'It’s about tabloid in and broadsheet out.' Academic Ideas Lab's Lucy Vernall on making research stories engaging for TV audiences.
In 2011 the Academic Ideas Lab was created, with the goal of transferring the most exciting research stories from UK universities onto our TV screens and radios. Ex TV producer, Lucy Vernall, runs the company and in this episode of the Research Comms podcast she talks about the challenges of getting shows commissioned, what elements can turn a piece of research into a captivating documentary idea, the difficulty of gauging the impact of reaching millions of people with your research, and how the changing digital landscape is affecting our viewing habits and what we watch.
How did the Academic Ideas Lab come about?
It came about because there was a development producer, called Paul Woolf, who was doing a part-time PhD alongside his TV career and he was doing his PhD at the University of Birmingham and while he was there he realized that there's so much amazing content at universities that would work so well for TV and radio but there's no way of TV media producers finding out about it, so he had the foresight of setting up a little unit based within academia to bring those two sides together. So he worked with some proactive people at the University of Birmingham, they got a grant through the Higher Education Innovation Fund and got a project together to do exactly that, so to bring researchers and TV producers together to collaborate and so what the Academic Ideas Lab does is works with academics and research teams and with TV and radio producers to try and stimulate more programming based in research and academic expertise.
Can all research find a place on TV or radio, or are certain subjects too hard to translate?
I would say that there's nothing that has absolutely no chance, say for example you're pitching the most difficult idea ever but if Stephen Fry is interested in it and wants to present it, it's going to get on telly. Having said that, most research, I would say, isn't going to work on TV for one reason or another, so I put everything through a very hard filtering process and will only take on the ideas have got a chance. And even with those ideas that have a good chance it's an uphill battle because it's so competitive. There are two main questions that need answering when considering whether a piece of research would work on TV. First of all, what is the research offering that's unique? Production companies have teams of people sitting around all day and their job is just to come up with new ideas for programs, that's what they do day-in-day-out, every single day, and they're very clever people and so you have to ask, what are you giving them that they couldn't have come up with on their own? Or what can you give them access to that they wouldn't be able to get? And the second question is not 'what is the program about?' but 'what happens in the program ?' which is a different question. There needs to be some kind of a process, a beginning, middle and an end to it, and that will happen in one of two ways: one is you might be following something that's happening anyway, it might be a research project you're following and as the research happens - the medical procedure or something like that - and you go along and film it, or it might be that you have to make something happen, so you can engineer a scenario, such as an experiment and then you film it. So you need to ask yourself, what's going to happen? Where are we going to go? And what we are we going to do?
What would you say to researchers who are concerned that documentary producers might misrepresent their research?
I think there are two different scenarios here. One is being approached to be a talking head on a program that's already happening and the other one is working with a production company over the long-term to produce a program that's very much grounded in what you're doing. So my work tends to be in the latter of those and so it's a long-term collaboration where there shouldn't be any big surprises and hopefully everyone works together happily and realises an outcome that people are happy with. That said, television is a big old machine with a lot of people involved and often over a long period of time I don't think anyone ends up making the program exactly the one that they set out to make. It always changes along the way. But I don't think that's because anyone's trying to be unscrupulous, it happens for a variety of reasons, so I think being flexible and understanding that things will change is probably a useful bit of advice from the outset. Television does simplify things, partly because often you might have to explain quite a complicated process in a short space of time or make it accessible for a broad audience, and so the qualifications or the caveats that academics would like to put in sometimes don't make it. It's one of the demands of the medium and if you're making a programme that's going to reach millions and millions of people then that might be what you have to live with.
Peter Barker runs Orinoco Communications, a digital communications company specialising in the communication of research in science, the social sciences and the humanities.