Talking TV Transcript: Mo Rocca’s Innovation Nation Milestone

TVNewsCheck's Michael Depp talks with Mo Rocca, host of Innovation Nation, which has just celebrated its 200th episode, on the show's enduring, omni-generational appeal, the state of E/I programming and the competition the space is getting from YouTubers.

Comedian Mo Rocca has just marked the 200th episode and eighth season of The Henry Ford Presents Innovation Nation, a CBS Saturday morning offering that spotlights innovators and innovations from past to present.

Produced by Hearst Media Production Group, Rocca’s hosting segments are largely filmed at The Henry Ford, a museum that celebrates its namesake automaker and other innovators and provides an inspiring backdrop for many of the show’s segments, while others are filmed on location with different correspondents.

In this Talking TV conversation, Rocca explains what appeals to him about hosting the show, how it’s framed for an omni-generational audience and where it sits in an evolving landscape of educational/informational programming in an age where YouTube is stepping heavily into the category.

Episode transcript below, edited for clarity.

Michael Depp: Last month, Innovation Nation rounded the corner of its 200th episode on CBS as part of the network’s Saturday morning lineup. The show profiles contemporary innovators and those throughout history. Produced by Hearst Media Production Group, it draws nearly 1.2 million weekly viewers and will enter its ninth season this fall. I’m Michael Depp, editor of TVNewsCheck, and this is Talking TV. The podcast that brings you smart conversations about the business of broadcasting. This week, that conversation is with Mo Rocca, the host of Innovation Nation. We’ll be talking about the show’s enduring appeal, where it sits in the educational/informational programing landscape and how it keeps a competitive edge against a lot of other interesting EI type newcomers on YouTube. Welcome. Mo Rocca, to Talking TV.

Mo Rocca: Thank you, Michael, for having me.


Michael Depp: [Mo, what do you like best about hosting Innovation Nation?

Mo Rocca: I like learning on the job. I’ve been fortunate to have several jobs like this in my TV career where I feel like I’m almost going back to school and taking only electives, which I wish I could have done the first time. So, you know, every time I shoot Innovation Nation, I am learning something new. And so, I love it. And I get to spend a lot of time in a great museum at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, which is a museum I’d heard about for years before I started on this job, and frankly, was one of the reasons I wanted the job of hosting. I grew up now in the D.C. area with the Smithsonian, which, you know, it’s the Smithsonian and it’s great, but this museum is special.

Michael Depp: What would you say is the most innovative thing itself about Innovation Nation?

Mo Rocca: I think the most innovative thing has become the way we define innovation. It’s like a box within a box within a box here. For a 200th episode, the field piece I did at the end of the episode – and I always do one that’s based at the museum that makes use of the museum’s collection – was about standardization, which is kind of wonky and nerdy, the kind of thing I like. But [it was] about the history of standardization and why it made construction less expensive, easier and safer. It made assembly lines possible. I guess if necessity is the mother of invention, I guess 200 episodes is the mother of innovation. You’ve got to figure out how you’re defining innovation and dig deeper. Now we’ve gotten to the point where we’re really having to think outside the box, and that’s become really fun.

Michael Depp: May I tell you what I think the most innovative thing about your show is? You do these remote interviews in the most intriguing way with holographic-looking technology. It’s like Zoom crossed with a Jedi Council meeting. So how do you do that?

Mo Rocca: Well, Michael, that’s not even me. That is that’s just an animation of me. I’m going to give away our trade secret here. This was the brainchild of Jim Lichtenstein, our showrunner. I am, in fact, looking at a set spot. I know what the topic is. I’m well-versed in it already. But indeed, we are often shooting those segments before we have the primary interview set. There’s been a pre-interview, so we know what the answers are going to be. I hope that I haven’t destroyed the magic.

Michael Depp: A little, I’m not going to lie. I’m a little deflated by that because it looks so convincing. It’s just so cool.

Mo Rocca: I hope I don’t get killed for telling you that.

Michael Depp: Well, we’ll just keep it between us and anybody watching and listening to this. The show seems not necessarily just targeted to kids, but rather kind of omni-generational. Is that by design?

Mo Rocca: It is by design. First of all, I think we wanted that in general. The more people, the better. I think we knew we wanted a kind of a youthful spirit. And my hair, the color that it is, I’m grateful that that they even signed me up for it. But we knew that especially on CBS and with the people that are used to seeing me, we’ll call them my fan base from CBS Sunday Morning, that we wanted, that we were going to have a lot of adults, parents, even grandparents likely to be watching. So, it’s definitely we went into it with sort of a big tent mentality. The fact that we have more than a million viewers a week speaks to that, that I think we have drawn in a wide range of people. And I know from my own personal people meter, which is me walking through an airport, that the people that come up to me and say they love the show are a wide range. And I’ll oftentimes have parents who will say, hey, you know, I’m telling the oldest viewer and, you know, but I just love the show. And I kind of say, yeah, you know, but they’re generally not the oldest viewer. It’s a big range.

Michael Depp: Of all the innovations, past and present, that you’ve talked about over the course of the show, which one was the biggest standout to you either because you wanted one of those things yourself or it was just very cool?

Mo Rocca: You know, the ones that have a story and a moral behind them are very powerful to me. One which you wouldn’t automatically put under the rubric of innovation was the designer, Alexander Girard. Alexander Girard was a great designer of interiors who, if anyone, remembers from the 1970s, Braniff Airways had a very distinctive design. He designed everything for the plane, all those implements inside of it.

The curators are my co-stars here. They’re not actors playing curators at the Henry Ford, but the curator there. She said, you know, what he liked was not trendy at the time. His design aesthetic, which was folk art based, was really seen as passé by that point. But he liked what he liked. And I think that is such a powerful lesson for kids, especially to like what you like. Don’t crowdsource it. Don’t go on to Twitter and ask people like, Should I like this? Is it okay if I like that? Just like what you like. I mean, it took me a long time to really come to terms with that. I think it’s a road to a happy, successful future, liking what you like and exploring that. I’ve oftentimes cited it from season one, I think the story of Alexander Sikorski and the invention of the helicopter, because it was really inspired. He was a boy in Czarist Russia, and he read in Russian, presumably a Jules Verne novel or short story that posited a kind of a single propeller aircraft, which didn’t exist. I found that so powerful, the role, that narrative and in this case, science fiction played in planting a seed. And it went with this kid all the way to America. And he lived with it for decades, trying and trying and trying and finally succeeding. I think it’s just wonderful.

Michael Depp: Any of the innovators or inventions over the years that you were kind of privately dubious about? This is the most ridiculous thing. It should not be.

Mo Rocca: [You know, I certainly have been surprised by the huge success of the Ring doorbell. I live in an apartment, so I don’t [have one]. There have been a few occasions where we’ve profiled inventions, contemporary inventions early on, and then they exploded. [There] was just one in a few weeks ago, and I wasn’t dubious about this at all. But really, I found inspiring certainly, the technology for organ transplant delivery. I thought that was kind of amazing. I mean, you know, our correspondent Adam Yamaguchi was watching a heart actually beating from inside what would be glib to call a tricked-out cooler. It was more than that, but it was this really extraordinary technology that will allow a much higher rate of success in the transportation of organs for transplant, which have a pretty low success rate up until now because of the problem of transporting them. But I’m trying to think if there’s others that I’ve been sort of skeptical about and then they become successes. I haven’t tracked a lot of them to see.

Michael Depp: Maybe a “where are they now” segment?

Mo Rocca: And we do occasionally, but we should do it more often.

Michael Depp: So, you mentioned earlier you present from The Henry Ford. It sort of sounds like a Brooklyn hipster bar. So, you shoot there for how long?

Mo Rocca: I visit the museum depending on the season three or four times a year, and it’s a remarkably efficient operation, the crews in Detroit. I’ve worked with some pretty great crews in my life. This crew is way up there, you know, matches the best that I’ve ever worked with. The efficiency is really extraordinary. I’ll make about four different trips. The pandemic has been obviously messed with that. This year I think maybe I’m only making three trips. It works certain muscles for me because those field pieces that are based at the museum, there’s no sleight of hand. They’re real field pieces that I’m doing. Granted, it helps that I’m interviewing curators who are experts in these respective innovations. But we’re in and out there very quickly. It’s been interesting to see a different way of working than I work on CBS Sunday Morning.

Michael Depp: The show fits into the E/I category. It’s requisite for broadcasters to include weekly E/I offerings. Still, the rules have loosened a bit. Growing up, what were the educational shows that made the biggest impression on you?

Mo Rocca: [00:12:25] Well, I got to tell Rita Moreno that my very first TV memory is her saying, “Hey, you guys” on Electric Company. For some reason, Electric Company. I completely connected with it, I think, because it was comedic. It was sort of essentially almost like Saturday Night Live, before I knew what that was, for kids. I liked it. I didn’t love Sesame Street. For some reason, I don’t know, because it didn’t have the sense of humor that an Electric Company had. Sorry, I hate to beat up on Big Bird.

Then I ended up working in what we could certainly qualify as E/I space. I was a writer and producer on the series Wishbone. It was my first job in television, the PBS series, about a Jack Russell terrier who in his dream life becomes the hero of classic novels. That’s the job that I’ve had in television that I go back to more than any other. I mean that gave me the toolbox that I used for pretty much every job since then. I was taking great works of literature, mostly from the Western canon, and boiling them down to 30-minute stories to be performed by a dog. It was like a writing assignment concocted by an English professor on acid, and it was the freakiest kind of premise. It just really taught me, even after I’d had this fancy, expensive education, it taught me more than that education, how to tell a story. And I’ve used it ever since. Whether I’m doing an interview, whether I’m writing something, I mean, I always go back to those skills I learned there.

Michael Depp: As you look at what’s available in E/I programing now, if you do, what do you think? Are there examples out there where you say, yeah, broadcasters can still get this right if they try?

Mo Rocca: Oh, sure. The show that Jeff Corwin has done, I think is a good example of a great show. And he’s a great host. I think our show does it right. I’m trying to think I haven’t seen that many of the other shows. I mean, the animal shows, what’s not to love? There are a couple of them I know on the set in the CBS block.

Michael Depp: So, there’s still choice out there.

Mo Rocca: Yeah, there is choice. And I think it’s valuable. I’m not even really familiar with the actual parameters of [E/I]. But I wouldn’t mind if they’re a little stretched because I like… Creatively, I like being given a structure and having to make it work. I don’t like just being given carte blanche. So, I hope those E/I parameters remain. And I hope that networks continue.

Michael Depp: There’s also a lot of competition in this space from YouTubers. I mean, my 11-year-old daughter is addicted to watching people show her how to build things and how to do things. And none of those people are really held to any kind of broadcast conventions in the way that they present their show. Do you think that’s sort of the future of educational programing? It’ll shift more to YouTube possibly, or social platforms?

Mo Rocca: You know, it’s interesting. It makes me think of Wikipedia because I’m a big encyclopedia guy. I mean, I still I still have my 1974 World Book, the hardcover lining the walls of my bedroom. I just loved the encyclopedia. And we did a segment on Innovation Nation about the encyclopedia. So, I got to profess my love for it. And when Wikipedia came around, everybody, you know, kind of sneered. It was a little bit of snobbery. But I use it. I’ll still fact check, certainly for news pieces. I don’t take it as gospel, but I do think that when there’s enough crowdsourcing, it seems that that that there is a dynamic we hope where the fact checking sort of seems to happen in a lot of cases. So that’s all to say that I worry that educational programing is left to YouTube where there isn’t a staff of fact checkers. But I’d also like to think if there’s just so much innovation there, there’s so much experimenting going on and there’s such a volume of it that the good stuff will rise to the top, I hope.

Michael Depp: Indeed. Well, Mo, congratulations. 200 episodes of Innovation Nation, another season, the ninth dropping later this fall. Thanks so much for being here.

Mo Rocca: Michael, thank you for having me.

Michael Depp: Thanks to all of you for watching. See you next time.

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