NOVA Producer Brings ‘Art of Science Television to Fairbanks

The Senior Executive Producer of a long-running and popular science documentary series on public television was in Fairbanks this week.  Paula Apsell is in the Golden Heart City as part of a weekly research showcase hosted by the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.

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Every Wednesday night at 9p.m. eastern time, science lovers tune their televisions to PBS for an hour-long television show called NOVA.  It’s a science documentary program that recently took viewers on a journey to explore the natural history of Australia.  The show has also taken its audience on a quest to locate the mines of the bible’s famous King Solomon.  Viewers have learned about medieval cathedral construction and they’ve cracked the genetic code.

“We saw the Quatum world, a world of things that are teeny, and it operates by different rules from our everyday world,” explains Paula Apsell, the senior executive producer of NOVA. “And by using computer graphics, we’re able to bring the Quantum world up to our size and you can see how weird it really is.”

She has a wealth of subject matter to choose from for every episode she produces.

“NOVA is an anthology series and that means we have the world of science, technology, engineering, medicine, natural history, the environment,” says Apsell.  “We have a lot of different aspects of  science to choose from and our programs can be different form week to week.”

At any given time, Apsell is working on 20 different episodes all in different stages of production.  She says one of the challenges is finding a unifying quality in all of them.

“We want them to have a level of quality and distinction that says ‘this is a NOVA,’ and not some other show,” Apsell said.

Science can be intimidating to the general public.  That’s why Apsell says it’s important to find a unique way to tell a science story.

“I think the key thing is to tell the story and have it unfold like a detective story,” she says.  “So you ask a big question at the beginning, a mystery.  And you follow the clues just as you would follow the clues in a forensic case.”

Apsell admits her audience can be fickle.

“The audience is not patient enough to wait for the end, so you have to keep revealing little bits of tantalizing bits of information along the away,” she says. “People want to know now at the beginning of the show what it’s about. They want to know if they should spend their time.”

Public Broadcasting competes with hundreds of cable television channels, and fast-moving superficial content on commercial networks. Even Apsell herself indulges in a little trashy TV once in a while.

“You know we all have our guilty pleasures,” she laughs.  “I would be lying to you if I said I never watched Here Comes Honey Boo Boo or Hoarders.  I mean people who hoard things including dead animals.”

“You’re sort of sitting there with your mouth hanging open.  But after you watch three or four of the shows, you never have to watch it again.  It sort of satisfies, but that’s just for me.  These shows have an appropriate amount of viewers to suite the advertisers.”

But NOVA doesn’t have any advertisers.  Funding for the program comes from the National Science Foundation and a wide-ranging list of underwriters from Exxon Mobil Corporation to Corporation for Public Broadcasting.  However Apsell says that doesn’t mean she hasn’t had to find ways to innovate.

“The pace of information has increased enormously,” she says.  “I mean if you look at programs from 30 years ago, they’re so slow, you just think you’re gonna fall asleep.  So, NOVA’s not just television anymore.  We’re online, we have to stream our stuff, we have to make short form videos of it, we do stories on radio.  One of things I’ve learned over the past decade or so, it’s just become extremely important to extend to other platforms. ”

Apsell says she’ll continue to find ways to change how NOVA delivers rich and complex science stories to the public.  The program has won every major broadcasting award, some more than once.  NOVA’s website is the most visited among those hosted by PBS.