The fictional world is becoming more »sciencey«

Science and scientists are still woefully underrepresented in fictional television programming in Germany, despite a strong international trend towards more science and a more differentiated depiction of scientists in movies and television programs. But with the spread of streaming services and pay TV, and the success of series like »Breaking Bad« and sitcoms like »The Big Bang Theory« or »Silicon Valley«, this is beginning to change. This development is not only relevant for film producers and TV programmers, but for science communicators as well, because these programs help shape the public’s idea of how science is done and by whom.

Last fall, the Foundation for MINT-Entertainment-Education-Excellence (MINTEEE), supported by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), Max Planck Society, Fraunhofer Society and others, published a brochure that summarizes the results of the conference »Science meets Fiction« held in Berlin in 2016. (MINT is the German language equivalent of the abbreviation STEM for the academic disciplines science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.)

The report gives some numbers on the state of science in fictional formats in the five biggest national TV programs in Germany: the public broadcasters ARD and ZDF as well as the private channels RTL, Sat1, and ProSieben. While ARD and ZDF have the largest share of original productions, they also have the narrowest range of genres, with a heavy dominance on crime shows. Surprisingly, the private channel ProSieben offers the most diverse genre mix and is the only one of the five to show science-fiction (and mystery) series.

In its second part, the report explores the developments in science fiction movies produced for cinema, where traditionally there has been quite some collaboration between scientists and filmmakers. Part three of the report deals with the changing image of the »nerd«, who has not only moved from »strange outsider« to »cool and funny«, but also has become more diverse, and occasionally even female. There are now »hipster nerds« like Cosima from the »Orphan Black« TV series, and also what one author calls »suave nerds« like the new Sherlock Homes as played by Benedict Cumberbatch.

The most interesting part for me was the fourth, where the authors describe an international »Golden Age for Science in Entertainment«, and shed light on some of the reasons behind the slow and and somewhat reluctant shift in German fictional programming towards science-related content. From interviews with media creators and programmers it becomes clear that there is indeed interest in »sciencey« content, not only because there seems to be a demand by the audience, but also because science helps to add realism to the storytelling, something that audiences increasingly seem to be valuing.

At the same time, according to the authors, especially the public broadcasters are facing a dilemma. They produce the lion’s share of original programming in Germany. If they follow the tastes of their older audiences – crime series, ideally with local flair, as well as family series, and romance – they can achieve good ratings, but are less attractive for the younger generation, and also less successful on the international markets. Meanwhile, the younger audiences move to private channels and especially towards streaming services, where they find a much wider spectrum of high-quality series, more flexibility, and a much more diverse cast of MINT and female role models.

Despite all this, there are positive developments, too, like the success of the medical history drama series »Charité« at ARD or »Die Spezialisten« at ZDF about a forensics unit.

At this point, the full report is only available in German, but the MINTEEE-team has made some articles available in English.

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