I went searching last night for a video of Bill Nye. I do not know what cued the idea in my head; I wasn’t reading about science or bowties or Seattle, or even about Nye’s arch nemesis, Ed Begley Jr. I have no idea what could have placed the thought in my head, but suddenly, I found myself standing up, walking to the fridge to grab a glass of milk and thinking: You know, I should really write a thousand words about Bill Nye.
And so I went looking for the video, or, more specifically, the theme song. Because that’s what you’ll remember about Bill Nye the Science Guy, the lanky engineer whose self-titled science show on PBS was a favorite on days when my sixth grade science teacher didn’t have any idea what to do with the class.
Mr. Avila would push a tape into a VCR, and after PBS’s opening message – we never did figure out who was behind the Carnegie Foundation that seemed to underwrite every show that aired on that network – the Bill Nye theme song would come on.
Timing in at just under thirty seconds, it’s a surprisingly catchy tune. The hook sounds mildly like a mid-90s Beastie Boys B-side, except that the base is replaced by a man repeatedly yelling out the name Bill, and the guitar solo is ripped from a mediocre Van Halen cover band. The only words spoken in the song are “Inertia is a property of matter”; unsurprisingly, a full decade later, it’s one of the few scientific facts I still know with any degree of certainty. Meanwhile, images of old TV sets and upside-down astronauts and Bill Nye’s face float across the screen.
What’s most remarkable is that – despite having not seen the video this millennium — I still remember the song almost beat for beat.
To create a song – and a show – that catchy, Nye was doing a staggering number of things right. It’s why he’s the subject of this week’s “What Journalists Can Learn From….”
1. Experiment, Above All Else: Yes, Nye’s show was about scientific experiments, but I’d like to go beyond the obvious. Nye actually holds two patents: one for ballet shoes, and another for a “collapsible, water-filled magnifying glass.” He wasn’t just a TV host; he’s an innovator, even in his role today as a one-man experiment in environmental living.
2. Know Your Audience: On the show, half of his sketches were “Benny Hill” rip-offs. He repeated concepts entirely too often. He’s always wore a baby blue lab coat and a bowtie, and he played both the smartest guy in the room and a jester simultaneously. And somehow, it worked. Because Nye knew who his audience was: teenagers with absolutely no attention span for science. If you’re going to draw them in, you’re going to have to be goofy. Sure, he took it too far on the show, especially for the audience that had already reached Bar Mitzvah age. But for a good chunk of young Americans – myself included – he remains one of the most influential scientists of our generation. He’s the only one who bothered to talk to us on our level.
3. Routine Can Be Habit-Forming: Nye’s shows were unthinkably formulaic. Each show had the same introduction, the same sequence of experiments and sketches. Basically, it was a plug-and-play script that was slightly altered from show to show based on the theme of the particular episode. But familiarity meant that viewers always knew what was coming next.
If you’ve read Malcolm Gladwell’s guide to “Blues Clues” from The Tipping Point, then this should sound familiar: there comes a moment when children are able to comprehend – and actually learn – concepts. Up until this moment, children do not retain a significant amount of what they’re being taught.
Nye just happened to figure out both the tipping point for the pre-teen set and the elements that lead to that point.
Here’s the application for news: readers aren’t necessarily familiar with the journalism process. So part of working with new mediums is teaching the public how to interact with them.
An example: web video hasn’t broken through yet, partially because readers aren’t sure what to expect from it. Unlike a news article – where the most important information is found in the opening paragraphs – non-TV news video tends to bury the lead, if it has one at all.
Viewers watched Nye because they knew what they were getting out of it (an interesting look at basic scientific concepts), and they knew when they could fast forward through an episode (the “Benny Hill” parts), since each episode was structured the same way.
The news organizations that build the best web video will also create identifiable structure within their web video, so readers know why they’re tuning in and when they can tune out. Better yet, they’ll create this structure while still allowing space to be as creative, goofy, or informative as Nye was.
And one more thing: readers need familiarity and routine in their news. They need to understand when we’re blogging or Tweeting, and they need transparency to know to how we do it. They need to understand our niches – Nye owned science to the point where’s he’s been quoted about the science behind both baseball and Pluto – and they need to know why we cover the topics that we do.
Routine breeds familiarity, which, ideally, breeds trust. With that in hand, news organizations can build just about anything.