By Jane Alexander, Deputy Editor
Who among us hasn’t found a challenge-based reality television series to wrap our minds around for a while? There are so many to choose from. My favorites over the years have been Project Runway, Shark Tank and HGTV’s Design Star and All-American Handyman. That was until I heard about a new one (which, as I write this column, hasn’t aired its first episode).
Based on what I’ve read and clips I’ve seen, Discovery Channel’s Big Brain Theory: Pure Genius could make a strong case for retaining that expensive cable subscription you’ve considered dropping. And for demanding (perish the thought) that your kids stay glued to the tube.
According to promo material posted on www.discovery.com, the series works like this: Each week, contestants will be asked to solve a “seemingly impossible engineering challenge” using their own intellect—in just 30 minutes. Based on logic and design, judges will determine the best engineering concept and select two captains to lead teams in executing the project. The team that executes best will remain safe, but the losers will have to face the judges, who will send someone packing.
Speaking of judges, the two on Big Brain Theory: Pure Genius do appear to have some street cred: Dr. Christine Gulbranson is a nanotechnologist and renewable energy innovator. Mark Fuller is the President and CEO of WET, a company behind what it says are “some of the world’s most innovative water-based designed environments and experiences, including the Fountains of Bellagio, in Las Vegas.” (Coincidentally, the winner of the first season’s competition will earn $50,000 and a one-year contract to work at WET.)
By presenting a weekly snapshot of honest-to-goodness engineering in an exciting light and via a proven format, this Discovery series could do what we’ve been harping on for so long in our magazines:
Capture the hearts and minds of the skilled workforce of tomorrow while they’re still young, and begin moving them in the direction of technical careers sooner than later. Not to minimize those awesome STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) educational initiatives we’ve been hearing about, but this, after all, IS TELEVISION. Despite our best intentions, most children today are never very far away from it and its impact. Taking the spotlight off shock-value, problem-generating series like Buckwild, Ridiculousness, etc., and shining it on positive problem-solving has to be a plus.
I’m hoping the new show quickly gains traction with viewers and that droves of savvy advertisers will want to wrap their messages around it. Since commercial success will be crucial to its survival, I urge the producers to place more emphasis on engineering issues and less on the dynamics and intrigue running through the contestants’ living quarters. And, while it may be too late to weigh in on this, given the fact that the first season is probably “in the can,” I also vote for putting plenty of women on the competing teams. For now, though, let’s just rejoice that this type of show exists… and that others like it might be in the works. MT
PS: On a related note, I recently listened in on a Siemens-sponsored Washington Post Live Webcast that brought government officials and leading executives together to discuss “America’s New Manufacturing.” It and a follow-up conference call with Siemens Industry Sector, North America CEO Helmuth Ludwig were some of the most thought-provoking events I’ve “attended” in a long time. For video highlights of the Webcast, go to: http://www.washingtonpost.com/postlive/conferences/manufacturing.