By Lynn Leahey
In the little over a year since Rita Mullin took over as General Manager, Science has been setting viewership records with a formula that mixes fun (electric roller skates, blowing things apart) with the likes of physics. “I’m a firm believer that entertaining and smart aren’t mutually exclusive,” Mullin tells Cynsiders. “We really try to make sure every show delivers on both levels, every time.”
Cynsiders: It seems like a good time to be at Science.
Rita Mullin: For a long time, people who wanted to be scientists or engineers were not the cool kids. Now, the impact of science and technology on our lives every day is undeniable, and the stuff that is at the forefront of science and technology is so cool and mind-bending. It’s hard when you look an article to tell whether something’s science or science fiction anymore. That’s what’s awakened a real fascination with science in people’s minds.
There was a period during the space program where everyone was riveted to the television, when the first men landed on the moon. Then it became, “Oh the space shuttle, who cares.” Now once again – the Pluto flyby, landing on the asteroid, these things are bringing people together because it’s all all mind-bending stuff. I was talking the other day to our social and digital person, Eileen Marable, and she said people will just spontaneously comment about a show they’ve seen and put #mindblown. And I’m like man, if we can have people have that sense of awe over something they’ve seen on our channel, what can be better than that?
Cynsiders: You haven’t reinvented the channel, but you’ve shifted gears in a way that’s taking advantage of that fascination and drawing viewers. What was your strategy when you took over?
Mullin: When I got here, I looked at what was growing and what had a younger profile and it was popular science programming, so we just took that and ran with it. I didn’t come in with preconceptions about what should stay or what should go. I really dug in with research to understand the channel better and our viewers better. We’ve had a lot of success with space programming, but I didn’t want us to be perceived as only the space series, so we’ve really been trying to expand that. We’re doing more in engineering and technology, like All-American Makers, Race to Escape. Outrageous Acts of Psych covers the softer science of psychology. We’ve been broadening the subjects that we cover, and the approaches that we’re using.
Cynsiders: What’s bringing in younger viewers?
Mullin: What’s great about shows like Outrageous Acts of Science, What Could Possibly Go Wrong? and Race to Escape is we’re bringing in that younger audience and they’re hanging around and watching some of the other shows on the channel. They’re not dipping in and out and watching one thing.
Cynsiders: How would you describe a typical viewer?
Mullin: They really are defined more by their interest and their enthusiasm and their curiosity than they are by their age.
Cynsiders: Have you always been interested in science, or are you just a quick study?
Mullin: It wasn’t a huge leap for me. I started my career in print, and I worked for years at Time Life books, so while my academic training was not in science, I did a lot of science communication long before I went into television. It was a particular love of mine, so it was a gift when I was offered this gig.
Cynsiders: After working at Discovery, you spent two and a half years as head of programming at OWN. Was going from the world of Discovery to OWN’s The Haves and the Have Nots and Super Soul Sunday a culture shock?
Mullin: Moving to LA from Washington was the bigger culture shock! Once I got over the idea that weather was perfect every day, it was a wonderful experience. It was fun to be working with a group of people who really love what they’re doing, really love Oprah’s message, and are really committed to bringing that to the fore.
Cynsiders: Any similarities between OWN and Science?
Mullin: Every show that we did on OWN was infused with Oprah Winfrey’s message, in one way or another. And that’s what we try to do in very different way here. Whether we’re doing a game show or a clips show, we’re always infusing that with information and that sense of surprise, and, hopefully, occasionally awe, at the world around us.
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