashioned into a crude weapon that had a good chance of exploding. The design was said to be credible by the Scandinavian experts we sought out. It got tremendous press and excellent ratings.

A brief diversion on the merits of arguing from strength

“The Plutonium Connection” was also noticed by the staff of National Science Foundation, who called me to a meeting at their Washington office. Many of those in the Public Understanding of Science office had previously worked at the Atomic Energy Commission, and they were furious that the program had shown, in considerable detail, just how lax the security in the atomic energy field was at that time.

“That was very controversial,” the NSF staff said.

“Yes, and it was very good,” I responded.

“There were many critics of nuclear energy in that film,” they said.

“Yes, I said. “Did you notice that eight out of the ten critics work in the nuclear energy establishment? The criticism was coming from people inside the industry,” I said.

“Well, we have this long memo criticizing the program,” they said, sliding a slim pack of papers across the table toward me.

“Gee,” I said. “Have you noticed how memos attempting to pressure the media have a tendency to fall into the hands of the media?”

“Well”, they said, sliding the memo back to their side of the table. “We think you need an advisory committee inspecting your programs before they’re broadcast.”

“Gee,” I said. “I already have good advisors and we already check our controversial programs before they are broadcast.”

“Suppose,” they said. “Suppose, your next grant would be dependent upon your creating such a committee?”

“Then,” I said. “Then, I would refuse your grant and I’d remove your name from the best science series ever to be broadcast in the United States of America.”

The meeting ended soon after. There was no committee. Their grant was renewed as usual.

That was the only attempt to pressure us in all the time I was at NOVA.

Back to good programs

Memo: NOVA is on the air
Memo: NOVA is on the air

Everybody knows that bombing helps win wars, right? In “War From The Air,” using research data from World War I and II, Korea and Vietnam, we showed that bombing stiffened, rather than destroyed, the enemy’s resolve while leveling cities and killing hundreds of thousands of civilians.

I commissioned a film that would document a year in the Sonora Desert. Deserts may be lonely for humans, but they’re full of life as shown in the dry and wet cycles of “A Desert Place.” This was also a film that had troubles in the editing room and, although concerned about the difficulties, it was a joy to be clear about the reasons for the problem and to step in, and, shot by shot, correct it. It is not how you want to spend every fine-cut screening, but it does help the old Executive Producer ego to become directly involved in a film every so often.

And there was the odd film called “Joey,” the story of fifty-four year old Joey Deacon, a spastic who’d been institutionalized as retarded. When he met Ernie Roberts, also an inmate, he found someone who finally understood his tortured speech. Together they wrote a book about Joey’s life, two sentences per day. Brian Gibson dramatized the story using spastic children and teens as actors and ended up with Joey and Ernie playing themselves as grown-ups. It was an unforgettable gamble to put it into NOVA. It was not really “science,” but it was first class story-telling and no one who saw it, came away unaware of what it meant to be a spastic and to ponder their treatment in society.

In “War From The Air,” using research data from World War I and II, Korea and Vietnam, we showed that bombing stiffened, rather than destroyed, the enemy’s resolve while leveling cities and killing hundreds of thousands of civilians.

And then there were the films that never got made.

John Angier had heard that Howard Hughes was designing and building a new kind of ocean-going factory ship, The Glomar Challenger, to mine manganese nodules from the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. Always interested in new technology, he tried in vain to make contact, hoping to get permission to join them on their first “mining expedition.” We got nowhere. Twenty years later, when classified information was finally released, we learned that Hughes built the ship for the CIA to retrieve a Russian submarine that had sunk in the deep ocean. It would have been an even better story, but it was one that got away.

I wanted to make a film over several years about a “vacant lot” to show that there is no such thing. We would explore the geology of the soil and the possible archaeological remains, the agronomy of the grasses and the biology of the animal life in, and above, the soil.

And then there was “the vacant lot.” If we’d had forward funding, we might have pulled it off. I wanted to make a film over several years about a “vacant lot” to show that there is no such thing. We would explore the geology of the soil and the possible archaeological remains, the agronomy of the grasses and the biology of the animal life in, and above, the soil. The idea was to make it impossible for the viewer to think of any natural space as “vacant” ever again.

Day by day

And so the days went by, filled with meetings, screenings, budgets, schedules, problems of space, salaries, fundraising, promotion, advertising and network scheduling. My homework consisted of poring over outlines, treatments and scripts back at 566 Centre Street late into the night.

While working on Season I, it was necessary to plan Season II and make the contacts for it’s funding. That meant trips to Washington and London, meetings with Polaroid and longish memos to the stations telling them how wonderful we were and what a smash the second season would be.

PBS had created The Station Program Cooperative, and after our first two seasons, we, and all the other continuing series, would bid and compete for the too-few millions the stations had pooled for national programming. We laid out our plans for Season III, and with a flashy videotape in hand, I attended the SPC meeting. PBS gave old shows eight minutes to sell their series. In eight minutes, I showed them video reminders of the highlights of the first two years and tempted them with our ideas for the third.

They voted.

Season III would be a reality.

We succeeded because NOVA was not a science series. We used science as our tool to tell stories about discovery and the scientific process; human stories about the scientist’s search for knowledge.

I was curious about how the world worked and was fairly certain I could play on the viewer’s curiosity as well.

Curiosity and knowledge are linked, each dependent upon the other and intertwined, not unlike a helix. You cannot be curious about a subject until you know something about it. That knowledge piques your curiosity and your curiosity leads you on to discovery. The more knowledge you have, the more you realize how much you lack, and on you go up the spiral, hopefully enjoying yourself on the ride.

I knew intuitively that curiosity and knowledge were linked, each dependent upon the other and intertwined, not unlike a helix. You cannot be curious about a subject until you know something about it. That knowledge piques your curiosity and your curiosity leads you on to discovery. The more knowledge you have, the more you realize how much you lack, and on you go up the spiral, hopefully enjoying yourself on the ride.

And we were good storytellers. We told stories about how people found out about things in a way that brought the viewer along on the quest. Documentaries, dramas, ethnographic films; all types of techniques were used.

And what about me?

We had introduced NOVA in March of 1974 with thirteen programs. Season II started in November of 1974 with another seventeen programs. It was a gamble. By following up our first season so quickly, I wanted to deeply instill NOVA in the minds of the public and the program managers who would vote on its future. It was exhausting, but it worked!

I remember renting a house for a week in that first summer on Cape Cod. It came without a phone. As the rental agent drove away, I told him that he might get an emergency call or two while we were vacationing. While the family was unpacking, he returned. The emergencies had started.

Playing tennis with John Freedman at the Mount Auburn Club one early winter morning, I quit half-way through the hour because I could not concentrate on the ball, I was too wound up about the nine o’clock meeting I was about to have concerning a bad treatment for an upcoming film.

A final warning came when I was in my office hunkered down over a script, when I saw the face of Ben Shedd in the doorway. Ben did not want to interrupt, and I did not want him to enter! Ben obviously had a problem that he couldn’t solve and I didn’t want to help him solve it!

Something was wrong.

I was running NOVA, supervising DYING, and had stupidly agreed to supervise the presentation of Jacob Bronowski’s BBC series, “The Ascent of Man” on PBS. I was exhausted. I did not have the money to hire a Senior Producer to help administer NOVA, and if I had it, I had no qualified candidates in mind in 1976.

Valium had been prescribed and I was using sleeping pills. The normal anxiety sleep pattern is to fall asleep easily, but to awaken about one o’clock to find your mind racing with the problems of the day. That was my pattern.

At a meeting of Executive Producers and WGBH management, I brought up the idea of burnout. My pitch was that folks who created projects, raised money, hired staff, asserted editorial control of each and every film, would soon find themselves in a state of exhaustion and that some method of refreshment was necessary.

I suggested paid leaves of absence for Executive Producers.

David Ives laughed.

Within twenty-four hours, I decided to leave NOVA.

And now what?

I called Steve Rabin, Director of Media at The National Endowment for the Humanities, and asked if he was interested in a “NOVA” of the humanities that examined the world using archaeology and anthropology.

He said yes.

Would he fund a several year research and development period to make it happen?

He said yes.

I spoke with Michael Rice and David Ives and told them of my decision to leave. I had just raised $500,000 from EXXON for Season IV, which would make it easier for the SPC to vote for our fourth year. I told Michael to hire John Angier as the new Executive Producer and that I would leave on March 1, giving John time to begin planning topics for “his” season. I proposed a half-time consultancy to develop two additional science series while I would work on the development of the humanities project.

Michael said yes.

On March 6, 1976, while I was home with the flu, Lillian hosted a party of the NOVA staff just shy of twenty years since I had arrived at WGBH. Although I would be back in the development grind, the familiar activities of research, reading, meeting with academics, etc., would seem like a vacation compared to the actual day-to-day running of a major documentary series.

I determined to run the next project differently.

I would no longer bring work home, especially anything that took critical evaluation and that could produce anxiety. Outlines, treatments and scripts would be dealt with early in the day, in the office! I would go to work early but leave at five o’clock each day.

I would schedule rough cuts and fine cuts at ten o’clock in the morning, leaving lots of time for the review of notes and suggestions for changes. Short screenings of scenes or revisions were OK for afternoons but major screenings required major attention and rested minds.

I would staff bigger. I needed help in management and editorial matters to ease the burden of every decision coming to me.

I would staff better. Hopefully, by time the next project was ready there would be a bigger pool of talented filmmakers. Since NOVA was a success, we might be able to attract more experienced people to come to Boston.

I would continue to trust my intuition. In the past, when I thought I was right, I was most often right. The times when I agreed to something with which I didn’t fully agree, I got in trouble.

What did NOVA mean?

NOVA proved that the documentary form was not dead. Bad documentaries may have seen their day, but well-researched, well-made documentaries with compelling stories had a place in the medium.

NOVA proved, against all the trendy current critics in public television circles, that the documentary form was not dead. Bad documentaries may have seen their day, but well-researched, well-made documentaries with compelling stories had a place in the medium.

NOVA proved that the strand concept worked and could be replicated. New series like WORLD and FRONTLINE and THE AMERICAN EXPERIENCE and NATURE could hope to be funded, produced and accepted, using NOVA at their model.

NOVA proved that ideas worked. Serious subjects, examined with a journalist’s sensitivity rather than an academic’s, could find a wide and appreciate audience. “If you make them, they will come!” (OK, “Field of Dreams” had not yet been made as a feature film, but the idea is valid.) Good shows will attract large audiences. Exceptional shows will do even better.

All those who thought NOVA would be a worthy addition to the PBS schedule, but would never be really popular, got a big surprise. NOVA did, and does, continue to outdraw most of the drama, dance, music and opera presented on PBS. Each season, when the “top ten” list is published, NOVA programs are in the majority.

We could do it”. With help from the BBC, Americans could come up to their quality, co-produce with them and even sell to them. That was unthinkable only a few years before. NOVA’s survival would now depend on the quality of the staff that had been trained.

Few of us could have predicted that NOVA would have survived for over thirty years nor that it would now be better and stronger and the most viewed science series in the world.

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