According to rumours flying around on Twitter, the BBC has decided to axe the long-running astronomy programme The Sky at Night. There’s been a predictable outcry from fans of the show and a petition has been organized. What I’ve heard is that the series will end in December, but that a new astronomy programme will be launched in April next year.
I’ve long felt it was inevitable that The Sky at Night would cease to be when Patrick Moore died. The programme was so much Patrick’s programme that it would be very difficult to find another presenter to fill the role in the unique way that he did. Moreover, although there’s no doubt that it is an important vehicle for UK astronomy, many feel that the format has become very tired and uninspiring. As for myself, I can’t really comment. I don’t watch television very much at all and in any case, The Sky at Night is on way past my bedtime.
Way back in 1996 I was involved with a show at the NEC in Birmingham called Tomorrow’s World Live. This involved all the regular presenters of Tomorrow’s World, but wasn’t broadcast, but performed in a small theatre with a live audience. My contribution was to talk a little bit about the Hubble Space Telescope and then answer questions from the audience. We did four such shows a day for three days. It was tiring and a bit nerve-wracking, but a lot of fun.
Typically for the BBC the contributors such as myself were paid a negligible fee, but we did get our meals paid for. At dinner one evening I chatted to a well-known TV Producer who was involved with the live event. After a while the conversation turned to The Sky at Night. The person concerned explained that he thought the show was well past its prime and was actually holding back astronomy programming on TV: it was too old-fashioned and had a tiny audience yet while it existed it was impossible to make the case to the Beeb to commission other astro-related shows. On the other hand, while Patrick was still around, and undoubtedly a National Institution, the outcry would be so intense if they cancelled The Sky at Night that nobody had the nerve to do it. Impasse.
Of course now, 17 years later, Patrick Moore has passed away and there’s now a chance to change things. It is promising that that the BBC seems to be going to launch a new programme next year. But any new show will have to tread very carefully. The Sky at Night was followed by thousands of dedicated amateur astronomers who know a great deal about their subject and would not be interested in the simple-minded gee-whizzery that plagues so many so-called Science Programme (e.g. Horizon). These people are very important for UK astronomy, because without them UK astronomy would not have the unique role that it has in our scientific and cultural landscape. We professional astronomers would be funded anything like as well as we are either. On the other hand, there is at least the possibility of coming up with a format that reaches a new audience as well as retaining the interest of those already enthused about astronomy.
But how to ensure that this happens? Answers on a postcard, or through the comments box!
Meanwhile here’s a little poll to gauge the strength of opinion:Follow @telescoper