Natural history. Physics. Astronomy. Medicine. Math. Engineering. Climate science. Over its 50-year history, NOVA has presented discoveries and mind-blowing science phenomena in each of these disciplines and many more. But the true mission of NOVA was never just about broadcasting new discoveries. Rather, it has been about sharing the stories behind the science. 

In the early 1970s, GBH producer Michael Ambrosino was inspired to create NOVA after seeing a BBC television show called Horizon. “There really wasn’t a regular weekly science show that covered science in depth in the U.S. at the time,” says NOVA Co-Executive Producer Julia Cort. “It was a gamble, whether people would watch it.” But from the earliest episodes, the tale was truly the focus. “You want there to be cool and interesting science, but there has to be a good story,” Cort says. “There has to be motivation, a question, and then steps along the way — ups and downs, challenges, dramatic tension, and then a resolution, an ending that reveals something that you didn’t know before.” 

NOVA Co-Executive Producer Chris Schmidt thinks the program’s longevity is directly related to this format. “We know people are interested in hearing about scientific discoveries. But NOVA is, in a way, a 50-year-long experiment asking the question: ‘Are people also interested in stories about how science is done? How the body of human knowledge actually grows?’” And people were indeed interested. 

Five decades later, NOVA is the most popular primetime science series on American television. This multimedia, multiplatform brand reaches more than 55 million Americans each year on television and across digital platforms — and has been honored with every major broadcast industry award. 

“Our audience is entertained by having their curiosity scratched...being surprised and feeling inspiration in what human beings can achieve with just their minds,” says Schmidt. 

This insatiable curiosity makes the role of a NOVA filmmaker even more exciting. “There are very few topics that our audience is not enthusiastic about,” says Schmidt. “Personally, I take a lot of pride in making NOVAs about topics that are difficult to visualize. It’s satisfying to find a creative way to take what seems dry or complicated and find the compelling story within,” he says. “One of my favorite examples is a film called The Great Math Mystery, which was basically asking the question, ‘Is math invented or discovered?’ It was a very powerful, beautiful film.”  

While NOVA was originally imagined as a show for adults, it quickly became clear that there was a tremendous opportunity to expand its reach to schools. The NOVA collection on PBS LearningMedia offers more than 1,000 resources from the program’s broadcast and digital productions for teachers to bring into their classrooms. In 2018, the team launched NOVA Science Studio, a science journalism program for high school students, teaching young people the skills needed to create their own short-form videos about science issues that are meaningful to them.  

The NOVA team believes that helping viewers see scientists as real people and science as a process increases the public’s trust in the information they see. One important strategy to reach audiences has been exploring new platforms. 

“Our shows are popular on television with a certain demographic, but we’ve been able to demonstrate that our content is popular much more broadly than that,” says Schmidt. “Once you move it someplace else like YouTube or TikTok, you get younger audiences and they’re just as engaged.”  

There is no limit to where NOVA can go next. “Science and technology are central to our lives,” says Cort. “They impact us every day...Think about all the ways we communicate, our transportation, the devices we use, the medicine we take, the food we eat, the weather we experience...In order to have a just and functioning society, people need to be well-informed about science and technology, how it works and what it can tell us about our world,” she says.  

“50 years young, NOVA is going strong,” adds Schmidt, “because there is a huge appetite for what we do. As long as science continues to contribute to our understanding of the world we live in and as long as people stay curious, the future looks bright.”  

Visit here to learn more about NOVA and its 50 years of engaging content. Explore Chris’ and Julia’s favorite NOVA episodes here.