Science Docs Find Success with Storytelling

The past several years have seen increased interest in science documentaries from audiences and buyers, what with the pandemic, increased warnings about climate change and a slew of other societal problems, according to several executives involved with the genre.

“With an increasing need for educational programming, especially during the pandemic, science programs for all ages have been on every shopping list,” says Anne Olzmann, managing director of Albatross World Sales. “Many broadcasters and platforms changed their programming to more information and documentaries to help with education during lockdown.”

Alexandra Böhm, head of international co-productions at Autentic, also notes that “populism, fake news and conspiracy theories are increasingly dominating public discourse and leading to a division in our society. To counteract this trend and strengthen trust in science, we need to improve our knowledge of science. This is one of the main reasons why the demand is continuously growing.”

Out of the many types of science programs, those focused on environmental topics have been particularly popular as of late. “Mostly the ones that inspire change and explain how science can be used to solve climate change-related issues,” Olzmann says. “They should look at positive examples and less on doomsday scenarios, though.”

Böhm has found the same, noting that documentaries on “global issues that present the greatest challenges for our society such as climate change and conservation of endangered species are especially important.”

Though these topics can be complex, the key to success is presenting them in simple, entertaining ways, Böhm notes. “Complex topics should not be told in an overly scientific way,” she says. “Creative and exciting storytelling has become essential. Science docs are only relevant if they have a strong dramaturgy.”

Olzmann concurs, noting that this push for more storytelling has led to the acceptance of more “hybrid” programs. In the past, “nature buyers would send a project to their colleague in the science department or vice versa; it was either too much nature for a science program or too much science in a nature show,” she says. “This has definitely changed, and the hunger for more storytelling has helped science programs become more popular.”

Olzmann offers On Thin Ice as an example of one such program. The award-winning film “included interviews and high-end nature and wildlife shots, but in general had a very significant scientific message on climate change,” she says. The program ended up airing in several nature slots that typically only accepted pure wildlife programs, she notes.

The massive influx of streamers—especially factual ones—has helped boost the production of more science programming, as well as its accessibility.

“Many of the major issues of our time are very complex and therefore require more elaborate filming, which requires higher budgets,” Böhm says. “These budgets are easier to achieve in the streaming sector.”

And “there is more room to experiment with different subgenres, run times and formats in general,” Olzmann adds, noting that streamers “have always been more open to hybrid programs.”

That being said, Olzmann says that traditional broadcasters have started to open up more. The aforementioned On Thin Ice aired in a prime-time wildlife slot, and Why We Dance, originally produced for CBC’s The Nature of Things science slot, made its way to other slots on other networks as well, according to her.

This change is in part because “compared to older science docs, the current ones are aimed at a broader audience who want to deal with a topic unknown to them,” Böhm says. “The initial perspective is no longer one from an already-informed audience about a particular topic.”

“In linear television, the focus is often on local viewers, which can be a challenge for international projects,” Boehm also points out. But “many of the problems of our time cannot be solved locally, only globally.” The trend of science documentaries that appeal to a broader audience—one without prior knowledge on the subjects—has given broadcasters the opportunity to try out different types of programming that they typically would not have before.

Wider audiences are being pulled in by the technological advancements used for documentary filmmaking, too. “There are no limits when it comes to visualizing complex issues,” Olzmann says, pointing to camera improvements and the development of CGI.

“By emphasizing aesthetic design, storytelling and high-end cinematography, these popular visualizations reach millions of viewers worldwide,” Böhm adds. “With the help of state-of-the-art animation, science is told in an entertaining way and becomes an informal learning experience.”

Böhm continues, “To find new ways to visualize complex science in an understandable and entertaining way is a new and important frontier in science communication.” And if a program can achieve that, it can succeed on traditional broadcasters and streamers alike.