Walter Bender says MIT is an exciting place — so exciting, in fact, that it belongs on prime time television.
“MIT is all about science, learning, and discovery, and I’d like to get that into the minds of the general public,” says this senior researcher at the Media Lab. Bender heads a group developing a dramatic TV series about MIT, which aims to humanize technology and make it interesting to a mass audience.
“People have an image of science as something bizarre,” says Bender, pointing to the popular stereotype of the scientist as a geek wearing a pocket protector. “I want to demonstrate that science is part of the human drama and scientists all have human problems too.”
By combining fictional characters and storylines with real MIT research projects and locations, the show — tentatively called 77 Mass. Ave., MIT’s street address — aims to use entertainment as a vehicle for learning. An executive from McCann-Erickson WorldGroup, the world’s largest marketing communications company, is already talking with Bender about pitching the show to the television industry.
“Science is exciting, and MIT is exciting,” says Bender. “I want to spread that infection.”
Bender recently assembled a creative team made up of students, faculty, and staff to brainstorm ideas for the show. He says they decided early on that drama would have a much greater impact than a news magazine format. “We want to connect with people,” he says. “The best way to do that is a drama, not a NOVA series.”
“We want to appeal to a good-sized audience, so that necessitates compelling characters and interesting storylines,” says Kevin Coughlin, a Knight Science Journalism Fellow who was part of the team. “If you hit the audience over the head with the science during prime time, people may not stay tuned for the whole show.”
“Science is a drama,” says Bender. “It’s not a mechanical process at all. Science itself is a very human problem.”
According to Bender, the show’s cast — a mix of students, faculty, and outsiders — will wrestle with a science problem in each episode. “The stories will be fictional, but the science has to be real,” he says. “I don’t want the science to turn into quackery.”
In one episode, for instance, the Media Lab softball team resorts to high-tech innovation to help it rise from last place in the league. They invent a batting belt that uses motion sensors to help coordinate a player’s timing, only to discover that the same technology can help in the rehabilitation of accident or stroke victims. Bender says the story illustrates the serendipitous nature of research and innovation.
Coming up with such storylines at a place like MIT was no problem. “The whole system is dramatic,” says Camila Chaves Cortes, a videographer. “Everyone at MIT is striving to bring forward some contribution, and that creates a lot of drama at different levels.”
Bender says his goal for the project is to get it on network television in the Thursday evening slot formerly occupied by Seinfeld. “Today, the most powerful vehicle for getting access to the general public is prime time television,” he says. “If I want people to notice and pay attention, I’ve got to go where the eyeballs are.”
With some outside help, his plans are not so far-fetched. “I think it’s a home run,” Arthur Tauder, vice chairman of McCann WorldGroup, says of the treatment the team put together. Tauder, who originally suggested the idea for a series about MIT, says the show has a lot of potential. “If done right, our advertising clients should leap at an opportunity like this,” he says.
“There’s a niche waiting to be filled,” says Coughlin, pointing out that there are not many shows on television based within universities. “ER has defined the medical drama and the X-Files has claimed a lot of spooky, fringe science. What’s fascinating about MIT is that there are just so many things going on here — genetics, materials science, space exploration — you name it.”
“MIT has an intense aura of discovery and fun,” says John Evans, an undergraduate member of the creative team. “It’s something anyone could enjoy if it’s presented that way.”
Evans says the series represents an opportunity to spread the MIT enthusiasm for science and technology to the wider population. “Sometimes when I tell people I’m a math major, they say ‘Math–ugh,’ and that bothers me,” he says. “Maybe people will learn from this show that science is really exciting.”