Way back in 1980, Cornell astronomer Carl Sagan and public television's KCET in Los Angeles teamed up to produce 13 hours of prime-time programming about astronomy. They called the series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, though it's known universally as simply Cosmos.
It was an audacious undertaking at a time when American audiences were still getting used to cable television and seeing Nova each week. Sagan had been disappointed with news coverage of the historic Viking landings on Mars in 1976, and he finally found backing for doing things his way. The tightly-scripted production, still viewable on Hulu and YouTube, strove (in Sagan's words) to be "engrossing and captivating to a broad, general audience, while simultaneously portraying science accurately and even conveying something of what makes it tick."
With an $6 million budget for filming on 100 locations around the world and an arsenal of state-of-the-art special effects, he largely succeeded. Cosmos was a huge hit: it's been seen by an estimated 700 million viewers worldwide, making it the Public Broadcast System's most successful show of all time.
By then Sagan had become an icon, more celebrity than scientist in the minds of many. But he had a captivating style that helped him propel astronomy to new levels of "cool." He later married Ann Druyan, the show's co-writer, and together they collaborated on other books and the movie adaptation of Contact. Sagan died in 1996, just 62, after a difficult years-long fight with myelodysplasia.
Late last week, word came that a new version of Cosmos is in the works. This time it's the vision of Druyan and her Cosmos Studios, and she'll again be aided by astronomer Steven Soter, a key collaborator for the original show.
But what's really raised eyebrows is the choice of Seth MacFarlane as the new series' director. Best known as the creator of the animated sitcoms like Family Guy, MacFarlane doesn't exactly ooze science cred. But he met Druyan a while back, and they appeared together last year on Real Time With Bill Maher. MacFarlane liked Druyan's concept for an updated version, and he helped her sell the concept to executives at Fox. The 13 episodes of Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey will debut in 2013.
This new journey across space and time will be hosted by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. He's the obvious choice, at least for American audiences. Tyson is an increasingly well-known popularizer of all things astronomical. He directs the Hayden Planetarium in New York City, hosts the PBS series Nova Science Now, and even has a weekly radio show about space called "Star Talk."
Tyson first met Sagan while considering whether to go to Cornell as an undergraduate. Surprisingly, Sagan gave the wide-eyed teenager a personal tour of his lab. It didn't work — Tyson went to Harvard — but to this day he feels an obligation to carry on Sagan's legacy of educating the public about astronomy.
All that said, the television landscape is light-years from where it was 30 years ago. Series like the History Channel's The Universe, now in its fifth season, and BBC's Wonders of the Universe (starring upstart British particle physicist Brian Cox) will give the retooled Cosmos plenty of competition.
Druyan and MacFarlane promise to "take viewers to other worlds and travel across the universe for a vision of the cosmos on the grandest scale," presenting scientific concepts with "stunning clarity, uniting skepticism and wonder, and weaving rigorous science with the emotional and spiritual into a transcendent experience."
That's a tall order in this whiz-bang age of seconds-long sound bites and fleeting attention spans. Let's hope they succeed!