NOVA: From the beginning (1970s)

Reading Time: 8 minutes

By Ben Shedd

I’m part of the group from the 1970s at ‘GBH, when NOVA was in some ways almost a separate unit at the station. It’s wonderful to learn about the history of WGBH and see why such grand programming has come from the people who worked there through the decades. I’m glad to be part of the great mix of talent who have worked at WGBH.

Michael Ambrosino called 27 years ago from WGBH looking for science filmmakers for a new unnamed science series he was starting. I had just finished my USC Film School Master’s thesis film project, an educational science film titled Mars Minus Myth with Planetary Geologist Professor Bruce Murray from the California Institute of Technology. Michael had gotten my name from the Public Affairs office at Cal Tech.

All the producers and associate producers for the original NOVA teams came from either England … or Los Angeles or New York in the United States. It was almost as if we parachuted into this wonderful creative incubator place and were set to work.

I knew about WGBH and can remember I’d seen a very creative black and white drama on WGBH around 1969 (which I later learned Fred Barzyk directed and Boyd Estus shot). It was like the films I was making in Film School. It had inspired me as being artful like I wanted my work to be.

I was a native Californian and was interested in seeing what other places in the US were like — places with seasons and older buildings — and the possibility of moving to Boston was an intriguing idea. I was hired as part of the original NOVA team and moved my family east. I was 26 years old.

All the producers and associate producers for the original NOVA teams came from either England (with experience on the Horizon series) or Los Angeles or New York in the United States. It was almost as if we parachuted into this wonderful creative incubator place and were set to work.

We started at 125 Western Avenue — 12 new people jammed into an already packed building — and soon moved to 475 Western along with Topper Carew’s Say Brother team, the ZOOM mailroom, and the Film Department. One of the great things about working at ‘GBH was going through the ZOOM Mailroom to get to my office, and picking up a few ZOOMDo’s cards for my daughter. The day-to-day operation of WGBH was down the street from where we worked.

I remember Michael Ambrosino’s entire office door covered with colored 3×5 cards with lots of potential names for the series. NOVA was one of maybe three dozen names under consideration. I took several animation cels home one weekend and mocked up title designs for three or four of the finalists. NOVA was among them and I tripled exposed Helvetica type exploding out of a star photo (kind of like the logo looks nowadays). I think Michael had already decided on NOVA, but he liked the action in the image.

I was paired with Senior BBC Horizon Producer Simon Campbell-Jones as his Associate Producer and Terry Rockefeller, from WGBH, was the Production Assistant. We were the first team to begin production for NOVA. When team #1 was trying to decide on what program to do first, we narrowed the choices down to the then new subject of artificial intelligence with scientists from MIT or water resources as modeled by the Colorado River. We decided on the Colorado River program for two reasons: 1) It was important that NOVA establish itself as a national program and not just a Boston based project, and 2) I remember Simon asking “Which river do you want to go cross over, the Charles or the Colorado?” We left Boston for 43 days on location, from the top of the Colorado River in the Rockies to where it runs dry in the Mexican desert.

While working on that first NOVA program, my thesis project science film about Mars was winning numerous awards, including two we heard about in one week. Michael Ambrosino made a party out of that news. It might have been one of our several ventures to the Harvard Faculty club for lunch.

By the time I wrapped up three years at NOVA, I traveled to more than half the States in this country, and visited numerous Universities while filming, including Princeton where I am now a Visiting Senior Research Scholar and Lecturer — but I get ahead of myself.

When Simon returned to England after a year at WGBH, I moved to the Producer/Director role on team #1 and Terry Rockefeller took my position as Associate Producer. Marian White joined as PA.

While making my first NOVA program — 58 minutes and 38 seconds long with no breaks – there was a moment (or two) during editing when I was struggling to make sense of all the material. Fellow Producer Francis Gladstone happened by the editing room one day and asked me what was the longest film I produced before. I said, “20 minutes” and he then told me no wonder I was having a time of it, going from 20 minutes of sequences and continuity to 58 minutes. He and the other BBC producers had been working on 48 minute long shows at the BBC before coming to the States and he said they had a heck of a time going to 58 minutes. That made me laugh enough to get back to work and finish Why Do Birds Sing? which opened the 1974 second season. The Bird Song program was rerun several times over the years, including on election night in 1976 when all the network stations were showing national election returns for Carter/Ford. The only other thing to watch on TV that night was Why Do Birds Sing? and other PBS fare.

I started my now 24-year-old production company with a contract from WGBH to produce an independent project for NOVA, a film about human-powered flight. While on vacation in California, I had met Dr. Paul MacCready, now known as the father of human -owered flight, just after he sketched out his first idea for the Gossamer Condor airplane. I loved the idea of being able to film a great moving airplane, and it was clear to me that it would make a fascinating film following the process of science story of an invention in progress. My family and I were also interested in moving back to California. While based in Boston, I was so often on the road filming or in the editing room that I hardly got to know the place.

I did my by-then-usual NOVA research about the subject of human-powered flight and became immersed in the world of slow speed flight. MacCready showed me his sketches and I noticed a detail which gave me great confidence to move ahead with the film. In his plans to make an airplane wing using hang glider structure — triangulated wires from a center post holding the huge wing rather than box construction on the inside — MacCready had designed a wing with one-tenth the wing-area-to-weight ratio of any other human-powered airplane. If the plane could be built and hold together, it was going to do something significant and it was an easy decision for me to make plans to film the project as far as the plane team would take it.

Boyd Estus (whom I’d worked with on 4 of the 6 NOVAs — Peter Hoving shot the other two) left the WGBH film department to come to join me in the production. With the Gossamer Condor contract, he bought his own 16mm camera and started what’s become Heliotrope Productions.

To make a long story short, the invention of the first successful human-powered airplane in history didn’t happen in time for the scheduled TV airdate and the project was written off. Shedd Productions, Inc. continued the production and the finished film showing the whole story of making the Gossamer Condor airplane went on to win numerous international awards including the Oscar Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject of 1978. The Flight of the Gossamer Condor film is the only science documentary film to receive an Academy Award.

Shedd Productions, Inc. licensed Gossamer Condor footage to the BBC Horizon series where my mentor Simon Campbell-Jones (by then Executive Producer of Horizon) produced the program Icarus’ Children, which was later shown on the NOVA series. The Gossamer Condor airplane has been in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum since 1979, and the film was premiered there in the IMAX Theater, a small 16mm image in the middle of the huge screen. Now, excerpts from the film are shown continuously in a video kiosk as part of the permanent display of the plane.

  • Note: see The Flight of the Gossamer Condor film’s web site for additional information.

Almost twenty years after NOVA began production, I had the great pleasure to reunite members of the original NOVA team #1 in 1990-1992 for the IMAX film Tropical Rainforest.

I produced and directed the Tropical Rainforest film through my production company then based in New Mexico (where I found buildings and cultures much older than those in Boston).

Simon wrote the 400,000,000-year evolution story of the rainforest in non-rhyming iambic pentameter. … When the huge IMAX film was shrunk to video and DVD, it became quite a beautiful tone poem.

I hired Marian White as Producer with me on the film (when we weren’t on location, Marian commuted west two weeks every month for two years while not leaving her New England roots) and brought in Simon Campbell-Jones from London to write the lyrical narration. Simon wrote the 400,000,000-year evolution story of the rainforest in non-rhyming iambic pentameter. The Tropical Rainforest film has been playing on some IMAX type screen somewhere on the planet almost continuously since 1992. When the huge IMAX film was shrunk to video and DVD, it became quite a beautiful tone poem.

I was in Boston — either in 1988 for a screening of my IMAX film Seasons or in the early 1990s while working on the Tropical Rainforest film — when ‘GBH was closing down 475. I went over to my old offices with Boyd Estus and helped pull down some coat racks that I had helped put up in 1973. Even as a short-timer at WGBH, I saw great changes over the years.

I still have a copy of the original American Association for the Advancement of Science White Paper that Michael Ambrosino wrote to create the NOVA series. Its called The Science Program Group for Public Television in the United States. AAAS Miscellaneous Publication 73-3.

Michael began with one of his always clear and direct comments: “Objectives: We, the Science Program Group, have these aims: We want to show the way the world works.” And later he wrote, “The Science Program Group will be founded on its first project: the development of an imaginative and entertaining science series for the adult and young audience, to awaken an interest in the nature of man and his world and to foster public understanding of science.” In 31 brief pages, he envisioned and changed the face of US television.

The Concluding Note reads: “The group would evolve a policy for publishing books, television cassettes, and records — these are in the future. (Indeed, VCRs were still far in the future.) The first priority is to establish the Science Program Group as a first-rate television production unit and to get its first series before the American public.” The White Paper is dated March 1973. In March 1974, NOVA was on the air.

A few years ago, Michael invited me to join him and others from NOVA in Washington DC when the NOVA series received the first National Science Foundation National Science Board Public Service Award. NOVA was honored along with Jane Goodall and it was nice to meet many of the present NOVA production group members who make the series.

After NOVA being on the air for 25 years, when I say I worked at WGBH, Boston on the NOVA series … it’s a great mark of professional stature and acclaim of which I am very proud.

For several years after leaving WGBH, it didn’t ring many bells when I mentioned that I had worked on the NOVA series. Such was living in Hollywood. But now after NOVA being on the air for 25 years, when I say I worked at WGBH, Boston on the NOVA series — on NOVA program #1 — it’s a great mark of professional stature and acclaim of which I am very proud. As I read through the Reunion notes and memories, I see WGBH is a very special place, where programs like NOVA can happen.

Thanks, Michael, for bringing me to WGBH, Boston in the early days of NOVA, and thanks to everyone who has worked to keep NOVA vital and on the air.

When Ben Shedd wrote this story in 2000, he was Visiting Senior Research Scholar and Lecturer in the Department of Computer Science at Princeton University.


  1. andrew munro on June 10, 2012 at 4:45 pm

    any idea what the music was that the BBC used on their programme or where i can get a copy of the programme Cheers

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