Working with TV crews: A guide for scientists/researchers

50641096Summary Huzzah! You’ve been approached by a group of TV people who want to highlight your work! Congrats! Making your science accessible is a great thing to do, because it helps to make you a better communicator for grant applications and conferences, and because it also makes the world a better place. But doing TV can be unnerving, and can sometimes cause frustrations that might leave you wondering why you ever bothered to do TV in the first place. I was once a full-time scientist, but now I work as a TV producer/host trying to make your science accessible by interviewing people like you. I’ve written this article as advice, to help you have a positive experience when you work with people like me. If nothing else, I suggest that you keep in mind that TV crews will usually have different objectives than you will. Below, I explain that concept further, and then offer some suggestions that you, as a scientist interviewee, can use to feel a sense of control through the process.

Why Bother at all? About a year ago, the Royal Veterinary College biomechanist John Hutchinson wrote a blog post, titled “TV Nature Documentaries: Why Bother?” John was fed up with, among other things, documentary-making TV crews coming to shoot in his (incredibly interesting) biomechanics lab, but then leaving what they’d done on the cutting room floor. Things like that do happen sometimes, and that can be a huge frustration. Worse, sometimes the finished product on TV might not accurately capture what you were hoping to get across in the interview. As a scientist, you put your entire reputation on the line by appearing on TV to talk about your work. With so many risks, why bother at all?

Cutting Room Floor

That’s a question you’ll ultimately need to answer for yourself, but I think TV outreach is worthwhile for two reasons: (1) it gets kids into science, and (2) it makes voters appreciate science and scientists, so they’ll be less likely to elect anti-science governments. And why TV? Well, researchers do lots of great outreach through twitter and blogs, but sometimes I worry that a lot of that online communication happens among the people who are already singing in the choir. After all, here I am talking to researchers on a blog, right? Television is an effective way to reach people outside the ivory tower. That’s why I believe doing TV is a worthwhile use of a scientist’s time.

In case that’s not enough for you, one other important result from outreach through TV is that it gives you practice distilling your research for non-specialists, and that, ultimately, is something you need to be able to do for conference talks and grant applications. That alone should make TV worth the effort. (Yes, I just said that doing TV might actually make you a more successful scientist! Weird, right?)

Grants!Overarching Principle: TV Producers have a different goal than you do. The TV crew visiting you wants to make a TV show that people will enjoy watching – a TV show that will make people NOT turn the channel to something else. It might make you cringe to hear this, but fundamentally, they want to entertain their audiences. TV is a business, and without viewers, shows go extinct. Scientists, on the other hand, are usually focused on getting the science right. A scientist would rather be right and have 20 people watch them than be wrong and have millions see the show, right? So with producers and scientists coming to the table with different objectives, communication becomes very important, even though those goals are totally compatible.

Most of the conflicts I’ve seen between interviewers and interviewees come from the two parties ignoring one another’s goals. The scientist refuses to say “This is a breakthrough,” because she imagines all her peers who would consider that an overstatement, and the producer won’t settle for “this result gives us insights into the evolution of laryngeal echolocation,” because *CLICK* five thousand people just changed the channel. As a result, the interview goes quite poorly and no one gets what they want.

Be conscious about what the TV people are trying to optimize, and work with them toward their goal in a way that also keeps the science accurate. For example, teaching at a university is such a treat because you say “today I’m going to teach you about the endosymbiotic origin of mitochondria” and then your class dutifully listens quietly for ten minutes while you explain everything. At the end of it you’ve blown their minds. For a TV producer, though, that structure won’t work. Telling the same story through TV is way harder because an audience won’t wait ten minutes for a punchline. In fact, they won’t wait thirty seconds. You need to blow their minds the whole time they’re watching (or use some other tool like suspense, comedy, or gruesomeness to keep them glued). Those constraints mean you’ll need to tell the endosymbiosis story in a fundamentally different way on TV than you do in your lectues. With any luck, though, the experience of putting that story into a TV show will help you see the material differently, and maybe even help you think of new ways to teach the material.

Before the Interview: You’re at your desk and you get an e-mail/phone call from someone asking about your research for a TV show. Here are some things you might ask them:

  • “Tell me about your show. What’s it called? What network is it for? What is the show about?”

You’re looking for red flags. I personally refuse, for example, to work on shows that treat baloney theories as though they were viable alternatives to mainstream science. I won’t work on a show that treats creationism as a plausible alternative to evolution. I won’t work on pieces that question the reality of climate change or the efficacy of vaccines. I also won’t work on shows that vilify bats. I won’t do those shows because I know that no matter how well I argue my side, the editor will have final say over who wins the debate.

Ask questions until you feel comfortable being part of the show. And if you don’t feel comfortable, bail.

  • “How does the piece about my research fit into the show?”

First and foremost, try to find out how much of your time they’re looking to take up. If they say anything less than “one day,” don’t believe them. If they’re sending a crew out to shoot you, your day is gone. You will get nothing else done, and it might well be a long day, too.

Secondly, what are they going to be asking you about? The producers might be focused on an aspect of your research other than what you would most like to talk about. They might want to talk about something you published several years ago, something you haven’t published yet, or maybe even something you don’t work on at all. Make sure you know before they get there what this interview is about, and decide if that’s something you want to talk about on camera.

  • Another questions some people ask is: “Will you pay me (or provide money to our lab that can go toward things like student research funds)?”

Getting paid to be on camera: Personally, I don’t recommend asking this one. The answer is almost always no, anyway. In my experience, TV production companies will agree to cover costs like transportation to a shoot, or equipment you’ll use on the day of the shoot. In his blog post, John said he’s had success charging some crews £100 per day for his time (and explained his motivations). Personally, I don’t know of any times when our show has paid a scientist for their time.

Licensing photos/videos: On this one, I have a different attitude, because there is money in TV budgets for visuals. If a TV crew wants to use your footage/images for their documentary, you can give it to them for free, or you can ask them for money in exchange. I have some great video of vampire bats running on a treadmill from my PhD, which people still ask to use. I usually give it to museums and teachers for free, and ask for money from publishers and TV shows. I think I once got $30 per second for my footage of running vampire bats in a TV show. They ran it for something like 5 seconds. I didn’t get rich, but as a grad student I was pretty happy to get the money. If you’re putting considerable time and money into your videography/photography, don’t sell yourself short. Don’t even consider giving them exclusive rights to your photos/footage (you want to be able to use the footage yourself for other shows, etc.). Just license your material to them for the one show, and make sure you get credit.

Before the TV crew arrives: Rehearse. When you have a talk to give at a conference, you practice the talk beforehand, right? Same goes for a TV interview. In all likelihood, your explanations will be better the third time you give them, so why let a TV crew film your two practice answers? In your rehearsal, ask yourself “What are the three things I want viewers to know?” Make those points as concise as possible. Aim for 20 seconds for each of them. Know those sound bites like the back of your hand. Make sure you get those three points across during the interview, and anything else is gravy.

Talking Points

Being Interviewed Three words: Show your passion. We do science because it’s fun to come up with questions and to figure out how to answer them. The answers themselves are rewarding, but it’s the thrill of the chase that keeps scientists going. You know this mantra already: Science isn’t a body of knowledge, it’s a process. So, please, when you explain science to people, take them on the thrill of the ride. Don’t bore them with your knowledge, thrill them with your passion for questions.

When you sit down in front of that camera, smile. It might feel awkward, but it looks inviting. It will make your viewer want to spend time with you. Remember: the interviewer is trying to make watchable TV. Your data won’t make for watchable TV. Your passion for your data will make for watchable TV. Being passionate is the best way to ensure that what you’re saying to camera will actually make it into the final cut piece.


Know your audience. Here’s one place where our training as scientists works against us. When you give a talk at a scientific conference, I think it’s fair to say that almost everyone in attendance is playing a game called “how can what that person’s saying be wrong?” And if they find a flaw in your logic, or a mistake in your methods, they will stand up at the end of your talk and announce it to everyone in the form of a question. It’s no wonder we get scared when we talk about our work.

The good news is that your appearance on TV is not a candidacy exam. Almost none of your peers will watch you on TV, and even if they do see you, they can evaluate you by the scientific papers you write, thank you very much. Do astronomers evaluate Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s knowledge of black holes by the way he explains them to Jon Stewart? I think not. Tell yourself that scientists are too busy to watch any TV anyway (that’s pretty much true), and instead, imagine your viewers as of a group of bright non-scientists.

Please, please, please. That last point is so critical. Please make an effort to remember that your viewers aren’t stupid. They are capable of understanding what you have to say, and you don’t have to give up on clarity or intelligence to be on TV. Distill your message to a few key points and then work with the TV people to get that message across. Don’t dumb your science down. Just be clear.

Sometimes when I have an interview on the news coming up about some scientific concept, I’ll walk around my office at Daily Planet practicing my explanation to some journalism-trained colleagues. They’re bright people who don’t know scientific jargon. If they understand me, it’s ready for TV viewers.

Conclusion: I know I’ve given you a lot to chew on, and I also know that doing all this work will undoubtedly be more difficult than avoiding TV altogether, but I hope you’ll make the effort.

Besides, if you didn’t like difficult challenges, you wouldn’t be a researcher would you?


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