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Missing Audience Hypothesis

The scholarly and practical motivation behind this ESFI research program is to reconcile two facts about science documentary programming in American society. The first is that such programming has outstanding content. Programs like NOVA, Nature, and Frontline, among others, enable curious non-experts to participate in the thrill of discoveries attained through the most advanced forms of scientific inquiry. Second, the audience for these programs is modest and demographically distinct. The viewers, television industry analyses consistently find, tend to be older, more affluent, and more educated than the general television audience. They are known to be less religious, and they are more likely to identify themselves as politically liberal.

Why is enjoyment of such excellent programming confined so disproportionately to this particular audience? This is The most straightforward explanation is that these are the only members of the public who are situated to comprehend and enjoy science documentary programming. They are the natural audience for programs like NOVA, whereas non-viewers simply are not interested in the content of science documentaries.

The professionals who produce such programs find this “natural audience” hypothesis un-convincing, and so do we. One reason to doubt the “natural audience” hypothesis is that it’s plainly not the case that appreciation of science is confined to individuals who fit the distinctive profile of typical PBS documentary viewers. Measures of attitudes such as interest in science and trust of scientists are not strongly associated with demographic variables (Gauchat, 2011) and in fact are highly positive across the entire population (National Science Board, 2014, ch. 7).

Another reason to question the “natural audience” explanation is the popularity of what might be called “reality TV” science programming. Mythbusters is a weekly show broadcast by the Discovery Channel that features the use of innovative, jury-rigged experiments to test popular lore (“would a penny dropped from the top of the Empire State building really penetrate the skull of a person on the sidewalk?”). Consistently among the top-rated primetime cable television programs among men 25-54 years of age (Good, 2010) , the show is broadly representative of a niche collection of successful shows (Modern Marvels,  How Do They Do It?, How It’s Made) that feature real-life characters interacting in dramatic ways with technology or nature .

It would be impossible to explain the appeal of these programs if those who watch them did not find science and environmental TV shows entertaining. The protagonists of Mythbusters are not scientists, but they are using the mode of discovering truth—controlled experimentation—that is the signature of scientific inquiry. The show would not be such a tremendous success unless there was a broad popular audience that is exhilarated to observe such methods being used to satisfy curiosity about how the world works.

The audience for National Geographic Channel (co-owned by Fox Cable Networks), which also serves an audience markedly different from PBS’s. Nat Geo’s series Wild Justice—a popular program that for four seasons chronicled the activities of California Game Wardens patrolling the wilds of the Sierra Nevada Mountains—testifies to its viewers’ fascination with nature and to their identification with the characters’ mission of protecting wildlife.

The reality-based science/nature genre is distinct from science documentary programming, which focuses on conveying the work of, and the insights generated by, professional scientists. But when combined with evidence of the breadth of curiosity about science across diverse segments of the population, including those from which these shows draw their principal viewers, the popularity of Mythbusters and like programs suggests an alternative explanation for the more limited appeal of science documentaries. We will call it the “missing audience” hypothesis.

The basis for the “missing audience” hypothesis is the source that cultural meanings play in cognitive engagement with science. Cultural meanings consist of the emotional connotations that scientific communications evoke as they interact with individuals’ deeply held group commitments. Although they are collateral to the actual science content of such information, cultural meanings that implicitly threaten the outlooks or values of a particular group predictably discourage cognitive engagement—including interest, comprehension, and enjoyment—by that group’s members (Kahan, Jenkins-Smith, Tarantola, Silva & Braman 2015).

At least as striking as the difference in content between Mythbusters and other reality-based shows, on the one hand, and science documentary programs, on the other, is the feel of them. Contrasting elements of the two—including the personality of the characters they feature, the dramatic quality of the situations they depict, and the narrative modes of presentation that they use—seem to fit the distinctive cultural styles of their audiences.

“The only difference between science and screwing around,” Mythbusters host Adam Savage once explained, “is when you write it down” (, 2012). This statement might well perplex one class of documentary viewers, who would cringe at the suggestion that, say, work being done to investigate conjectures on quantum gravity at the Hadron Collider is even remotely akin to “screwing around.”

But Savage’s statement no doubt made perfect sense—even thrilled—the person to whom it was made: a sixth grade girl, whose adulatory letter asked Savage and his co-host, “what did you want to be when you grow up, and what inspired you to be scientists?” When that girl grows up, she might well be a scientist. Even if she doesn’t, there is every likelihood that she’ll have retained the disposition to experience wonder and awe (as Savage plainly has) at how science enlarges our knowledge.

But what is most likely of all is that she will still remain the kind of person she was at the time she found Mythbusters so enthralling. Science documentaries that don’t resonate with her basic outlooks will thus be highly unlikely to engage her in the way that that show did.

The “missing audience” hypothesis holds that the failure to find an idiom that can speak to the diversity of cultural styles that characterize citizens of a pluralistic society creates a barrier be-tween science documentaries and a class of viewers, ones whose curiosity to participate in knowing what is known to science these programs could fully satisfy. The barrier takes the form of cues that are collateral to the content of such programming that viewers nevertheless use unconsciously to determine if a program is “right” for someone with their distinctive experiences, values, and social ties.

If anything approaching a “law” has been established at this point by the nascent science of science communication, it is that hostile or antagonistic cultural meanings stifle cognitive engagement (Kahan, 2010; Nisbet, 2010). A better understanding of how science documentary programming can avoid conveying such meanings would allow them to make their shows more cognitively engaging to a larger segment of the population. The now missing audience would then be enabled to experience the thrill and wonder that such programs consistently allow their current audience to enjoy.


Gauchat, G. (2011). The cultural authority of science: Public trust and acceptance of organized science. Public Understanding of Science, 20(6), 751-770. doi: 10.1177/0963662510365246.

Kahan, D. (2010). Fixing the Communications Failure. Nature, 463, 296-297.

Kahan, D. M., Hank, J.-S., Tarantola, T., Silva, C., & Braman, D. (2015). Geoengineering and Climate Change Polarization: Testing a Two-Channel Model of Science Communication. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 658, 192-222. 

National Science Board. 2014. Science and Engineering Indicators 2014.Arlington, VA: National Science Foundation.

Nisbet, M. C. (2010). Framing Science: A New Paradigm of Public Engagement Communicating science. In L. Kahlor & P. Stout, (Eds.), New agendas in communication (pp. 40-67). New York: Routledge. (2012). MythBusters Adam Savage and Kari Byron on the Art of Science and Experimentation,


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