Neil Tyson's 'StarTalk' Turns TV Talk Shows Topsy-Turvy (Op-Ed)
Neil deGrasse Tyson, who hosts "StarTalk" on National Geographic Channel, during a taping of the show in the Rose Center for Earth and Space under the dome of the Hayden Planetarium, and (inset) in his office at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
Credit: Space.com / Dave Brody

Dave Brody is executive producer of the Visual Content Team at Purch, parent company of Space.com. Prior to joining Space.com in January 2000, Brody was supervising producer for original programs at SYFY (then named Sci-Fi Channel) / USA Networks. A career science documentarian and journalist, Brody was producer of the long running Inside Space news magazine television program on SYFY. Follow Dave on Twitter @DavidSkyBrody. He contributed this article to Space.com's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

There's no absolute up or down in space, and plenty of celestial places where the physics of the extreme turns common sense inside out. 

It makes a lot of sense, then, that television's only science talk show — hosted by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson — should try to disrupt and distort the conventional fabric of the media universe. But will "StarTalk" TV achieve stable orbit?

What would you do? You are a natural teacher, blessed with gravitas, comedic timing and physical grace. You cling to the strong core value that evidence trumps faith every time. You've worked hard, gotten a Ph.D. in astrophysics, and raised millions of dollars to make over a major metropolitan museum of science. You've built a solid podcast / radio brand. You've done the talk show circuit. A couple hundred people each day recognize you on the street. You've reached the very rare niche of "science rock star." 

But you remain frustrated that traditional education seems to fail those who need it most. And you know these scientifically disenfranchised citizens watch TV. So, in partnership with National Geographic, you launch into the dark and scary cosmos of market-driven visual media. 

"The greatest goal is to bring science to people who know that they don't like science," Tyson told us. "My guests are hardly ever scientists. They're people hewn from pop culture. And I — the interviewer — am the scientist, not the journalist. If a journalist is interviewing scientists, you pretty much have to know in advance that you like science [in order] to tune in." 

Television — whether drama, comedy, sports or news — requires on-screen conflict. "StarTalk" TV is, therefore, a bit like baseball, which, as television documentarian Ken Burns has pointed out, is the only game where the defense owns the ball. Tyson, as both host and expert, will need to defend the scientific method from seductive, emotional, superstitious hits that "feel true," but aren't. If "StarTalk" shies away from argument and discord — however good-natured — it won't work on TV.

Neil Tyson knows this. His ideal guests are those with strong, colorful opinions viewable through the lens of science, but you have to already know their names. What if you found out that your favorite big-league celebrity is a closet science junkie? As host, Tyson's balancing act will be between probing the personalities for science sensibilities without getting too personal, lest "StarTalk" turn into "star-stalk." We asked Neil whom he wants most on the show:

Forget what you think you know about Carlos Irwin Estévez — aka Charlie Sheen — who visited Neil's office on a trip to the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Sheen grilled his host for half an hour "about the Big Bang; about black holes, curved space, curved time," Tyson reported. "This is a side of Charlie Sheen I don't think people know! Did he have some science teacher he really liked? Is this a hidden interest of his? And he wouldn't be the cool, bad kid if people knew that he loved reading about astrophysics?" Though he's yet to book the man, Tyson is keen to do a "StarTalk" with Sheen. 

Albert Einstein scribbled an enormous number of equations during his life. But popular culture knows him best for E=mc2. Neil deGrasse Tyson, similarly, has researched the evolution of stars and the morphology of the Milky Way galaxy's central bulge, but he may become best known for formulating a new way to drive enlightenment at mass-media market scale.

I doubt Tyson would ever be so pretentious as to seriously set forth an equation (he'd see the almost infinite number of variables). But I'm a recovering television producer. I have no such scruples. Watch the show; do the math. It's clear what "StarTalk" is up to:

I = (S+C) x $​

[Where I (maximum illumination) equals one well-known mass media star (S), interacting with (at least) one professional stand-up comedian (C), under the prompting influence and sparkling commentary of one charismatic scientist show-host ($).] 

"It is the blend of science, comedy and pop culture," Tyson said. "Three threads, separate and distinct, at the beginning of the program; I'd like to think that, by the end, we have woven it into a tapestry. So that 1+1+1 = 5; the new arithmetic of 'StarTalk'!"

A TV talk show sinks or swims on the stroke-strength of its guests. It will be up to the bookers, a TV job title that translates as "speaker to agents." They've got to furnish Neil with a stream of very specifically cross-qualified talents. Like Charlie Sheen, candidates must have a high "TV Q Score" (quotient of name recognition and popularity dating back to the mid-1960s), plus an interest in the impact of science on popular culture. Colorfully expressed opinions are a strict requirement. An innate ability to play "straight man" for Neil's jokes would be icing on the cake. Reduce that equation and you'll soon see that most of these folks will not be scientists.

Tyson and team wanted to wire-up a mass driver for mass enlightenment. "It's a very different concept in a talk show," he admitted, "I want people to watch "StarTalk" and just say: 'That was cool; I didn't know that. In fact that's so cool, I want to tell everyone else about it.'" 

That exact dynamic is working very well for Tyson on Twitter; his following is north of 3.5 million and blooming. It seems we humans (the talking apes) are wired to trust the elegant communicators among us. 

Tweets are like haiku; the form forces clarity upon the encoder. But 140 characters is awfully constricting for complex thought. For that, Homo sapiens invented the campfire story. The bright fire chases predators; you're lulled into comfortable openness. But those flames conspire with the dark night to hide the storyteller's appearance. So your mind fills the void with a conceptual vision of the story. 

That's why radio broadcasting and narrow podcasting work. "StarTalk" gained its initial "delta-V" as a podcast. But it was a long climb.

Pre-building the show before shoots — and in Neil's ear, during — is Helen Matsos, a polymath producer and NASA astrobiologist who's been developing "StarTalk" since 2008. She's kept the show's fires burning when no commercial media entities (full disclosure: including Space.com) would give her production funds or distribution or sponsorship. 

Like Bigelow Aerospace picking up where NASA left off on inflatable space habitats, or Blue Origin leveraging designs initially brought to reality by the U.S.-DOD Ballistic Missile Defense Organization's DCX program, "StarTalk" achieved escape velocity thanks to some significant National Science Foundation funding. 

Americans' money, in my opinion, is extremely well spent. Granted, underwriting entertainment is far from NSF's core mission: "To promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense…" It is entirely in sync, however, with the agency's mandate to strategically support occasional "high-risk, high pay-off ideas."

But "StarTalk", arguably, didn't exactly enter its intended media orbit. NSF's formative evaluation document from the post-pilot project phase proposal, circa 2009, states: "The target audience for the show is the 'blue collar intellectual' audience segment who listens to commercial talk radio, has a high school education or less and is in the 25-44 year old range." [Click here to see into the workings of the science media-funding machine

That's probably not an accurate description of the audience the production has actually found, six years in; and likely not the demographic against which NatGeo's sales force intends to trade. Check the vibrant community that follows the "StarTalk" podcast, and you get a sense of higher disposable income, decidedly white-collar workstation jobs and arguably those most likely to vote.

Will "StarTalk" TV make it long term? It's going to be an uphill slog, given the present media landscape. Cable television is now like a distended white dwarf star, seismically trembling as it's disrupted by that rapacious companion called the Internet, orbiting ever closer. More than 80 percent of new television series are gone before their third year.

TV must feel spontaneous, even if it's highly structured behind the scenes. This is very hard to do. The first few "StarTalk" TV episodes have felt — to me, anyway — overly formatted; with segments too tightly organized (or "up-cut" in the video edit), lacking the deliciously authentic chaos of the radio show.

Hey, it's a new show. If it seems that Neil hasn't had time to hit his rhythm yet, it's because television only looks easy to the viewer. It is very complex behind the cameras, and very difficult to quickly conjure up a production culture where every department is in sync. 

At the same time, television is vicious; if you're not in the zone every time out, that remote control is perilously close at the viewer's hand. Watching TV is nothing at all like consuming an audio podcast during your commute.

The traditional radio ad model has the host hawking products on air ("Howard Stern-style"). Tyson has done that in podcasts past, but seems of late to have outsourced that job to his comedian du jour. I speculate that, on TV, the commercial "avails" will be populated by a "pu pu platter" of national, regional and local spots for some time to come. It's likely that National Geographic will only be selling against "StarTalk" if it breaks through to become, in essence, NatGeo's Daily Show. In that case, sustainability could become a challenge for the production.

On the bright side of the balance sheet, I would posit the show is not expensive because it's fairly simple. Tyson's base camp, the American Museum of Natural History's Rose Center for Earth and Space, provides the dazzling set, presumably without much cost (aside from staff electricians and similar support trades). Video production technology has never been cheaper nor more portable. And the history of underwriting funds, which bootstrapped "StarTalk" into existence, continues to contribute to its delta-V. 

Is "StarTalk" educational TV? That word itself is usually a turn-off to viewers. Television executives derisively call such programming "good medicine," conjuring visions of bad-tasting potions. But I've watched Neil operate for the past 20 years: When public enlightenment is on the line, he will tease and tickle, profess and pontificate, joke and jibe, deprecate and demand clarity, quote science scripture and preach tolerance, stride and shamble, rail, roar and reason … I'm convinced that Tyson will try to make people think critically, with all the tools in his kit. 

What you heard, on "Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey ," was Neil deGrasse Tyson executing scripts penned by Ann Dryuan and Stephen Soter; their writing trajectory bent by the enormous gravitas of the departed Carl Sagan. Gentle, respectful and beautiful, Tyson's delivery was nonetheless devoid of dialogue. This was an odyssey described by a detached lone voice. It was narration, not conversation.

I loved it. But it wasn't the Neil I know. The cosmic irony of "Cosmos": Tyson, who has — and is — a huge personality, was not allowed by that role to inhabit much of his own entertaining character. The result was a bit like asking a power hitter to bunt in every at-bat for 13 episodes.

Not so in "StarTalk" radio. The podcast and its SiriusXM feed feature Tyson unchained, fresh and extemporaneous, playing the full range of his instrument, free to speak his nimble mind. On trajectory for his "blue-collar science" mission, Neil ain't afraid to change his tone, try on accents, laugh at his own jokes, take risks, structured but substantially unscripted. 

"StarTalk" TV (so far) is somewhere in between. It is well-composed but, to my ear, too constrained. In pre-show, Tyson quietly preps his guests, "What you'll have to resist doing, is going places that I don't send you; because what you don't know is whether we planned to go there in another segment. So try to stay in the orbit of that segment's content."

Fair enough. It must be said, though, that early observations suggest a system with Neil as the massive primary star, around whom lesser planets revolve. I'm sure this is not Tyson's intention; it's just the stuff that happens in the early episodes of any TV series that is forced to develop on air. 

"StarTalk" TV will need to fine-tune its orbital dynamics quickly. TV is harsh. And defending science is by no means an easy win in this culture at this time. 

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Credit: SPACE.com

 

As he treads into territory well staked out by televangelists, Neil will face a backlash. Tyson's unapologetic atheism will rankle those who take comfort in creationist mythology. Some will decry what they see as elitism. Many already mistake his confidence for arrogance. Some academics take Tyson to task for calling attention to personality over pedagogy. Many TV viewers simply won't dig his shtick. 

I believe that Tyson truly hears, and considers, all of those voices. But I think Neil has decided the greater good is served by forging ahead, elevating the standard, using his forceful public personality as a force for good. These are times when belief, in the absence of evidence, can be deadly for the individual, the nation and the planet. So I'm on his side.

I think we need a bright star talking.

Follow all of the Expert Voices issues and debates — and become part of the discussion — on Facebook, Twitter and Google+. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on Space.com.