Taryn O'NeillMar 07, 2014

Why Cosmos should matter, especially to Hollywood

For a town dependent on Stars, there are far too few people here who look up at the sky. But come this Sunday, March 9, everyone will have a chance to marvel at our sky's brilliance and fly through the depths of the Universe...all via their living room's flat screen. The epic series of science, space and humanity has returned. Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey.

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Thanks to Fox's ambitious marketing, there is a strong chance you are aware of this. You might even have had the mental callback to the 1980 series of the same name, conceived of and hosted by the peerless Carl Sagan [and reviewed all over again on planetary.org by Casey Dreier --Ed.] His wise, comforting voice, as he strolled along the sea cliffs, taking us on a 'personal voyage' through the cosmos, leveled a fierce impact on society; never before had such an ambitious undertaking been seen on television. The accompanying book was added to the Library of Congress as one of the 88 books that helped to shape America.

But that was 1980. Unless you are older than 50, you may never have watched the original series. And in these past 30-plus years, science has barreled ahead, expanding our knowledge of the very small to the super-galactic. This knowledge has thrown society into a technologically advanced, always-connected future. We all constantly have our heads bowed toward devices with conversations and entertainment streaming, tweets chirping. But as Carl Sagan so eloquently stated:

We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology
in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.

The new Cosmos, co-written by Sagan' partner, widow (and ever-inspiring) Ann Druyan, executive-produced by Seth MacFarlane, and hosted by astrophysicist and science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson aims to change that. It looks to once again bring the majesty of space and time to the masses by way of an engaging narratives and mind blowing visual effects… with the hopes of stimulating interest in science, technology, engineering, and math fields. This is a macro view of why Cosmos matters.

But why does it matter for Hollywood, specifically?

I'll tell you why it will. And then why it should.

Why it Will:

Disrupting the Distribution Model (and Pilot Season is Dead):

Fox is changing the paradigm of TV distribution. It's not just changing it, it's blowing it up. It is releasing Cosmos on 10 channels simultaneously, Fox national network and all Fox and National Geographic affiliates -- a first in cross-network simulcast. Then, one week later, it will launch on 120 Fox International channels and 90 National Geographic affiliates. This will equal 400 million potential viewing households outside the United States.

This bold move tracks with Fox chairman Kevin Reilly's war on pilot season: he announced at the Television Critics Association's press tour in January that Fox would be moving away from the traditional and costly practice of ordering pilots. (A pilot is a standalone episode of a television series that is used to sell the show to a network.) Instead, Reilly asserts that Fox will focus on developing shows to be produced direct-to-series. If they invest in and shoot 13 episodes of an big-budget new show, you better believe that bets will be hedged by an aggressive and international pre-sale and distribution plan. This comes on the coattails of the new 'Summer Event Series' which began in 2013 with CBS' Under the Dome. It was a high-concept, big-budget, 13-episode series that was unspooled uninterrupted.

Cosmos is a glowing nuclear example of this. Big budget, big concept, straight to series, week after week, across an international platform. This is not just event TV; this is global TV.

Trends and the Zeitgeist:

Space is starting to resonate amongst the masses again, a fact revealed by the current success of space and scifi themed entertainment. Gravity won seven Academy Awards and has made 750 million dollars thus far. Her won the Academy Award for best original screenplay. Science fiction films are garnering Best Picture nominations, and science-fiction-driven comic book franchises drive the summer box office. Christopher Nolan's (and the now red-hot Matthew McConaughey's) next film is Interstellar: a space and science fiction drama. The singularity-themed film, Transcendence, about a scientist (Johnny Depp) uploading his brain to a computer, releases in April. Neil deGrasse Tyson's astronomy radio show, StarTalkRadio, is in its fifth season and has gained incredible popularity, attracting notable guests such as Mythbusters' Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage. NPR's Radio Lab show, which focuses on science, philosophy, and the "human experience," garners around 1.8 million listeners and has been hailed as one of the most innovative shows on American radio.

And Star WarsSTAR friggin' WARS returns next December.

Thanks to the proliferation of social media, YouTube and the growth of geek culture, scientists and science enthusiasts have found a digital homeland to plant their flag and unite. This network is growing exponentially (with offshoots of popular podcasts and webseries) and has a powerful and fervent voice online, allowing scientists, especially those with a skill for science communication (like Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye, Sean Carroll, Michio Kaku, Brian Greene, Lisa Randall, Cara Santa Maria, and Jennifer Ouellette) to flourish and become celebrities themselves.

And who has fast become the greatest science celebrity of all? Only the man that is turning his dreams into reality and taking us into a Space filled, electric car driven, solar powered future: Elon Musk. He populates the covers of magazines and even a few red carpets as well as Tony Stark himself. Science is getting sexy again.

Celebrities such as will.i.am and Geena Davis are stepping into the ring to promote Science Literacy and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) initiatives with their foundations. Celebrity entrepreneurs like Richard Branson (Virgin Galactic) and Peter Diamandis (X Prize) are looking toward the heavens (well lower orbit to be exact) for space travel and tourism. Seth MacFarlane's lucrative relationship with Fox and his passion for science was the conduit to having Cosmos made at Fox (with little interference).

Watching Cosmos will help Hollywood 'powers that be' keep up with the social and economic trends that are already occurring within a powerful group of consumers and influencers.

Cosmos Series Logo (2014)
Cosmos Series Logo (2014) Image: Fox Broadcasting / National Geographic

Why it SHOULD matter to Hollywood

This answer isn't as glamorous… but it all the more important:

There is a dire need for the general population to become scientifically literate,
and I believe that entertainment is the best way to do that.

I stated as much in a tweet, that led to a blog post reaction to the Creation Debate between Bill Nye and the head of the Creation Museum. This post lead to the formation of my 'Actresses for STEM' group of 5 SciEnthusiastic actresses now called SCIrens. (Official site and mandate coming soon.) But one of our main goals is to spread our passion for science and STEM topics with the hopes of ultimately moving the needle to where science education seeps into the narratives of mainstream entertainment.

This is what Cosmos is aiming to do in the way that they have chosen to tell the tale of humanity and the universe. It is all based in storytelling (with mindblowing visual effects and animation).

But it's just the first step. The show is only 13 episodes. Hollywood needs to take up the charge.

Why Hollywood? As Dr. Tyson stated: he's not so worried about children; they are inquisitive by nature and will gravitate towards science because they want to understand (if they are untethered). But it's the scientifically illiterate adults 'who are in charge' that worry him. Our government is no bastion for science literacy. The important decisions to be made regarding our climate and the economics around it can and will threaten our future, if only because those in charge don't have the tools to look at the bigger picture and the general population don't have the knowledge to call them out on it. Climate change is real, our planet teeters on the brink of irreparable harm. We need the power of educated minds to collaborate and innovate a solution, and an educated population to support it. But because of a lack of science interest and education, 40 percent of Americans still disbelieve in evolution. In 2007 a research postulated that 217 million Americans were unable to make sense of a basic science or technology article in the New York Times. As Carl Sagan again so eloquently stated:

Ignorance reigns in our society at a moment when science is on the cusp
of doing amazing and wonderful things, but also dangerous things.
We can't afford to be ignorant.

But entertainment has the power to be an undercover teacher for adults. We can start infusing bits of science education into the narrative of our entertainment. Have STEM characters be more prevalent, where talking about their day brings science into the mix. Bring in more science and technology storylines. Align with Geena Davis' Gender in Media Initiative. Create smaller web or sister cable stations that focus on this kind of programming. Have initiatives to educate kids to code, learn Math and Science through innovative engaging ways, perhaps through interactive webseries and video games -- immersive, world building ones that could teach coding and DNA, then engineering...

And it's not like it hasn't been done before. Star Trek inspired a generation of scientists and it continues to inspire. What was created out of the minds of sci-fi writers and put in front of a camera has now become science fact and tangible technology.

There is a reason (but it's not the only one) that Gravity didn't win best picture. We are holding on to our past, dissecting it, apologizing for it, peeling back layers to analyze it. We don't have the connected faculties to experience a new modern scientific life. It's as if our arms are extended, fingertips curled around the last remnants of the 20th Century. But we are here. In the 21st Century. The world needs to be viewed through a new lens, new stories and challenges illuminated. The future should excite people, like it did in the 1960's. Instead most media paints it with a bleak palette. How can we change that?

YOU, Hollywood. You can help change it. You've been instrumental in supporting human rights through bringing gay characters and interracial love/marriage into television, so do it with science! Art and science ultimately aim to answer the same question. Who are we? Why are we here?

Don't be afraid to deviate from the path -- look at True Detective -- the existential, dark themes that weave their way through this harrowing narrative are captivating people. It's not science, but it speaks through certain cosmic truths when you look at our small place in the universe. It can be devastating and awe-inspiring, something that makes us think and want to investigate further.

So investigate Cosmos, dear Hollywood. Sit down with your family, your friends, and give yourself over to the majesty of the Universe and our tiny brilliant place within it. See what ideas germinate subconsciously from the knowledge that will seep in naturally through the magical storytelling. And then call a staff meeting and start thinking ahead, to better entertainment, thus to a better future.

On a final note, Fox's decision to release Cosmos on a global platform makes me think of the Kardashev Scale. It's the framework scientists use to categorize a civilization's energy usage -- but it also has been used to describe the stages of society. A Stage 4 society spans a galaxy. We are stuck at Stage 0: still in conflict amongst our own planet's population. Stage 1 will be accomplished when we are a planetary civilization, united as one. Perhaps Cosmos is emblematic of the step we need to make to get there. And see? You just learned something. Wasn't it fun?

Please check out SCIrens, the SciEnthusiast Actress group that I have started with Rileah Vanderbilt, Clare Grant, Tamara Krinsky and Christina Ochoa. We will be LIVE TWEETING the Cosmos premiere on Sunday. More info on the event and our group coming soon on the Twitters. We would love for you to join in.

You can reach me at [email protected] or on twitter.


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