Science Programming: Penguins and the Lethal Cannon

PBS Nature, Animal Fare Light

I don't too often plunk down in front of the television and watch nature shows. The last time I watched a television show on animals was in a small restaurant in SE Asia which had the sort of overwhelming television presence that precludes conversation. Animal shows were popular fare in SE Asia. I occasionally watch PBS's Nature series. The last episode I remember watching, sometime last year, was called "Can Animals Predict Disaster?"

The show was a vehicle for elephants, hippopotamuses, tigers and fish to gambol about in zoos, deserts, forests, rivers, and oceans on various continents. "Can Animals Predict Disaster?" pondered whether animals could someday warn us of disasters, like the Sumatra tsunami of 2004. Behavior researchers investigated various related questions, like whether infrasound or geological cues warn animals of upcoming earthquakes or tsunamis.

One scientist set up large speakers on the safari and blasted classical music to giraffes and hippopotamuses over an impressive wilderness stereo system, then observed the animals' reactions. That was the control part of the experiment. I shouldn't anthropomorphize the giraffes by saying they looked bewildered. The scientist then blasted some pre-recorded hippopotamus calls. This prompted chorusing1 from nearby hippopotamuses. The show explored at length what it meant for the hippopotamuses to chorus (in instances when a scientist regales them with his own recordings of their calls), and whether the animals could communicate impending disaster to each other.

As it turns out, animals have senses that humans don't, and unsurprisingly, communications systems we don't understand. Owls see better than humans, dogs' have more acute hearing than humans, elephants can sense vibrations hundreds of miles away through their trunks, and hippopotamuses chorus. But as one scientist pointed out, it's highly unlikely that animals evolved to run from tsunamis, since tsunamis are so rare. More likely, he said, animals would run from anything that sounded as threatening as a tsunami.

The episode crept towards its tentative conclusion: At the end of the day animals probably can't warn us of impending disaster. I say "probably" because "Can Animals Predict Disaster?" left some doubt about its answer. Perhaps PBS Nature's mission statement precludes it from completely trouncing people's fantasies about animals. On that note PBS Nature concluded ambiguously with a "what-if". "What-if" someday, humans could rely on animals to warn us before "the earth turns angry"?

These programs often feature predictable, anthropomorphic, action oriented fun. Suspense builds, large animals thunder across the plains, and the predator voraciously gets the prey. It's formulaic, family-friendly TV, with lots of death but very little copulation -- and certainly no embarrassing wardrobe malfunctions.

The extent to which these shows aim to please audiences is almost always inversely proportional to the production's potential as Acronym Required blog fodder. And we do, occasionally, mock media's science offerings, for instance our posts about Meerkat Manor, and the movie March Of The Penguins, commented on anthropomorphic edutainment. But always, even as we poke fun at these productions, we're acutely aware that the alarming pablum spooned out by the media in the name of nature or science today, can be bested with a thinner and less substantive gruel tomorrow.

TV, radio, newspapers -- they're all under the same pressure: money, money, money. The Wall Street Journal used to feature long, investigative health and technology articles, with corporate friendly front and editorial pages. But the paper's entire content is being Murdochized. CNN's home page used to highlight flimsy science coverage. Now we often find a CNN front page slathered with lurid crime tales. The network even managed to get itself panned as "corrupt" for its debate hosting tactics, on the front page of last Sunday's LA Times.

TV producers seem to forever probe the depths of available content, seeking the lowest common denominator, raking up muck from ever deeper ponds, flinging it out, wrapped with delicious advertising, to the apparently hungry masses. Since I watch TV infrequently, I don't get pulled imperceptibly into watching stupider and stupider shows until one day I find myself enthusing about some reality show contestant's outfit to a stranger on the bus -- no offense. Every six months I watch TV again and it hits me -- wow, is this it?

"Inspiring People to Care About the Planet": National Geographic, Aircraft Carriers, and Automobile Factories

In some blip of high expectations and naivete the other night, without considering any schedule, I turned on the TV and flipped to the National Geographic channel. I grew up reading National Geographic, along with Scientific American. Somewhere along the line, Scientific American changed. It used to carry long science articles with great graphics and lucid explanations of physiology and geology and other interesting topics. I still like it, but my impression of the current format is that it falls somewhere on the spectrum between USA Today and Highlights magazine -- albeit SA's website is better than Highlights'.

National Geographic used to feature anthropological articles on people and places around the world. Of course I wouldn't expect the same stories today, about some never-before-discovered jungle tribe that fashions strong vines for transportation,and brews therapeutic teas from the roots of exotic plant species, for example. But that evening I thought I'd learn something at least vaguely interesting, about a place, an animal, an ocean, some fish, a spider, an expedition. So I was surprised to tune in to the National Geographic channel and find myself watching a feature about the world's largest aircraft carrier, the USS Ronald Reagan.

The USS Ronald Reagan is in the Seventh Carrier Strike Group led by Rear Admiral Wisecup. I sat through a segment on loading supplies from the supply ship, everything slung onto the carrier via a pulley system set up between the two ships. What was I watching? Could this be right? I met the supply chief, Commander Pimpo. National Geographic? I checked the channel to make sure I hadn't landed on the wrong channel. The USS Ronald Reagan is big. Its run like a small city, with its own fire department, hospital, and police force. Maybe the remote is broken? No, all of this and more was the subject of National Geographic's "Supercarrier: USS Ronald Reagan." I guess it had been a while since I watched National Geographic. I suddenly yearned for a goofy show with the snake gulping down the bird.

The supercarrier has won several best in class awards, such as the "Ship's Store Retail and Services Excellence Award", for the U.S. Pacific Fleet for fiscal year 2006 in the CV/CVN class"; the excellence in food service award for its class; and the "Battle "E"" award, for its condition and wartime readiness. All of this is interesting if nuclear powered aircraft carriers interest you. You'd find this story fascinating if aircraft carrier logistics stories excite you as much as stories about animals, history, science or space. You'd be intrigued if patriotism to you means appreciating the fine tuning necessary for "prompt and sustained combat" by 6,000 people manning a ship longer than the Empire State building, that costs taxpayers $2.5 million dollars a day to run.

National Geographic claims its mission is: "Inspiring People to Care About the Planet". I'm sure some people would argue that a show about the Navy's USS Ronald Reagan fulfills the mission. Anyway National Geographic can feature any type of show it wants. And it does. Take for instance "Ultimate Factories". There's "Ultimate Factories: Ferrari", "Ultimate Factories: BMW", and "Ultimate Factories: Corvette". Sure, ok, car factories are fun. But does a Ferrari factory inspire you to "care about the planet?" Yes, these are slick cars, but am I total stick in the mud, given NG's mission statement, to point out that Ferraris get 7-10 mpg in the city and 12-16 mpg on the highway?

On National Geographic's "Advertise with us", website page they advise hopeful advertisers: "Now we are placing more emphasis on preservation, seeking a sustainable relationship with our planet, and promoting greater public understanding that will lead the way to global balance." When does it start? Or is the sentiment reserved for the "Global Warming" section of the website, where they dare not mention that cars contribute to global warming? Oh well. I'm sure that National Geographic's hat tip to the US military and car manufacturers is rewarded.

Discovery: Future Weapons

Where else would one turn for a good nature show these days? The Discovery Channel? In 1985 the fledgling cable network was launched to be "Scientific American of the air", as a spokesperson told AdWeek. When asked how Discovery Channel planned to compete with other networks (at a time when cable TV hadn't taken off), he said "If we are a 'dark-horse' to be a fourth network, we're almost invisible because we're so dark". He added, "To be a fourth major network, we'd have to add a lot of stuff, which we are not going to do. The true beauty of The Discovery Channel is that it's differentiated and focused." In 1988 about one-third of the network's programming was nature documentaries, one-third was documentaries about "other lands and their cultures", and the rest was devoted to shows on science, technology, history, and human adventures such as trekking and mountaineering,according to a Christian Science Monitor article at the time.

But things change. Today the vast Discovery Communications, produces multiple channels; Discovery, Health, Science, Animal Planet, Travel, HD theatre, and TLC ("an affirmative and connective experience"). They launched the "Military Channel" in 2005. The channel was a rework of an aviation show that producers expanded because of "viewer demand" for land and sea --not just air-- military content. Last February, when Discovery added home-grown content to "Military Channel", Vice President Bill Smee enthused to USA Today about the US soldiers' videos they planned to air. The films wouldn't always be "feel-good", he assured, because they were filming on the job: "...I don't want to overpromise firefights, but you may see the aftermath of an improvised explosive device."

So why not I guess? Shouldn't gore be part of the "The Military Channel"? Granted, no one in their right mind would go there looking for basic science or nature shows. But fight fervor is not confined to the "Military Channel". If you happened to naively click over to Discovery Channel at 11:00 on a Thursday evening, you wouldn't find "Planet Earth", or "Shark Week", or "Man vs. Wild", or "Storm Chasers". You'd be watching "Future Weapons".

"Future Weapons" is now in its second season. The show created a stir last year with its special website dedicated to building audience enthusiasm for weapons. BAE Systems helped sponsored the site. The defense contractor told AdWeek in June, 2007, that their media goals for working with Discovery were "to keep the Non-Line-of-Site (NLOS) Cannon front and center in terms of the Army and people who are interested in the military'". BAE found Discovery's content so useful that it used the Discovery Channel's NLOS site as "real third-party validation that we could show to our prospective customers".

To be fair, defense contractor advertising has always been a part of Discovery Communications, even when the network wanted to be "Scientific American of the air", back in 1985. Shiny spiffy weapons just haven't been quite so "front and center". Also to be fair, Discovery Communications' mission is more in line with its commitment to military content than National Geographic's. On their "About" page, the corporation proclaims: "Discovery, it's not just our name, it's our very calling". A little dull, but universally inclusive, which gives the corporation an opening for all programming, even military recruiting.

Discovery Communications offers no pretense about saving the planet. Nevertheless, if "discovery is [y]our calling", forgive your audience for thinking along the lines of exploring the Amazon, or investigating bone marrow cell transplants, or climbing Everest, or observing some animals on the Kalahari -- without the NLOS Cannon and its "unprecedented responsiveness and lethality". Sure military technology is based on science -- but building enthusiasm for weapons is used for the purpose of exciting people about war, not science. From "discovery is our calling", its only a hop, skip and a jump to historical slogans like "it's not a job, it's an adventure", or the current Navy slogan of dubious meaning: "accelerate your life". 2

More, New Science on Cable

I do sometimes lament what passes for science programming these days, and I'm not alone. In 2003 there was a flurry of announcements and excitement around a proposed C-Span like science station called Cable Science Network - CSN. Science, and Scientific American, and Wired announced the program. The founders wrote in Scientific American: "Wouldn't it be great to watch congressional hearings on cloning, bioterrorism, global warming and aging? Wouldn't it be fabulous to attend--via cable--cutting-edge lectures given by scientists at various annual scientific conferences?" I'm not sure how the public answered, but CSN apparently never got off the ground.

There are other efforts starting however, and while programming can get worse, it can surely always get better. The National Science Foundation (NSF), has teamed up with the Research Channel to produce programs for national and international cable, TV, and internet audiences. There's also a PBS/Wired program called Wired Science. I'm sure there are others, I'll just have to channel surf a little more. Then there's always Second Life.


1Documented in various insects and amphibians. William Barklow has done (and popularized) the research with hippopotamuses, (ie, J. of Animal Behavior March 28, 2002, "Amphibious communication with sound in hippos, Hippopotamus amphibius").

2 Granted, "discovery is our calling" doesn't fit too well with the new army slogan, "Army Strong" -- too many words in the former, whereas-latter-distorted-English --grunt. See more about "Army Strong" at

Acronym Required writes frequently about science and media and has also written about global warming and cognitive dissonance, for instance in Cars: Buying Cognitive Dissonance", Sea Change or Littoral Disaster, Science Communication, Communicating Climate Change, and Climate Change, Fueling the "Debate", and others. Links to other Acronym Required articles are included in the text.

follow us on twitter!