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Watching the Watchdog: Daily Planet Fails in the Name of Science

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Veteran TV newsman Tim Knight contributes a regular column to HuffPost, analyzing and rating broadcast and online journalistic programs. Today he examines the science program Daily Planet, on Discovery Channel Canada. International versions air in Latin America and Asia.

Date: Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Hosts: Ziya Tong, Dan Riskin

Full Disclosure: Three years ago I coached former host Kim Jagtiani for Discovery Channel and was paid a fee.

The Way It Was -- Daily Planet is, I believe, the world's only one-hour, daily T.V. science program. Back when Jay Ingram (now contributing occasionally) co-hosted, it was a must-watch for folk interested in watching well-told, focused, action-packed, deciphered science-even-I-can-understand stories.

How are the mighty fallen!

The Way It Is -- First clue that things aren't what they used to be is the two hosts opening the show shouting at each other during a weirdly weak, supposedly humorous piece about pies. Have no idea what it all meant.

From there to the only well-told, focused etc. story in the hour. It's about a monstrous ice-breaking machine named Ampibex which breaks up ice on the Red River, Manitoba, so when Spring comes the ice doesn't all try to get downstream at the same time, burst banks and seriously bother the locals. Lots of huge, noisy metal claws and chain saws digging into ice up to 48 inches thick. Lots of excellent shooting and editing. Riskin wisely uses the operators to tell much of the story.

Otherwise -- a report on a giant crystal made of gypsum mined in Mexico. No explanation of why the crystal is of any use or interest. Tong calls it "absolutely amazing stuff." Why?

Tong interviews tech-geek Lucas Cochrane who is serially astounded by the latest miraculous tech gadgets -- the Galaxy Note, the Nokia Lumia, and a 40-inch iPhone. Much wowing ensues but no real analysis of the things.

Riskin is fascinated by a $10-millon robotic octopus which can grab a bottle in its tentacles but not much else. He makes a pointless joke about being scared of swimming "or even using a toilet" because of the thing.

Then a rambling story about scientists who play with a huge tank of water trying to replicate whirlpools caused by tsunamis. There's a real story in here somewhere.

It's followed by a watersport called subwinging. Something like an underwater surfboard pulled behind a motorboat. Pretty pictures. No more.

In Brief -- A fellow called "BirdJumper" who freefell for seven minutes over the Alps; a scientist who turns solar flares into sound; spiders not sticking to their webs; a song consisting entirely of numbers and a wolverine playing with a rope. Little real insight or interest in any of them.

Towards the end, there's an unfocused, too-long story about NASA looking for six volunteers prepared to live for four months on an island in Hawaii to somehow replicate how astronauts will live on Mars. Only interesting fact is the importance of getting the crew together for food. Scientist explains that meal bonding "really helps overcome some of the social issues you get in these extreme environments."

Then another unfocused, too-long story. This one about four ocean-going water-gliders dropped into the Pacific ocean on a 33-thousand nautical mile voyage to study wind and currents.

And so it goes.

Verdict: Despite what our current government seems to believe, the study and advancement of science are desperately important for Canada and the world.

Tong and Riskin turn it into one long, too-loud, self-adoring, bad joke -- presumably to attract the young viewers who would benefit most from scientific innovations. (Canada recently ranked 14th out of 17 countries in innovation.)

But today's young people aren't fools, particularly when it comes to science. They flock to really, really bad T.V. and lots of useless celebrity fluff online, but they already live in a rapidly changing scientific world in a way us oldsters can't even imagine.

Tong and Riskin serve the young (and the rest of us) badly. They're both attractive and presumably intelligent. Their version of Daily Planet isn't either.

The program is simplistic when it should be simple. Flippant when it could be witty. All surface when it should be insightful.

The once-estimable Daily Planet shows signs of age and/or the currently popular epidemic of budget-cutting.

A pity.