Richard Hammond’s Lab Rats

CBBC are making not one but two science series at the moment. There’s a second series of engineering show Whizz Whizz Bang Bang underway in Glasgow (about which I know nothing, other than that they’ve ditched the best thing about the first series, which was the presenter). And now they’ve announced a second show, “Richard Hammond’s Lab Rats.”

Interesting, and a somewhat major shift for CBBC’s commissioner Anne Gilchrist. Also a bit of a git for my SciCast sales pitch, frankly, but I’ll see what the results are like before getting too despondent. Besides, I’m a little nervous about the format, from what little one can glean from September Films’ website.

It’s a competition show – two teams of kids ‘performing scientific experiments using … household objects … able to repeat at home.’ The problem with such formats is that they’re not at all like normal kids’ game shows. You’re not testing physical skill (Jungle Run, Fun House), nor observation (Screen Test… not sure that’s been done since), nor, oddly, problem-solving ability (Raven). You’re testing practical knowledge.

You’re also based around challenges, and I could argue that with science it’s not the problem that’s interesting anyway, it’s the solution – with How2 the question is strangely irrelevant, you start with the answer and work backwards. But that’s another argument for another day: start thinking of suitable challenges.

I reckon they fall into two categories:

  1. Problems a reasonable proportion of children have the scientific knowledge to solve. That is – things that have been covered in school.

  2. Problems not covered in school, which children therefore mostly don’t know about.

The difficulty, of course, is that it’s challenges in the second category that have the more exciting solutions. Worse: challenges in the first category smack of ‘school,’ which is a shortcut to ‘not being remotely cool or fun,’ when you’re making after-school factual entertainment TV.

So you have a few possible routes you can go. You can stick with stuff the contestants are likely to know, and risk the audience shouting ‘boring!’ or, more likely, switching over to Nickelodeon.

Or you can brief the contestants off-camera, so they exhibit the desired behaviour. This is absolutely normal with engineering challenge formats (coughScrapheapcough), but it has to be done extremely carefully on a children’s show. With Scrapheap we’re willing to accept that the teams plain know more than we, the audience, do. As adults we’re used to that, but anyway we have Robert Llewellyn to ask the dumb questions on our behalf – he’s the audience’s proxy in Scrapheap.

With Lab Rats they’re going to have to be oh-so-careful, because it’s hard to see the audience proxy as being anything other than the contestants. Hammond is a terrific presenter and, as far as I can gather, a genuinely decent chap. I’m willing to believe that he has a good rapport with children. But he’s still the presenter, and the contestants are the people on-screen that the audience are supposed to identify with.

Which brings us back to the wheels coming off if the contestants know something the audience doesn’t think they should. It’s alienating, because you no longer feel you could be the one in the show.

(For completeness, the third option is to use part of the show to cover essential theory. But the best way of explaining the theory is to do the demo which is the subject of the competition challenge, so… you end up doing everything twice, and/or it takes forever, and/or it turns into a lesson. Ugh.)

You’ll notice that I seem to have thought this through rather a lot. Well, yes. See, there was a previous attempt to do a science/engineering challenge show with teams of kids doing experiments, interrupted by giant stunts. It was even planned as a thirty-minute show, before the early cuts were so turgid it was dropped down to twenty minutes.

It was called XperiMENTAL, it was on CBBC, and it was ruddy awful. The show’s own executive producer described it to me as ‘dreadfully rubbish,’ and we proceeded to pick apart its first two series. Informally, I was likely to produce the third, but it didn’t last that long.

The description of Lab Rats would work equally well as a description of the first series of XperiMENTAL. Yiiiiiikes?

Don’t get me wrong – I’m delighted that CBBC is at least trying to do its duty of bringing inspiring factual shows to a new generation of children. They’re the only people who can, at least via broadcast. But as ever with TV I worry that lessons from the past are not heeded, that the thinking isn’t as sophisticated as it might be, and that the resulting shows may fail.

So my real concerm is that if neither Whizz Whizz Bang Bang nor Lab Rats succeed, the BBC will again conclude that ‘kids don’t like science’ and give up for another five years.

With a bit of luck I’ll turn out to be completely wrong, and Richard Hammond will be rightly hailed as the ‘new Johnny Ball.’ If I’m right… well, at least this time we have a back-up plan.

Lab Rats is due for transmission in January.

(There’s a hair more information about it in Media Guardian. Interestingly, they don’t name a series producer. If they’re due for January they must have someone on board, surely?)

[thanks to Declan for the original BBC link.]

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