Paula S. Apsell: NOVA's Shining Star

Sesame Street. Seinfeld. Cheers. All of these shows managed to survive our culture's short attention span in some way, shape, or form. Seinfeld and Cheers live on through popular and financially lucrative syndication. Sesame Street, which has been on the air for over 30 years, is still teaching toddlers how to sing the alphabet in English and Spanish. These programs have staying power, something that draws the public to them.

NOVA, which is produced by the Science Unit of WGBH, has that same charisma. A lot of people feel as though they grew up with the award-winning, documentary-style show, which examines important scientific questions and issues. NOVA is what comes to mind when we think of high quality public television programming. And Paula S. Apsell, the program's executive producer since 1984, has no doubt contributed to that reputation.

Altogether, Apsell has been with NOVA for almost three decades. In the 1970s, she produced several episodes of the show. She also worked at WGBH Radio, where she created and produced the children's program The Spider's Web. She left WGBH to work at WCBB, the ABC affiliate in Boston. After completing a fellowship in Public Understanding of Sciences at MIT, she came back in 1984 as the executive producer of NOVA.

Essentially, Apsell's job is to maintain the same level of quality and in-depth subject matter that has garnered NOVA many broadcasting awards and a loyal viewership (about 6 million per episode). While she is ultimately in charge of all aspects of the show, from the budgeting to the production, she delegates many of the administrative tasks to others, such as Alan Ritsko, NOVA's managing director, so she can concentrate on picking future topics and working with producers to mold, shape, and finesse particular episodes. "I try to shape my job so that I am much more concerned with editorial issues and much less with managerial issues," she said.

Deciding upon a show topic is more tricky than one might gather. NOVA has to maintain an often-precarious balance: it must be entertaining but also serious and highly knowledgeable about its subject matter. It is definitely not "scientainment."

To that end, Apsell has a three-pronged approach for finding show topics. First, she reads. "I read a lot," she said, "as does everybody here, both in science magazines and in the general press. When I see ideas that spark my interest, I note them so we can discuss them." Second, she consults with WGBH's research department as well as her own staff members. She is open to almost any suggestion: "I really try to look at these ideas from the perspective of how important they are in terms of the science involved and also whether they'll make a good television story." Third, she fields ideas from other producers, and members of the scientific community.

Putting It All Together

Typically, it takes between two to three weeks to produce an hour-long television sitcom or drama. Not so with NOVA. A single hour-long episode can take up to eight months to complete, from the choosing of a topic, the picking of a producer, through production and post. After Apsell decides on a producer (who is usually also the writer and director of the episode), she and the producer discuss and come to an agreement on how they will approach the chosen topic. Once that is done, the producer will research the topic for a few weeks. Apsell says she encourages a lot of communication, so she and the producer will keep in contact throughout this time. After researching, the producer writes a treatment for Apsell. Once Apsell makes any necessary revisions and approves the treatment, it's time to shoot. Producing NOVA is especially grueling because, unlike the more regular hours of episodic television, shooting is usually done in a 21-day lump. "They're out on location...they're killing themselves," said Apsell. "They shoot all day and travel all night, it's very intense."

After shooting, the producer typically sends Apsell a paper cut. After reviewing that, as well as the assemblies, the rough cuts, and the fine cuts, Apsell will usually write the final polish on the show with the producer.

NOVA's offline edit, which includes animations, stills, and stock footage, is cut on an Avid Media Composer with 3/4-inch, Beta SP, and VHS decks. The online edit occurs at Medallion/PFA Film & Video in Toronto, using one of three digital online suites featuring Alpha 500 digital post-production switchers, Accom Axial editing systems, and Abekas A57 DVE and A66 disk recorders. Mastering is to Digital Betacam.

When it comes to acquisition formats, NOVA does not cut corners. "Our viewers expect NOVA to have very high production values. And for that reason, we have generally stayed with [Super 16mm] film, more than other productions have," said Apsell.

She has also begun to embrace high definition and has experimented with it on the show. "We are using high definition quite a bit, and we are excited about this new Panasonic 24p camera, because we really feel it gives a film look." Shooting in HD has more of an experimental value for Apsell than an economic one. "Right now," she said, "it's probably still more expensive than regular Digital Beta, for example, but I think that the cost is going to come down a bit."


Apsell is always looking for ways to improve her program. Lately, she has been pondering how to draw in a younger demographic. "Everyone is looking for that younger audience, and we're trying to sort out what ways our programs can be faster-paced, more interesting to watch, and still do a thorough job of explaining the science, not skipping over it," she said. She has good reason for wanting to preserve the show's reputation: NOVA has garnered 14 Emmys since the mid-1970s. Given this track record though, something tells us Apsell shouldn't be too worried.

Sarah Stanfield is the managing editor. She can be reached at: