The reboot of Cosmos was on the must-see television list for many; it is a prime-time non-fiction science program, with one of the best hosts in science media, a generous budget, airing on 10 channels, and even had music by the guy who did Captain America. Excitement was high.

Then it actually began. It had an alarming non-science gaffe - the story of the likely insane philosopher Bruno reconfigured to be...what exactly, no one is sure. 25% of Episode One was devoted to talking about mean old religion in the middle of a narrative about cosmology only to have Neil Tyson then dismiss the entire story as Bruno not being a scientist anyway.

So what was the point of it in a science program again? Scorn for it somehow managed to bring together religious people and science historians, some to wonder if Cosmos was just an atheism PR move by outspoken atheist Seth MacFarlane or if Ann Druyan doesn't know what she is talking about.

I dismiss the latter, with a qualification. Ann Druyan is quite literate (1) and we don't know who botched the Library of Alexandria story on the original Cosmos.  I wondered instead if Cosmos was a victim of lofty expectations. It isn't going to make people accept the science of GMOs or vaccines and it isn't going to make Young Earth Creationists think the world is 6,001 or more years old, it is just a TV show, I offered, and we should just enjoy it. I defended its ratings when it was prematurely declared a disaster.

 But regardless of why it's not doing well, there is a money aspect to television programming and it is not looking good for prime-time science shows on network television, whether because it's science or because Cosmos is just not very good outside to those a tiny core of viewers. 4 million people in an hour is not bad, that is 4X the readers Science 2.0 has in a month, but the money spent on Cosmos was a far greater multiple too.

The numbers are bad. In the core demographic of adults 18-49, Cosmos dropped another 12 percent from a week ago and its total viewers last night were down another 9 percent also. That's a drop of 49 percent from week one (not including the simulcast numbers - across all channels Cosmos had 8.5 million viewers but let's not mix apples and Venus). It's still 70% better than Bob's Burgers at 7 PM but a drop from Family Guy for the first time. That means Fox is losing viewers it counted on.

Family Guy is still popular but maybe America has left Cosmos behind. 

Culture is different today. The same culture that made the original Cosmos a hit also elected Ronald Reagan that same year. There were a lot more socially conservative Democrats and compassionate Republicans than we find now, and despite what the brains behind Cosmos think, people were not as scientifically literate then as they are now. Fox did not even have a TV network. Seth MacFarlane was 7 years old.
Maybe Cosmos needed Ronald Reagan's America. Images: Wikipedia

Today, the best endorsement Cosmos is getting is Bill Maher telling his friend MacFarlane he watched it twice - because he wanted to see it stoned. What's next, is Neil Tyson going to be in a Jack In The Box commercial getting late-night drive-thru food to try and drum up eyeballs?

At a San Diego Comic Con panel last summer, the folks behind the show wisely did a panel. Movie and television executives know people who have the disposable income to be at comic book conventions are a goldmine for advertisers so 'nerd cred' is crucial.  Ann Druyan said the pendulum was swinging back to science and they wanted to 'twerk the Zeitgeist' and that statement may be part of the issue they are having reaching people; the creators of the show may be living in some other multiverse America where science is not accepted.

America leads the world in adult science literacy, America is the only country where college students are required to take science courses, America leads the world in Nobel prizes and in science output, with only 5 percent of the world's population.

Yet Druyan and MacFarlane, at least, feel like America is some religious backwater and Cosmos is going to fix it. One thing science media - well, science media without gigantic TV budgets - know is that assuming deficit thinking on the part of the public is never a good idea. You aren't going to raise science acceptance by assuming people are ignorant and that if you reach them with cartoons and graphics they will embrace it. In reality, America is diverse. Some people are never going to accept evolutionary biology just like some people will never accept food biology - spending time finding clever ways to take jabs at them in a short television program isn't constructive.

Cosmos is basically calling the audience uninformed - except the people watching it. In reality, the audience is far smarter about science than it was in 1980. Adult science literacy has tripled in America since 1988, and that means they don't respond to postmodernist gibberish about twerking the zeitgeist. Tyson, for his part, laughed that off and said if anything was getting twerked, it should be the zeitgeist - which means if he were not hosting Cosmos, he probably wouldn't be watching it.


(1)I have bristled at press accounts talking of her as "Carl Sagan's widow", though she clearly embraces the label. Obviously she loved the man and she is proud of their relationship but her role in the original program, and in the role of Voyager before that, gets a little diminished when she lets people list her claim to fame in 2014 as sharing a bed with a guy.