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Watching the Watchdog: Daily Planet Still Fails to Thrill

Posted: 04/24/2012 3:25 pm

Program: Japan: One Year Later (Daily Planet)


Hosts: Ziya Tong, Dan Riskin

Full disclosure: Discovery Channel, which owns Daily Planet, was principal licensor and financial backer for my 2007 wildlife documentary trilogy Inside Noah's Ark. Also, I was hired to coach a former Daily Planet host on performance (apparently not very well, because she was fired shortly thereafter).

The Past -- Last month, I wrote a review of Discovery's Channel's Daily Planet (March 14).

I wasn't kind.

In fact, I ended the review with:

"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".


Riposte -- Paul Lewis, who is President and General Manager of Discovery Channel which produces Daily Planet, takes issue with that review:

"Let me assure you that our very wise, discerning and loyal audience for Daily Planet would never allow us to get away with degrading this show as you've suggested in your article. Nor would our hard working and dedicated staff. And, though this might be hard to imagine, (nor) would the management team, who continue to cherish the show and treat it with great fondness, allow it to degrade either."

Paul is an old friend and colleague from CBC days, highly respected in the TV science, journalism and managerial worlds. He is also exceeding polite, ending with: "... we appreciate your feedback and look forward to your comments and hope you will return to the show again and again."

Specifically, he suggested I return to screen Daily Planet's recent one-hour special on the anniversary of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami that left 20,000 people dead or missing.

In Paul's words: "It was filled with brilliant and fascinating science stories".

So, being a person ever ready to reconsider, review and reevaluate, particularly when so politely approached, I screened Japan: One Year Later


Verdict -- This special is a great deal better than the Daily Planet I reviewed earlier. It treats a serious subject with appropriate depth and scientific rigour.

Some highlights:

  • Bad news: Marine geologist admits the Japanese quake and tsunami taught us a lot more about what we don't know about quakes and tsunamis than we do know: "We're retreating from what we thought we knew, and now we know far less."
  • Best advice: If a tsunami is coming your way, head for higher ground as fast as you can, leaving everything and everyone else behind. In Japanese it's "tendenko" which means "save yourself."
  • B.C. outlook: A research ship, the Chikyu, is drilling 7,000 metres into the Japan Trench sea floor to try to forecast future quakes, particularly along Cascadia, North America's West Coast, which could experience another big quake/tsunami at any time.
  • No place to hide: Using the Japan disaster as a guide, scientists are using computer models to design safer buildings. Even so, it's impossible to design livable tsunami-proof buildings, although emergency evacuation shelters can be built.
  • Tight quarters: A Japanese inventor is selling the Noah Capsule, a spherical container which will float through a tsunami carrying four people and enough food for a week.

All interesting stuff. Some of it, survival information.

Even so, the special shows signs of being put together in too much of a hurry with too few resources.

First clue is that something called the "subduciton zone" features prominently in a graphic. Actually, of course it's "subduction zone" -- the spot where one tectonic plate slides over another at roughly the speed of fingernails growing -- which can end in a quake and subsequent tsunami.

Second clue is that the storytelling itself is mostly mediocre.

Each of the stories is doubtless scientifically sound, but seldom do any of them inspire the kind of interest and anticipation which makes a viewer hang in (postpone the beer or bathroom break) to find out how it all turns out.

Writing taut, tight, structured TV stories with a single, simple focus is an art Daily Planet's producers haven't yet mastered. It takes time and maybe they simply don't have enough time. Overall, their writing is competent but seldom inspiring.

Third clue is that the hosts, the storytellers, Ziya Tong and Dan Riskin, are still obviously uncomfortable on-camera.

They stand there in awkward medium-long-shot, facing camera, she with clasped hands, he with hands in pockets, and take turns reading the teleprompter with slightly unnatural volume and little genuine connection to the information.

The host who isn't reading either stares blankly at the teleprompter or, obviously impatient for a turn, stares blankly at the host who is reading.

All of which makes the viewer uncomfortable too. And it's never a good idea to make the viewer uncomfortable unless your story is about creaking doors and screams in the night.

Ziya Tong and Dan Riskin are two highly qualified, attractive, interesting people. They can do a lot better if properly produced.

Maybe there simply isn't enough time ...

And maybe there wasn't enough money to send either of them to Japan to report from the spot ...


Finally -- So Paul, a colleague of mine, supports many of these criticisms, but adds that in general Daily Planet "brings a far better understanding of science to its audience than TV news brings understanding of the world to its audience."

I agree.

But just imagine Paul, how much better the program could be if it practiced the ancient art of storytelling and, along the way, freed the Daily Planet Two from the tyranny of the teleprompter!

Thanks for getting back to me.

Tim.

 

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