Written by Science, TV

The Future of The Sky at Night

In the last day or so, there’s suddenly been a bit of press speculation about the future of The Sky at Night – the BBC’s long running monthly astronomy programme. And when I say long running, I mean it. It’s been going since 1957.
In some ways this isn’t surprising. It always felt to me that the BBC didn’t really have much love for the programme, but while Sir Patrick Moore was still alive, there was no way they were going to cancel it. Sadly Moore died at the end of last year, and the easy thing to do was to continue the programme with the group of presenters who’d been assisting him in the previous years anyway. It was probably put into a box marked “difficult” – to come back to you later.
The programme has, in my memory at least, always been a mixture of hard science about space, mixed with regular routes into the subject for those who are beginners. I strongly suspect that if you ask any British astronomer aged under 60, they’ll tell you that they were inspired by The Sky at Night. I’ve watched it year in, year out, for as long as I can remember.
The programme stands apart from just about everything else the BBC puts out. It’s a science programme that has not been “relegated” to BBC 2 or BBC 4. Natural history and Bang Goes the Theory aside, this makes it a rare exception to BBC 1’s regular output. It airs monthly which is not how we “do” TV these days. But of course that allows the programme to highlight the different things we can see in our night skies across the year. It’s erratically scheduled late at night on BBC 1, with a weekend daytime repeat the following week on BBC 2, and with BBC 4 prime-time repeats. So lots of opportunities to watch, but with Sky+, the country’s most popular DVR being unable to correctly series link it, you have to keep your eyes open to catch it! And it’s made very cheaply. I’ve no actual idea of the production budget, but it must surely give daytime TV shows that are ordered by the yard a run for their money in cost terms with no studio, and presenters who work in the area rather than just being professional TV presenters.
At this point in time, I think the BBC could go one of three ways:
– It could scrap the show, ending one of it’s longest running franchises.
– It could continue the show in the same way as it is now. The New Broadcasting House Post-It note budget probably dwarfs it.
– It could “reinvent” the programme – updating it and investing in making it bigger.
I suspect a lot of hardcore fans would say the second option is the best. But I don’t think that we should completely ignore the third. While I wouldn’t want to see the science parts of the programme needlessly diluted to make it “accessible” to a mainstream audience (as I say, it already is), that doesn’t necessarily mean that a refresh wouldn’t be appropriate.
Stargazing Live has shown that there remains a strong interest in astronomy. That programme – which curiously sat alongside The Sky at Night while the two programmes essentially ignored one another – shows what’s possible. Although I wouldn’t want to use that as a template for how a refreshed Sky at Night should be automatically envisaged.
I recently went to a great talk from Helen Czerski at Soho Skeptics, and there was the inevitable question about TV dumbing down science. Czerski said – and I paraphrase – that for every episode Horizon about cats that seem a bit simplistic, there’s another that gets much deeper into its subject. I do sort of agree with that, although I’d argue that most science TV comes to us with the assumption that we, the viewers, know nothing about the subject in advance. Whereas if you watch a programme about, say, the history of a certain school of art, it would expect that you’re vaguely familiar with the subject. We don’t start from first principles every time.
What I’m trying to say is that you can make a programme accessible without making it simplistic or covering hard science. And whatever route the BBC goes with The Sky at Night, I hope that this is considered.
One way or another, we need Sky at Night to continue. That’s why I’ve signed this online petition.