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Weird Science a Quantum Leap Backwards

The Sydney Morning Herald | 4 Dec 2000

Something can still be salvaged from the remains of the ABC's science program. Call it Rectum, Robyn Williams writes.

THE ABC's Quantum is dead. Long live Rectum. Rectum is only a working title at the moment but seems entirely suitable following Jonathan Shier's announcement that he's come to the ABC as a kind of plumber, to get the creative juices flowing. The name also reflects our customary position at the nether end of the money supply.

But Rectum is a real program proposition, bigger and better than Quantum, which we have proposed for a 50-minute slot, rather like Foreign Correspondent in its variety and flexibility, tackling every imaginable science story, with seriousness, deep journalism, levity, flexibility and zest. It will also be done in-house.

The story goes back to October last year. By then it was obvious to most of us that Quantum was struggling. The budget had been cut in half from $180,000 per episode in Karina Kelly's day, to $80,000 or less in 1999. The program had been jostled from magazine style to "specials" then shoved between various timeslots a perfect way to lose audiences and even dropped out of the schedule for extended periods as dollar crises hit. Again.

We convened a symposium of ABC science broadcasters at the Australian Museum to discuss how we could unite our forces to make best use of the new media and avoid being buried in various enclaves. Balkanisation was increasing, despite the One ABC policy.

Mine was the first paper. In it I described Rectum and how it would look. That was also the period when I began the exasperating round of rugby-tackling managers to get them to take notice of the idea. Andy Lloyd James, head of networks, was keen, but didn't last long enough to do anything about it. Then I found the laconic head of TV, Ron Saunders, at a Gore Hill car park Christmas party, looking as woebegone as his surroundings.

He listened, gave his characteristic funereal shrug and said he'd think about it.

Then he too was fired. Or shiered.

The trouble with Quantum is that they had been forced into a tricksy, over embellished style to make up for the depth of content. Ace reporters were "let go" Leigh Dayton (New Scientist, Sydney Morning Herald), Wilson da Silva (Reuters, last week's AFI award for best documentary producer). Always the pressure: stretch the budget. Don't take risks. Cope.

There were terrific specials, but they didn't seem to be Quantum.

Hence Rectum. Imagine a program of nearly one hour. There are two presenters (choose your own gender balance). You might start with a political piece about Chief Scientist Robin Batterham's quest last week to get his boost for science funding accepted by the Federal Government. OK, it's a solemn start (even a touch Kerry O'Brien) but it's bloody important. Then we might have a 15-minute special on the amazing mummies found in Hungary by an Australian pathologist and their revelations about tuberculosis. After that: GM crops why has Monsanto finally said mea culpa?

Next, a regular segment from kids using Harvard-designed mini-observatories, driven via the Net, that lets them take pictures of stars and put them on a Web site for the world to see.

Australian schoolchildren will be over the moon to have their astronomy on national television. Then, Flacco, clown and physics fan, takes us to meet the friendly Higgs Boson. In the studio is Oliver Sacks, visiting Australia once again, in conversation about brains. Finally, there's a piece of video on echidnas having sex (not easy!) sent in by a viewer. There will be lots of interaction with the audience.

This line-up isn't too surprising, except in variety. What will be different is the rough-and-ready style: less gloss, more substance. Few tricks, better words. Some overseas material, often scrounged, tonnes from Australia. Much work by other ABC staff. The program will be connected.

Last week, just as Quantum was being ditched, I put the proposition to both Jonathan Shier and his head of television, Gail Jarvis. Development head Guy Dunstan had been informed two months ago, but information doesn't travel well in your new beleaguered ABC.

Arguments for such a program are compelling. First, Australia is about to recognise a profound crisis in its research commitment and the Federal Government will make announcements accordingly in January. If the news is good, we have much to report. If not, even more. Secondly, our society is being riven by enormous issues concerning the new technologies: about genes, about computers, about environment and about health. None of these will be tackled effectively by outsourced frivolous panel chats or one-off "independent" docos. Thirdly, science is a front-line, core responsibility.

Only a public broadcaster with a critical mass of first-class scientific communicators can tackle the responsibility. This will be augmented, in an efficient ABC, by contributions from other departments, not least news and current affairs.

Work on this new program, wisely likened by Jarvis to Channel 9's Sunday, could begin immediately. It could be on air next July. With, I trust, a different name.

The public now recognises the wreckage government cuts are perpetrating at the heart of the ABC. Reaction to the demise of Quantum has been enormous. If the new program is not realised, and soon, there will be hell to pay. Make no mistake.

Then we really shall be in for the arse-end of science television.

By Robyn Williams has presented The Science Show on ABC Radio National since 1975. His latest book about science awareness is called Scary Monsters & Bright Ideas.


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