Originally published in Reporter on May 9, 2008. Original magazine PDF available.

The Managing Director of NOVA, Alan Ritsko, photographed by Tom Liggett

You wouldn’t think it, but there’s life here. In the depths of a pitch-black cavern, where the atmosphere is ridden with hellish toxic fumes at a feverish 165 degrees Fahrenheit, you’re shocked to see it: rocks covered in green plants and no light source in sight. Moving in closer, you notice that the rock is teeming with insects and spiders, adapted to toxins and shadows. So what is the purpose of these strange lifeforms? How have they even come to be? For answers, you’d simply have to start on one captivating episode* of NOVA.

“People come to NOVA because they love the idea of science. People who are inquisitive and want a program that is exciting with a science nature tune us in,” notes Alan Ritsko, Managing Director of NOVA. Ritsko, who graduated from RIT with a degree in Professional Photography, recently visited the campus to talk about the award-winning series.

The NOVA team is comprised of about 50 people, a small group of whom (typically around five people) are research scientists, whose job it is to fact-check and analyze the scientific accuracy of the show’s contents. As Managing Director, it is Ritsko’s duty to oversee the entire production. “Quite frankly, my job is the hub and the core of the NOVA activity. Everything flows in to me and then flows out from me. That makes it thrilling, which is why I have a passion to do it,” said Ritsko.

The typical hour-long NOVA program takes approximately nine months to finish, where most time is spent planning, preparing, and researching. “One thing that NOVA is known for is scientific accuracy. In fact, our viewers count on it. In a recent report from the National Academy of Sciences, NOVA was ranked as the most trusted source of science news, behind only two journals: Nature and Science. That puts us ahead of those esteemed sources such as The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal,” said Ritsko.

In addition to science news, NOVA is also a source of entertainment, and Ritsko strives for balance between the two. “NOVA programs are built to appeal to a dual mission, the first being education, but we all know that if television is on, there’s so much competition. If the first mission—education—is met, and the second (and equally important one)—that is entertainment—is not met, people are not going to watch what you make. So, we ride the very fine line of making programs that are educationally accurate, scientifically accurate, but those programs that are fun to watch. People come to watch NOVA for that reason. There are many places where you can get science on television, but many more places where science falls under the banner of pseudoscience. We don’t go after the ghosts, the goblins, the crash courses—that’s not our audience. We follow scientific process and principle.”

“We don’t go after the ghosts, the goblins, the crash courses—that’s not our audience. We follow scientific process and principle.”

NOVA investigates just about anything interesting and relevant to the scientific community, and due to its reputation as a reliable source, it often receives episode ideas from said community. “Much of it comes to NOVA from the connections that we have in the science community. Our program is about cutting-edge science, and to do that, we need real people, scientists who are passionate about what they do. They’re all over the world,” said Ritsko.

Aside from that, NOVA has an impressive network of collaborative producers throughout the world who frequently pitch story ideas. Viewers are also credited for episode ideas. This is why, at the beginning of each show, homage is paid to the viewers by a screen with a simple “thank you.”

The determining factor in whether an idea makes the cut is linked to the second important element in NOVA‘s creation: entertainment value. “If we view that the content is engaging and entertaining enough, then we research it to see if there is science that’s involved in that topic that can be added to the film, if it’s not there already, that would make sense and is realistic for the flow of the show,” Ritsko noted.

If the subject passes the test, the episode mutates from conception to preparation, as a 9- month-long bout of research and fact gathering begins. In the end, Ritsko believes, “NOVA is successful because … it tells a good story. NOVA, for all these years, has sought out the best stories in science. But the best stories in science aren’t so different than the best story arc that makes a good book, or a good dramatic film. NOVA … has characteristics. We look for story arcs that people can relate to, the mystery that can be solved, the mission that can be accomplished, the obstacle that needs to be overcome. These are actually the same kinds of things you might see in the story arc in a dramatic film. Well, science is no different, only we find topics that exhibit those traits. That’s what has made it successful for the past 35 years.”

* The episode referred to is titled “The Mysterious Life of Caves.”

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