The Pitfalls of Popularizing Science Beyond the Proverbial Choir: Lessons from Cosmos 2.0

Sunday, February 14, 2016
Heather Akin, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA
Background: In a time of waning public engagement with science and formal science education that is falling short, offering engaging scientific programming on television seems like one antidote for reviving public interest in science. Thus, there was great anticipation when a reboot of the 1980 popular series Cosmos was announced, which this time would star astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. The program’s producers aspired to reach a vast audience, and particularly those who are not usually exposed to quality science information. While the show was nominated for an Emmy and considered a critical success, this study analyzes who among the U.S. public was actually watching Cosmos and whether the show did in fact capture the attention of the diverse audience it sought to reach. Methods: This study relies on a nationally representative sample of U.S. respondents from an online panel survey, administered in July 2014 (N = 2,487). We polled respondents about how many (if any) episodes of Cosmos they watched, along with questions about their interest in science, number of college-level science courses taken, factual science knowledge, political ideology, and demographics. We combine these survey data with an analysis of viewership of Cosmos based on Nielsen ratings, using logistic regression to estimate what characteristics are associated with likelihood of watching any episodes of Cosmos and structural equation modeling to test what characteristics are significantly related to continued viewing of the show. Results: Over the time that Cosmos aired, Nielsen ratings indicate the show only reached 1.3% of all U.S. households. According to our survey data, 7.1% of Americans said they watched one episode of Cosmos, 2.4% said they watched all 13 episodes, and 76.1% didn’t watch any episodes. Our multivariate analyses show that respondents who watched at least one episode are 40% more likely to be male, 35% more likely to claim interest in science, and are significantly more knowledgeable about science. Further, less affluent audiences were less likely to watch at least one episode, as were those who are highly religious. Even those who expressed above-average interest in science watched only 1.5 Cosmos episodes on average. Conclusions: The results of our analysis suggest that Cosmos did not manage to reach and educate those who need quality science information and programming the most. Instead, the show seemed to appeal most to the proverbial choir: those who are already interested in and knowledgeable about science. Although Cosmos failed to attract a diverse audience eager to be introduced to the wonders of the universe, the science community and entertainment industry would benefit from continuing to collaboratively develop television programs like Cosmos. However, these collaborations must draw on insights from social science research to maximize the reach of novel diverse formats, communication strategies, and media outlets in order to see how complex issues can be explained in an accessible and entertaining fashion.