Stargazing Live USA! Could it happen?

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.

Stargazing Live presenters Brian Cox and Dara O'Briain
Stargazing Live presenters Brian Cox and Dara O'Briain. Credit: BBC. Used with permission.

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.

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“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.

By Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland has been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. He writes regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy, plus he has authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

4 thoughts on “Stargazing Live USA! Could it happen?

  • 01/24/2012 at 9:43 pm
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    On the one hand, I doubt it could – or would – happen in the U.S. on the scale that the BBC can manage in the U.K., for a variety of reasons. That’s not to say I wouldn’t like to see it happen here – I certainly would! But the U.S. television media is far more fragmented, I think, what with cable and satellite and the networks vying for “ratings!” grabbing shows – not to mention that even if a network could be convinced to air such a program, there’d have to be someone who can command the outrageousness of a reality star in order to get the necessary ratings. On the flip side, it could probably do well on one of the more science-oriented cable/satellite channels, but then the audience is likely to be less, and unlikely to generate any enthusiasm beyond those already interested in astronomy.

    We don’t have any “rock star” astronomers over here. YouTube is the way to get the wider audience in the U.S., methinks. Though, even that may be a heavy lift: I make how-to stargazing videos for YouTube now, and approximately 40% of my audience is in the U.K. – and my videos are produced (by me) here in the States.

  • 01/24/2012 at 10:14 pm
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    I nominate Dave Fuller to be our astronomy television star!!! “Lights down, Stars up!”

  • 01/25/2012 at 7:08 am
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    I think Dan Fischer makes a good point that the groundwork by Patrick Moore and the ongoing Sky at Night show may well have something tokarenlmasters BBC being willing to try this.

  • 01/25/2012 at 9:18 am
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    And now to disagree with myself, it can’t just be Sky at Night, or that would be a prime time show instead of being pushed later and later. I think we have a lot to thank Dara O’Briain who’s involvement must have convinced the BBC it would be entertaining as well as informative. Also they got Jonathon Ross (another BBC comedian of sorts for the US readers) involved for the first series.

    This time around I followed on Twitter while the show was live, and it was fascinating to see the comments – sometimes more about the looks of Brian Cox than the content! That can be frustrating, but if it gets people listening to science we shouldn’t knock it!

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