Is science sacrificed in the pursuit of TV ratings?

A hand unharmed by a boiling hotpot on Approaching Science.
The CCTV program Approaching Science (走近科学) has been given the nickname "Approaching Pseudo-Science" by some critics, not only because its subject matter often ranges out on the fringes (UFOs, Blood-spitting man, and Mahjong luck) but also because of its presentation style. Rather than presenting scientific information in a direct, lecture format, Approaching Science holds the interest of its viewers through spooky re-enactments, suspenseful voice-over narration, and sensational round-about discussions of what are essentially simple concepts.

Who wins in the battle between ratings and science? Here are some excerpts from an interview The Beijing News recently conducted with Approaching Science producer Zhang Guofei:

The Beijing News: There has been considerable criticism voiced about your program lately. Do you feel that the criticism is reasonable?
Zhang Guofei: Yes, there's been a lot of criticism. My view is, you've done it, so you shouldn't fear criticism. And there's truth to some of the criticism, some is extremely accurate.

TBN: Which criticism has been extremely accurate?
Zhang: For example, the question of technique. Some criticism says that we play tricks. There's nothing wrong with that. Like if a movie says something and you know what it will say next - is that watchable? TV is like that, too. The issue now is that our art is not precise enough, not fully refined. Sometimes people notice this, I will admit. But tricks and deceit - I can state clearly that I want to deceive, that I want to play tricks.

TBN: What, specifically, is meant by saying that your art is not precise enough?
Zhang: For example, suspense is not planned out rationally enough and evasions are too large - this is a technical problem, not one of motivation. If you don't succeed, try again; don't say that there's no point in doing it if you don't succeed. I don't think that's an appropriate statement.

TBN: It's been said that your program underestimates the intelligence of the audience.
Zhang: It's not up to me to evaluate the IQ of the audience, and it's not up to other people either. I can only bring up a few figures. First, China's illiteracy numbers are counted in the hundred millions; second, China has so many farmers whose level of education is relatively low. I cannot judge the IQ of the audience; I can only learn how many people are watching our program by looking at the TV ratings. If they increase, then it means that more and more people are watching Approaching Science. This is an objective number. If it's only been noticed by a few people, then you wouldn't be coming to interview me.

TBN: It's been said that excessive novelty-seeking has vulgarized the program.
Zhang: I think that to say that I've underestimated the IQ of the audience is disrespectful to the audience. They've forced their own likes and dislikes onto the audience. I feel that in a certain respect, chasing after ratings is showing the greatest respect to the audience. This is a kind of filial piety. So what if it's popularized? When the Red Army was on the Long March, if you talked to them of the Comintern, would they understand? Popular science is popular, not research. My greatest hope is that the Chinese audience would come to know what science is.

TBN: What do you think "popular science" is?
Zhang: I think that popular science has several levels. At the bottom is sharing of knowledge, up a level is spiritual inspiration, higher up, enlightening intellect and teaching people to use their minds, and at the highest level is exciting people's interest. Interest is the greatest teacher. From this perspective, energy should not be focused on the bottom level, the transmission of knowledge, but rather on the higher levels, on exciting people's interest and enlightening their intellect.

TBN: In the end, how do you enlighten the viewers' intellect?
Zhang: Through telling stories. The audience first wants to watch stories. We once did a program that told the story of a worker who was accidentally sliced in the head with a power saw, and it left a deep gash. He was taken to the hospital to be rescued, and in the end he was fine, neither dead nor mentally impaired. It sounds very strange, but there were principles later on. Through this story you could talk about the makeup of the brain. How are nerves distributed? What is their structure? That the gash did not harm him is then nothing strange; it sliced through an unused area. So the audience first learns of a strange story, and after it's finished, they know something about the brain.

TBN: Isn't this kind of story overly sensationalized?
Zhang: Is there something wrong with sensationalism? Pursuit of novelty is a human instinct. People like new things. Actually, I don't really think it's important whether it's knowledge or not. The highest requirements of popular science are a scientific standpoint, perspective, and method; knowledge is not important, and TV is not very good at that sort of thing. TV's greatest strength is in narrative and emotional expression; its weakness is in argument. Listen to Yi Zhongtian and Yu Dan - how many of them are presenting arguments? It's all story-telling.

TBN: The program must have story elements?
Zhang: What we want to do is tell stories. When I say tell stories, I mostly mean narrative technique. Someone dies, it's not very enticing. Someone fine and healthy suddenly croaks - this is enticing. Someone is buried but is actually alive - this is even more enticing.

TBN: So you search for these stories throughout the country? Is there that much material?
Zhang: Right, we seek out novelty on a country-wide scale. All manner of strange things exist in the world. You only have to bend down to search carefully and you'll find lots of material. We're never short of material. I only worry that we won't find out when something happens.

TBN: You spin in a big circle to keep people in suspense, but the outcome is actually very simple. Isn't this just feeding them a line?
Zhang: You say it's feeding a line, and I agree - what's wrong with feeding a line? Leading people on is not duping them. I've said before that the truth is very simple. I hope that the audience will not feel that I'm leading them on; that's my motive, but sometimes our technique is not that great, our magic isn't that great, so people can see through it. This problem exists in lots of programs, this I admit. Have you seen 24? Up until the last minute you don't know what's going on. Don't you that you're being fed a line there?

TBN: It's a bit like you're telling a detective story or shooting a suspense film in the name of science.
Zhang: You can't say that it's only nominally scientific. My motive is to use this format to let the audience get a better understanding of science. My starting and ending points are both popular science. However, I feel that only in this way can science truly be popularized.

TBN: If the program didn't have suspense, what then?
Zhang: No need to imagine - there was none in the past. The program was established in 1998, and for a long time, it had no voice or influence. Since the overhaul in 2004, we started to pay attention to narrative style and technique, to pursue suspense. It was then that we started telling stories.

TBN: And the subject matter also started to change?
Zhang: Right. Originally, the subject matter came from the "Five Sciences" (五科): the Ministry of Science and Technology, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the Chinese Academy of Engineering, Universities, and the Commission of Science, Technology, and Industry for National Defense. What kind of subject matter was it? It'd take you half a year to understand; such arcane theoretical questions, such complex experimental procedures - can you film them for TV? If you took what was originally lively, enthusiastic scientific research and removed all of its life, and turned scientists into eccentric, otherworldly people, who'd dare approach science?

TBN: What was the reason for this?
Zhang: I'd say it's because of subject matter.

TBN: At the time your program had no influence at all?
Zhang: Not as much as today. After the overhaul the ratings immediately rose, and influence was much greater. We added two more groups of viewers then: one group with roughly primary-school levels of education - this was as I expected, because we started to tell stories. Another group was added, outside of my expectations: numbers of people with undergraduate and above education also increased. This was because the viewers mentality toward TV watching is different than that for attending class. TV is a tool for entertainment; it should generate pleasure.

TBN: Popular science works should also be entertaining?
Zhang: You must delight and instruct. If within your limited space, you tell a story, convey a bit of scientific knowledge, then I think it's enough. That's all you are able to do. Tell me, if a student has been in class all day, will he still listen to your class at night? Someone who's worked all day, when he lies down on the couch, he wants to watch a story. If you have him attend class, will he be agreeable?

TBN: Is your program comparable to major international popular science programs like the BBC and Discovery?
Zhang: It's evident that we cannot compare to them. Whether in production or in scope of subject matter, we cannot compare to them. If you force a comparison, then it's just that we're all popular science programs, and we all emphasize narrative techniques. This is as far as the comparison can be forced. There are many circumstances in which no comparison is possible.

TBN: What are the limits?
Zhang: There are three problems. First is topic selection. We can only select topics in China; their camera can roam the globe. Second is the production team. I think that our production team is currently China's best, but there's no comparison with their teams. Third is cost. The TV industry sucks money. When Discovery films an insect, they build a set, and the earth, plant cover, humidity, and temperature are all real. They raise their "migratory birds", and shoot using cameras tied to the birds. How do we have the strength to go to Africa to film wild animals? Can we capture them? Are our lenses long enough? How long do we have to wait until we get them on film?

TBN: Do you watch Discovery all the time?
Zhang: I'm always watching. But it's strange, while I think that programs like BBC and Discovery are very well done, Chinese audiences don't necessarily like to watch them. We once took seven days to import a BBC program, but in the end the ratings were very low. You can look for Discovery's ratings in China. I believe that they can't beat Approaching Science. They also are rebroadcast on CCTV-10, and I believe they can't compare to Approaching Science.

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There are currently 8 Comments for Is science sacrificed in the pursuit of TV ratings?.

Comments on Is science sacrificed in the pursuit of TV ratings?

People aren't going to get any smarter if TV shows are dumbed down.

Does this mean that this was translated by Mr. Martinsen or that someone else translated and he "posted" it?


As noted in our response to your last comment, we would rather continue this conversation via email so that we can show you the error of your ways in private. Unfortunately, the email address you provided was invalid.

The convention at, like other online venues for translation, is that posts are original work by the person whose name follows "Posted by", unless otherwise stated in the body of the post. The poster is responsible for the editing and layout of the article, but we do have frequent guest contributors who are always identified in the text of the post.

With all due respect, you did not answer the question, which was about translation.

So, one is left with the conclusion that the posters do not do their own translations, unless otherwise indicated.

SinaSource: Your question was answered in my notes to your comment here. However, since you seem intent on drawing conclusions that directly contradict the explanations we have given you, I see no value in continuing this conversation here. Contact us via email if you have further questions.

In other news, what's happening with the boiling hotpot?

Dude can pull stuff out of a boiling hotpot without any noticeable discomfort, and he can pour 260C oil on his palms without getting hurt. What ungodly magic is at work? At the end of this two-parter, viewers learn that he's practiced long and hard to build up calluses on his hands and desensitize himself to pain. Don't try this at home, kids. (part I, part II)

走近科学是一个好的方案。它提供了地理知识和动物生活. Fantastic programme....

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