Daily Science Fare
Bringing the test tube to the boob tube, The Discovery Channel's flagship show makes science sizzle
Jay Ingram and I are staring at a photo of a viewer’s fanatical cat. “This cat only pays attention when I’m on the show,” he says with a laugh. “Other cats watch the show too, Jay,” I say. My best friend’s cat, I explain, likes staring at the screen of The Discovery Channel, although Mojo prefers insect documentaries. Ingram stares out the window of his cluttered, high-rise office, then turns to me and says, “I smell a discovery story,” with a smile on his face. A news item about devoted cats? On a network’s national newscast? Yes, it it’s on @discovery.ca (pronounced “at discovery Canada”), the first, and only daily science news program in the world. Every weekday, Ingram, along with co-host Gill Deacon, presents an hour of inventive science reporting. On @discovery.ca science is actually fun. Engaging, eccentric, even wacky. Science becomes entertainment.
Here are some of the things I have learned since I started watching the show in late September: that seals can spend up to two hours underwater at depths that would burst a human’s lung; that “Klingons” actually speak in their own tongue, composed of different syllables from various languages; and that if you stacked every human in the world together, they would form a pile one kilometre cubed.
@discovery.ca describes itself as “an eclectic mix of documentaries, features, quizzes, columns, video essays, interviews, and panel discussions.” All this in a one-hour show. While general news programs barely touch on science, @discovery.cais all science, A to Z, from astronomy to zoology. And it is a purely Canadian show.
More than one person has said to me, ‘You’re going to run out of material if you only focus on Canadian science,’ and the problem is actually the opposite,” explains Ingram. “We don’t have the people, editing suites, to push through the amount of material we could do.” More than quantity though, it’s the quality of reporting that’s drawing viewers. And people are watching. According to Nielsen Marketing Research, roughly 1.5 million Canadians tune into @discovery.caat least once during the week. (It’s on at 7:00 p.m. EST and 8:00 p.m. PST.) What is surprising is that more than half a million weekly viewers are women over the age of 18 – a third of the show’s audience.
It is not just the general public that is hooked. Michael Smith, head of the Canadian Science Writer’s Association, calls the show “interesting, newsy, upbeat and detailed.” Stephen Strauss, science columnist for The Globe and Mail,has said he is “amazed at the hour of science.”
A look at one of those hours should demonstrate what all the fuss is about.
Wednesday, February 12, 1997
7:00-7:07 p.m. Show intro: @discovery.caleads with a segment on the shuttle Discovery, which will be updating the Hubble telescope tomorrow so that it will send better pictures back to NASA. Ingram interviews Story Musgrave, NASA’s oldest astronaut, who explains how the Canadarm will add new lenses to the telescope.
Since it is @discovery.ca‘s mandate to cover what is current and national in science, the show goes for the Canadian connection in every story.
This process begins at 9:30 a.m., with a daily meeting in a modern, spacious boardroom in North York, Ontario. Most of @discovery.ca’s 20 staff members, sleepy-eyed and with coffee mugs in hand, are discussing past, present and future story ideas. Many of the ideas come from recent headlines, journals and scientific reports that the staff read regularly, and these are their sources for stories like the Hubble repair segment. Paul Lewis, executive producer of the show, feels it is important to connect the latest headlines with science. “We’re putting a new spin on the stories. Like, for example, the ValuJet crash in the Florida Everglades. We focussed on ‘What exactly is the black box?’ instead of focussing on the tragedy. We’re constantly looking for a scientific, technical angle for the other side of the story.” Lewis says approximately one-third of their story ideas are original.
During the meeting, the staff also critique last night’s show. Today’s postmortem is unusually quiet, but according to Penny Park, one of the show’s two senior producers, debate is common, and crucial, in shaping what goes on the show. “A good debate also helps focus a story. It is also a reminder of where exactly a segment is heading. One of the constant problems we have is how to present information in an interesting way, while answering all the right questions and being accurate without boring people. For example, how to present microscopic evidence when there is a lack of visuals but no lack of data. We want to make our stories accessible to the viewer, but we don’t want to lose information in the process.”
In half an hour, the group discusses the lineup for tonight’s show: a feature story on Jupiter, part of a weekly series on the solar system; the latest evidence on Alzheimer’s disease; how the Canadian team is doing in the solar car race in Australia; a discovery of fossilized “dinodung;” and a visit to a “cubed” house in Toronto. They are a jolly group, cracking jokes throughout the meeting. (“I hear Iceland is flooding. Could it be from all that vodka?”)
7:07-7:09 p.m. Every day in this time slot, the show focusses on the latest-breaking science news. Tonight, there is a report on the dangers of driving while using a cell phone (people are more likely to get into accidents while using them), and new research on schizophrenia, which reveals that sufferers have fewer brain receptors than normal.
“If you want to hear an expert discussing a significant science discovery made that day, you come here,” explains Ben Schaub, one of the show’s segment producers. Today, Terry Dickson (a comet expert) and Musgrave discuss recent events in their respective fields.
The crew bring these discoveries to light in a cramped, cluttered area on Discovery’s fourth floor. They are a mixture of journalists, each contributing his or her own expertise to create a show devoted to the latest science news. Some are CBC news alumni, others have reported on science, and three of the producers used to work on CBC Radio’s science program, Quirks and Quarks. “Basically what I’ve done on the staffing side is find a whole bunch of people who had experience doing daily quick turn-around TV, and a few people who had experience in science programming in radio, and others who had more of a science background,” says Lewis. “So we all mixed them together and they started learning from one another. That’s why we’re a pretty tight-knit group.”
The “father” of this family is Jay Ingram, an experienced journalist who came to Discovery with a reputation for popularizing science: he hosted Quirks and Quarks from 1979 to 1992; he has won numerous accolades, including the Sandford Fleming Medal; and he is a science columnist for The Toronto Star.
I first meet Ingram, 52, after he has taped a discovery segment called “The Mindbender.” He has an intimidating presence: silver hair and beard, eyes that are focussed and intense, and an air of seriousness and worldliness. I walk into his office cautiously, very much aware that this is a man who lives and breathes science – a subject I know little about. He motions for me to sit down. Once I start asking him questions about science and the show, his face comes alive. The eyes grow animated, and his face crinkles in a slight smile. “Jay has never lost that natural curiosity about science,” explains Lewis. “He’s a boy, and he’s constantly asking questions.”
Ingram’s foil is his partner Gill Deacon. Although she has no science background, Deacon is an experienced journalist who has spent the previous four years as an entertainment reporter at CBC Montreal. Now in her first season with the show, she is popular with viewers and staff alike. Deacon says she that has gotten a “great response from the public” and her co-workers. “She has an incredible naturalness in front of the camera,” says Lewis. “She is a lot of fun, kind of quirky and quite brilliant in an understated way. It’s good to have a perspective from outside the science community, someone who has had not that much science experience but is open to many things.”
And Deacon does present an air of naturalness on first impression. I meet her after my interview with Ingram. She is dressed in jeans, a purple turtleneck, a pair of hiking boots and no makeup – pretty in an understated way. I immediately feel comfortable in her tidy (and still unpacked) office next to Ingram’s. Two months into her job at @discovery.ca,the 30-year-old Deacon has not found the pressure of joining the program in its second season too overwhelming. “There’s pressure because the show’s standards are so high. I want to make it work as well as it’s working, and to bring it along even further…. Viewers have said they like me, and I think it’s partly because Jay and I just hit it off.”
7:13-7:15 p.m. “You Asked For It” (“YAFI”) is a daily segment in which viewers pose questions to experts. Tonight’s topic is d?j? vu – what is happening in our brains when we experience it? (The temporal lobes in the brain make a mistake.) “YAFI” receives hundreds of requests every week, so many that the program now devotes an entire show each month to the segment, with a panel of experts – such as marine biologist Stefani Paine and astronomer Ivan Semeniuk – answering about 20 queries. Schaub explains that “YAFI” has become so popular because viewers can get involved: “The interactive aspect is integral to the channel. Like having viewers vote for what they want to see…. People like having choice.”
Discovery’s interactivity doesn’t stop there: it launched a groundbreaking Web site, the Exploration Network (EXN), on, amusingly, Halloween at 13:13. Suzanne O’Connor, executive secretary, has high hopes for the new venture. She calls EXN “the Web site of the future. A few months down the road we’ll have live programming that will air the same day. We have a team of four producers that will write stories for the site and will attempt to get the stories on the Net before our competition does. Discovery was the first broadcasting network to have a Web site, and now we are the very first multi-active, high-technology network available.”
@discovery.ca contributes to Cable in the Classroom, a school program that uses television to augment schools’ curriculums. @discovery.capackages together segments with related themes (for example, stories on ocean wildlife) into one show weekly that is aired on Mondays at 8:00 a.m. EST. Schools across Canada are encouraged to tape the shows to help them teach science in the classroom.
At the end of the “YAFI” segment, Ingram quips, “Those are some of the theories about d?j? vu. Have you heard of them before?” It’s not unusual for these hosts to jest with the topic of science. @discovery.ca wants to present science with a sense of humour. And with Ingram and Deacon hosting, the program is one big science party. Take, for example, Deacon’s intro to the humdrum subject of car airbags: “How fast does an air bag open up? Try 480 kilometres per hour. That’s faster than Jay packing his bag and leaving after work.” But there is a danger of the show actually being too much fun. “Sometimes we cross over the line and people write to us and say ‘There is too much humour and not enough substance,'” Lewis says. But Bree Tiffin, an intern who also sometimes writes for the show, says this wacky approach to science is important. “It’s really heavy on information for science types, so the show has to be fun.”
7:15-7:25 p.m. Meet Steve, a computer that thinks by itself and was created to teach people in the U.S. Navy how to use an air compressor. It is the first of its kind and the sort of breakthrough that the show likes to trumpet. This type of advancement was what inspired the creation of @discovery.cain the first place. Technology’s role is getting larger in our daily lives. And that, in turn, has created a market for a show about these new discoveries.
@discovery.ca was also born out of a need to distinguish The Discovery Channel Canada (one of 12 global Discovery channels) from the other new specialty channels, such as The Life Network and The Learning Channel, which came to air in January 1995 and are similar to Discovery because of their scientific content. Trina McQueen, former head of CBC News,had been placed at the helm of the channel and wanted a show that would be relevant to the 1990s. “A daily nature and science show seemed right,” she says. “It is a show that connects to the day. This is a generation of Internet gurus, technological whizzes, and this now has an atmosphere of cool about it.”
7:27-7:34 p.m. An international satellite launched in Japan promises to rival the Hubble’s pictures. Deacon interviews Dr. Wayne Cannon, a Canadian physicist at the Institute for Space and Terrestrial Science, who is part of the international team that worked on the satellite. Although interesting, this piece further saturates a show that is already heavy on astronomy.
@discovery.ca tries to promote an active interest in Canadian scientific research, and this commitment is being rewarded. The show was nominated for two 1997 Gemini awards: one for Best Information Series, and the other for Best Special Event Coverage, for a segment called “Canada in Space” that aired last year.
7:34-7:41 p.m. Terry Dickinson, editor of Sky News and an avid comet enthusiast, is on hand to explain that another comet is entering our solar system this week. But Jay isn’t too concerned about where you can view the comet. Instead, he wants to focus on what a comet is, how close this one is to the earth, and how bright it will be. @discovery.catakes the time to go in-depth here.
But no episode has delved more deeply into the inner workings of science than @discovery.ca‘s notorious “Great Tomato Experiment,” which aired during the week of September 2 through 6, 1996. Lewis had a basic premise for the experiment: “Last summer, we wanted to do something on alternative medicine. How the mind controls the body. That by manipulating the body’s energy through the mind, you can make yourself feel better.” The experiment’s subjects: four tomato batches. Two were injected with disease, a third was injected with water and the fourth was not touched. The audience didn’t know which batch was diseased. The show invited seven individuals from Group Therapeutic Touch, a organization devoted to the healing powers of the human mind, to come to the set to provide healing thoughts for the tomato batches. Ingram then asked viewers to send positive messages to see if they could help.
And the public did call. One man even sang the Barney song for the tomatoes. The show also received a barrage of publicity. Critics, such as Robert Choquette, a professor of religious studies at the University of Ottawa, accused the show of using this “farce” as a ratings ploy. But Lewis dismisses the idea. “What we wanted was an experiment that dealt directly with our viewers. And that’s how we got our idea. It was important that we showed the viewers how a scientific experiment was put together, step-by-step.” One of the people who helped set up the experiment was Dr. Verna Higgins, chair of the botany department at the University of Toronto. She says, “It was a legitimately designed experiment. It required some refinement, but we did the best job we could in the time available.” Although the show has certainly weathered the criticism of the segment, the tomatoes suffered a less fortunate outcome – none survived.
7:44-7:55 p.m. The largest chunk of the show, usually over 10 minutes, is devoted to “The Mindbender,” @discovery.ca’sweekly viewer quiz. As Ingram lists the previous week’s answers, he is comfortably propped between a dinosaur head and a large, metallic replica of DNA. @discovery.ca‘s set is as unique as the show itself.
Like a sprawling, empty museum, the set’s artifacts glow dimly after everyone has left for the night. Here you’ll find everything from a telescope to the dinosaur head.(“A museum in Alberta just happened to have an extra dinosaur head,” explains Lewis.) “The concept is the back room of a dinosaur exhibit at a museum…. For the last two summers we’d go out to junk shops and ask museums for any extra items,” Lewis recalls.
“Mindbender” questions run the gamut from “What is the world’s largest freshwater lake?” to “What is the closest living relative of the largest mammal of all time?” After Ingram reveals the previous week’s answers, he apologizes for the show’s mistake of showing an image of a porcupine instead of a beaver in answering a question. Of course, attentive as they are, @discovery.ca‘s viewers were quick to point out the mistake. One woman went so far as to question the show’s “Canadianness,” to which Ingram responds: “We remain among our Majesty’s most loyal Canadians!”
When I visit the set one afternoon, Schaub is packaging the “Mindbender” segment in a large control room. He shouts directions to Ingram via a headset. It’s quite dark, but the numerous TV screens and buttons allow enough light for me to see my notepad. This is one of seven or eight segments that will make up tonight’s show. Some segments have been taped well in advance, others, on that very day. Ingram has just finished taping another segment to air on Halloween – an interview with a Transylvanian doctor on the myth of Dracula. The atmosphere is jovial. Laughter and jokes echo through the control room and through the headset. Between takes, Ingram is flashing his teeth, and the camera zooms in dangerously close, giving us a good view of his dental work.
7:58-7:59 p.m. How did tabloids get their name? The topic seems an unlikely one for a weekly segment called “Joe’s Chemistry Set,” hosted by Joe Schwarcz, a professor of chemistry at Vanier College. But there is a science link, all right. When one company in the late 1800s made small pills, it called the tiny tablets “tabloids.” Before long, anything else that was reduced in size became referred to by the same name. Since many newspapers had become more compact, the name attached itself to them as well. It’s a quick but amusing tidbit, and a tidy way to end the show.
7:59-8:00 p.m. Time to say good-bye. “Too bad,” Deacon laments. Ingram tells the viewers what to expect tomorrow – one story is on how men and women behave differently from each other on the Net. “Like we didn’t know that!” cries Ingram.
Off camera the banter doesn’t change. On another day, while taping show intros, Ingram and Deacon are up to the same old antics. He jokes that she has only been there two months and already “runs the show!” But seconds later, once the camera is on, they execute their intros perfectly. Soon enough the humour kicks back in, and Deacon uses her monotone teacher impression (from the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) to introduce the “YAFI” segment on whether frogs are able to burst their own vocal sacks. (The answer is no.) Ingram and Deacon feel comfortable enough, both because of their scientific knowledge and their personalities, to ad-lib certain stories. According to Lewis, the hosts know how to feel out the tone of a story: “We don’t want them to sound rehearsed…. They both have a great sense of humour and are spontaneous, and we don’t want them sounding too serious all the time.”
Since the show is a success, will the world’s other 11 Discovery channels, particularly the U.S. one, follow with their own daily science news programs? Would this concept work well in other countries? “There’s a huge tradition in documentary, in-depth current affairs programming in the U.S., and there’s a large audience there, so I don’t see why it wouldn’t work. We could put together a U.S. show tomorrow, if we had to,” says Ingram. Deacon echoes the same sentiments. “I think it’s a format that could work anywhere, and it would probably be an even easier time in the U.S. They tend to have more disasters…and even more money for research.”
With a budget of only $4,000 per show, @discovery.calooks incredibly polished. Especially considering the big money and large staffs of glossy, big-production news magazine shows, whose daily budgets could produce a month’s worth of @discovery.cashows. The task may seem daunting, but with little money and lots of imagination, @discovery.cahas Canadian viewers – and Canadian cats alike – fascinated by science. Just ask Mojo.
Rebecca Davey was the Back Page/Display Editor for the Summer 1997 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.