StoryScout 2024

Documentary Business

Peter Hamilton Consultants, Inc

PBS’s Science Strand NOVA: The production pipeline, sources, new digital platforms and more…

I turned my spotlight on to the NOVA strand in time for next week’s virtual World Congress of Science & Factual Producers.

NOVA is PBS‘s science documentary powerhouse brand.

Now enjoying its 5th decade on broadcast, NOVA is expanding across multiple digital platforms including YouTube, podcasting and more.

Read more here about NOVA’s pipeline, funders, co-pro partners, scheduled programs & their producers, digital extensions, and more…

In my next post, watch the video from Sunny Side of the Doc as the NOVA executive team present their programming strategy.

NOVA’s Mission

“NOVA illuminates the creativity, excitement, and transformative power of the scientific process, discovery, and knowledge. We inspire change through inclusive science communication that reflects the diverse voices and experiences of people across the US and around the globe.”

Broadcast Schedule 

  • Wednesdays at 9pm.
  • 47-49 times a year.
  • The other weeks are filled by Pledge fundraising campaigns.
  • The season starts in late September or October.

The Pipeline 

  • Each year, NOVA delivers 20-25 new shows and 26+/- repeats.


Programming Filters

  • “Generally, we prefer films that are stories and not topics, with a major emphasis on how the process of science can reveal how the world works.” Co-Executive Producers Julia Cort and Chris Schmidt
  • NOVA’s short list of filters include:  Diverse Voices and perspectives that are represented in front of and behind the camera, Stunning Visuals, Timeliness, Unique Access, Compelling Characters, Cutting Edge Science, Importance, Relevance to US population.

Editorial Control  

  • NOVA is very hands-on at every stage of the project: “We review treatments, edits at various stages, rough cuts, the fine cut, etc.”
  • “Producers and funders such as foundations understand that we exercise editorial control over each project.”
  • “All productions must be rigorously fact checked by the production team and sources approved by the NOVA editorial team.


  • Timelines are varied: projects can have a 2-4 year development and production timeline.
  • NOVA also delivers quick turnarounds.
  • In early 2020, Decoding COVID 19 was produced in 5 weeks and is recognized as a finalist for the 2020 duPont Columbia Awards.


  • Funding for NOVA is provided by Draper, the David H. Koch Fund for Science, the NOVA Science Trust, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and PBS viewers.

Tentpole Strategy 

  • “Usually twice a year – in the Fall and the Winter, NOVA offers an extended series called a ‘tentpole event’ which is more than one hour dedicated to a single topic.”
  • “This fits into the PBS strategy to combine thematic programs from various strands with outside commissions to create extended thematic events.”
  • Recent tentpoles include:
    • Polar Extremes
    • Human Nature
    • A to Z: The First Alphabet,
    • A-Z: How Writing Changed the Word
  • Tentpoles for 2021 include:
    • Beyond the Elements
    • The Universe (with BBC Studios)


  • Production budgets vary widely
  • NOVA’s contribution can range from a full budget to a coproduction percentage.

Production Funding Model

The mix in the NOVA pipeline varies from year to year:

  • Co-pros: 50/50% to 60/40%
  • Commissions: 50/50% to 60/40%
  • Acquisitions: 1-3 projects per year

Co-Production Partners 

  • Broadcaster partners include ARTE, BBC, C4 & C5 in the UK, NHK and ABC Australia.
  • France has expanded opportunities for co-pro’s with France Télévisions’ Grand Tema Science slot and with the regular ongoing Arte Science slot.
  • Across the globe, weekly Science slots are few.


Simultaneously NOVA is expanding beyond the longform broadcast documentary on to more platforms where there are additional opportunities to develop new voices in science storytelling.

There is continuous growth across all digital platforms: the PBS video (PBSv) streams are the highest since 2015, while social media video views have more than doubled in that same time frame.

Multiplatform Reach

  • 2020 started off successfully with Polar Extremes, NOVA’s most ambitious multi-platform project to date.
  • The film broadcast averaged a 1.7 national household rating, reaching 4.5 million viewers across the two-hour special.
  • There were an additional 340,000 digital views: 300,000 on PBS platforms (including NOVA and PBS websites, and PBS mobile and over-the-top device apps), and more than 40,000 Facebook simulcast streams.

YouTube Launch

  • Antarctic Extremes, the first digital series produced as part of the Polar Extremes project, launched PBS Digital Studios’ new science-themed YouTube channel, PBS Terra.
  • The 10-part series was made possible by additional funding from the National Science Foundation and other project funders.


  • Since its debut in January, Antarctic Extremes has been viewed more than 5 million times across YouTube, Facebook, and PBSv.
  • It has received more than 80,000 engagements.
  • And has helped bring more than 60,000 subscribers to Terra.
  • Video content from the entire Polar Extremes project (including the two-hour documentary, the digital series, and other short form videos) had nearly 8.9 million views across all media platforms (broadcast, streaming, YouTube, Facebook).

Polar Lab

  • The companion interactive Polar Lab offers students an interactive journey through the science featured in the Polar Extremes
  • It has had 62,444 users since launch, reflecting 1,386,880 pageviews with the average time of engagement approximately 17 minutes.
  • The broad reach of Polar Extremes across multiple platforms exemplifies NOVA’s strategy to develop fresh, exciting content designed to appeal to a range of audiences in a variety of formats.
  • NOVA’s partnership with PBS Digital Studios also fostered the launch of a humorous and scientifically accurate bi-weekly series this summer on parenting called Parentologic.


  • NOVA also ventured into the podcast world this season, debuting its pilot season of NOVA Now in August 2020.
  • The bi-weekly podcast hosted by Dr. Alok Patel explores the science behind today’s headlines, featuring expert perspectives from scientists, geneticists, mathematicians, engineers, chemists and more.
  • Their mission: separating fact from fiction in the news cycle.


There have been two major educational initiatives, NOVA Science Studio and the expansion of NOVA Labs.

NOVA Science Studio

  • The NOVA Science Studio is the youth science communication program that aims to give students, especially those in underrepresented groups, the tools to produce digital videos about the science stories happening in their own communities.
  • Students participate in virtual sessions working through a curriculum centered on video production and science communication with a focus on science misinformation.
  • The NOVA Science Studio will also produce a YouTube series about science misinformation that examines its impact, how it spreads, and how students can equip themselves to identify and address it online.


  • The NOVA Labs platform builds upon the NOVA expertise in science storytelling to create games and interactives that foster authentic scientific exploration for students and lifelong learners.
  • More than7 million users to date have used the platform to take part in real-world investigations by visualizing, analyzing, and playing with the same data that scientists use.
  • NOVA Labs videos, in addition to being integral to the games, are widely viewed on other channels such as :
    • YouTube (>5 million views).
    • And on PBS LearningMedia (>1M views) where NOVA created an entire collection of resources to support the use of the Labs in formal and informal education spaces.
  • Each LAB focuses on a different area of scientific research. But all of them illustrate key concepts with engaging multimedia content, guiding participants as they answer scientific questions and explore solutions to current problems.
  • NOVA has launched seven diverse Labs since April 2012 – including the highly successful Polar Lab in January 2020
  • Exoplanet Lab is planned for launch in Fall 2020.


Season 47
(Sept 2019 – August 2020)

  • Polar Extremes –  WINDFALL FILMS
  • Dog Tales   –  BLINK FILMS
  • Cat Tales  –  BLINK FILMS
  • Mysteries of Sleep   –  TERRI RANDALL PRODUCTIONS
  • Cuba’s Cancer Hope –  BLUESPARK PRODUCTIONS, LLC
  • The Truth About Fat –  HOLT PRODUCTIONS LLC
  • Decoding Covid 19  –  HOLT PRODUCTIONS LLC
  • Eagle Power   –  BBC STUDIOS
  • A -Z The First Alphabet –  DOX PRODUCTIONS/ FILMS A CINQ
  • A-Z How Writing Changed the World  –  DOX PRODUCTIONS/ FILMS A CINQ
  • Nature’s Fear Factor –  TANGLED BANK STUDIOS
  • Touching the Asteroid –   TERRI RANDALL PRODUCTIONS
  • Can We Cool the Planet –  MANGROVE MEDIA LLC
  • Saving Notre Dame –  WINDFALL FILMS

Season 48
(September 2020 – August 2021)

  • Secrets in the DNA  –  KIKIM MEDIA
  • Beyond the Elements hour 1, 2, 3 –  BIG HOUSE PRODUCTIONS
  • Fighting For Fertility –   LARKIN MCPHEE PRODUCTIONS
  • Insect Feast  –  BLINK FILMS
  • Ship That Changed the World –  LONE WOLF PRODUCTIONS
  • Electric Flight  –   MILES OBRIEN PRODUCTIONS
  • The Cannabis Question –  HOLT PRODUCTIONS
  • The End of the Maya Empire  –  ZOOT PRODUCTIONS
  • Neutrinos  (wt) –  WINDFALL FILMS
  • Zero to Infinity –  BIG HOUSE PRODUCTIONS
  • The Universe 1,2,3,4,5    –  BBC STUDIOS

Many Thanks to…

Julia Cort, Chris Schmidt, Laurie Cahalane, Melanie Wallace, Dante Graves, Pamela Rosenstein, Jennifer Welsh and the NOVA team at WGBH Boston

More Posts about PBS Strands, Ratings, Pipelines & Shows

For purchase:

Documentary Production Roadmap: PUBLIC TELEVISION