Stargazing Live, a primetime TV show promoting amateur astronomy, aired over three nights in the UK last week with phenomenal results. It has got me wondering if such a programme could cross the Atlantic, in the same way as Britain’s Got Talent, Life On Mars and The X Factor did, to be remade for US audiences.
For those unfamiliar with Stargazing Live, it aired on BBC 2, the broadcaster’s second TV channel, and came to us from the world famous radio observatory Jodrell Bank with its Lovell telescope lit up like an observational astronomer’s nightmare as a backdrop. For the second year running, the show gave us 90 minutes of astronomy a night with a mix of live material from Professor Brian Cox, comedian and physicist Dara O’ Briain and guests plus outside broacasts from around the UK and South Africa and pre-recorded film clips.
Vitally, the show was tied in with astronomical events all over the UK, with local societies encouraged to welcome the public to observing evenings and talks. The BBC provided high quality support packs to the clubs that joined in including excellent star guides that people could take away with them.
Stargazing Live, which followed similar exercises in BBC programming Springwatch and Autumnwatch for nature lovers, was a huge success with big crowds attending events around the UK and local and national societies reporting a surge in membership. A surge of new citizen scientists joined Galaxy Zoo’s Planet Hunters and discovered a new exoplanet in Kepler data. Amazon reported an increase of nearly 500 per cent in telescope sales. Skymania supported the concept by launching our own parallel Wonders of Stargazing website.
Crowded England is not noted as an ideal spot to do amateur astronomy, though some national parks have excellent skies and neighbouring Scotland and Wales include vast dark areas. So I asked some leading figures in astronomy in the USA, where dark skies are easier to reach, if the success of Stargazing Live could be emulated there.
Leading US populariser of astronomy Neil deGrasse Tyson told Skymania News simply: “I don’t claim insights to what the TV viewing public want to see. Every time I muster high expectation, I am left disappointed.”
Rick Fienberg, former editor of Sky & Telescope magazine and now press officer for the American Astronomical Society, said: “Several groups have tried to get an amateur-astronomy TV series going, but lack of funding from underwriters/sponsors has always kept it from happening. Timothy Ferris’s film Seeing In The Dark premiered in 2007, but it was a one-off, not a series. Neil DeGrasse Tyson will be doing a 21st-century update of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, but the focus will be (as in Sagan’s version) on the science, not on stargazing per se.
“The only regular stargazing shows on TV in the U.S. are short “interstitials” that run on PBS stations: the late Jack Horkeimer’s Star Gazer (formerly Star Hustler) and Sky & Telescope magazine’s new SkyWeek. I don’t know if Star Gazer still runs, and S&T’s show only got started a few months ago.
“There are other astronomy shows on TV, such as the series that runs on the History Channel. They’re all about science and, to my knowledge, rarely touch on stargazing as a personal hobby. I don’t know if any of the citizen-science initiatives in astronomy have gotten any play on such programs, though they’ve certainly gotten some news coverage, e.g., Hanny’s Voorwerp, high-school students finding pulsars in radio data, etc.”
Rick added: “I’ve always found it interesting/puzzling that the UK, which has terrible light pollution and very few dark-sky havens, nevertheless has a robust community of very avid amateur astronomers. It says something about the country’s personality – I’m not sure what, exactly, but I think it’s good!!!”
For myself, I suspect it is much easier for the BBC as a public broadcaster to mount such an enterprise and to invest in providing local societies with back-up material. It must also help that Brian Cox has achieved something of the aura of a rock star about him, plus he has more the manner of an ever-cheerful best mate than a dusty academic. I chaperoned him last year when he appeared at London’s AstroFest event to sign Wonders of the Solar System books for the Society for Popular Astronomy and there were two-hour queues round the block for that, plus some near hysterical fans!
But Skymania News would be delghted to hear what you think, especially if you are in the States, as most of our readers seem to be.