Modernising the iconic Royal Institution Christmas Lectures

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A team of Science Communication Unit researchers was selected by the Royal Institution (Ri) to explore ways to continue modernising the Christmas Lectures, an iconic series that has run since 1825. Margarida Sardo, Hannah Little and Laura Fogg Rogers conducted research to explore strengths and opportunities for improving the series, created for children and televised annually for the past 50 years fronted by presenters including David Attenborough and Carl Sagan.

A centrepiece of the national conversation about the place of science in our lives, the lectures were started by scientist Michael Faraday in 1825 and are now designed to be engaging and mind-expanding viewing for people of all ages but particularly children. A series of three on a single topic, the lectures are filmed in London in mid-December every year then broadcast on three consecutive days during the Christmas period. In 2018, biological anthropologist, author and TV presenter Alice Roberts and genetics expert Aoife McLysaght brought the evolutionary story to life in a series called ‘Who Am I?’

Aoife McLysaght and Alice Roberts. Photo credit: Paul Wilkinson Photography

Following interviews with children attending the 2017 and 2018 events, a social media analysis of the 2018 broadcasts and survey of science enthusiasts, researchers found the lectures were cherished by audiences of all ages but format changes could help broaden their appeal among young people, as well as older audiences. They recommended exploring ways that the channel and time of the broadcasts (currently BBC4 at 8pm) could be made more suitable for a younger audience, including cutting the lectures down into short clips for social media to reflect changing viewing habits.

Photo credit: Paul Wilkinson Photography

The research team noted that some adult viewers believed the lectures were so focused on a younger audience that they lacked appeal for older viewers. To continue to attract a significant adult audience, they recommended creating a companion lecture aimed at older science fans.

Photo credit: Paul Wilkinson Photography

Researchers also found audience members enjoyed the live shows, particularly the engaging, interactive and high-quality demonstrations. TV viewers valued the televised shows and many remarked that watching with relatives had become a family tradition. But some science enthusiasts suggested the Ri needed to re-evaluate its target audience and questioned whether the needs of a live lecture and a TV programme were being confused. Viewers were roundly supportive of female scientists presenting the show, with particular praise reserved for the performance of Alice Roberts and Aoife McLysaght in 2018.

The Christmas Lectures branding includes the prestigious Christmas Lectures broadcast on BBC, as well as live shows, a Schools Conference, the Ri Advent Calendar and “I’m a Scientist… get me out of here” – most of which were covered by the evaluation.

The full evaluation report can be accessed here.

Photo credit: Paul Wilkinson Photography

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