Science presenters often have stunts and acts that appear chaotic, funny and a bit haphazard on live stage or television. The truth is, for the majority of us, they are thoroughly rehearsed.
The result is that whenever you see a presenter doing something that appears seamless in a live performance, it is because it has been rehearsed. Yes, we rehearse. Even if it appears to be a first time for them or a surprise on stage, we’ve rehearsed it, especially if we are working with a fellow presenter or guest.
To those of us in the industry, this is a fundamental part of our profession. Each demonstration or stunt is blocked through so that everyone involved knows what to expect and what to do if something goes wrong. It is part of our risk assessment but goes much deeper than that. I like to think of it as a professional standard.
A few years ago, I was commissioned to create a vat of custard for a world record attempt on daytime television. A well-known TV chef was to do it first-time, but we had to talk him through exactly what would be happening to ensure that he understood what would be required and how to do it safely. In short, I tested it and then we had a rehearsal with the main presenter.
This is routine.
However, sometimes the thrill of live TV can get the better of people and the weaknesses in their preparation becomes apparent. Watch and learn from this example on Australian TV recently.
There is a catalogue of failings right from the start of the clip. The person leading the segment appears to be absorbed by the excitement of a live broadcast and is not paying attention to the safety of himself nor those around him. The presenters involved could have been seriously disfigured, blinded or far worse.
When I see a clip like this, I worry. I worry that impressionable people could see this as the norm; that it is acceptable to take these sorts of risks. In this particular case, the mishandling of liquid nitrogen can be lethal. There are asphyxiation, pressure explosion, projectile, frost bite and slip hazards, to name but a few.
Professional science presenters work tirelessly to perfect their demos in order to carry them out slickly and safely in high-pressured, live performance situations. Sometimes they work with specialist engineers or advisers (like me!) behind the scenes. The patter and banter are all worked in afterwards.
I hope that none of our Australian counterparts or crew carry any long term ill effects as a result of this incident. I also hope that TV producers and early career presenters can reflect on and learn from near misses like this.
If you have ANY doubt over a demo that you or someone else is doing, please please please contact an experienced professional for help and advice. We may joke on stage, but we are extremely serious about our work.