Clash of the Dinosaurs: The Discovery Channel steps up
December 17, 2009
Great news! I just got off the phone with someone at the Discovery Channel. He asked not to be named, but he has responsibility for Clash of the Dinosaurs and the authority to do what he promised, which is to fix the “second brain” segment exactly as I asked in the previous post! He said that the program would not be broadcast again until that segment was fixed, and that the fixed version would be in the DVD/Blu-ray release.
So, this is about the best and fastest outcome that I could have asked for. When I put up the last post, I didn’t know whether to expect broad support at the positive end of the spectrum, or a (probably unenforceable) cease-and-desist order at the negative end. I didn’t dare to hope that the problem would be solved so quickly and decisively. Many thanks to the folks at the Discovery Channel for taking responsibility and doing the right thing here.
Looking back: how does this happen?
In the past few days I have been contacted privately by several scientists who have worked or are working on documentaries, and most of them had the same complaint: although some individuals or teams of people at the production companies really care about getting things right, the show is almost always forced to follow a predetermined script or at least hit on certain predetermined points, and it is essentially impossible for the scientific advisors to change the courses of these things. I’ve experienced this firsthand on more than one project now and I can verify that this is how things are done routinely.
Where are the predetermined stories coming from, screenwriters, producers–who? Why aren’t the stories coming from the scientists? When the predetermined stories collide with what the scientific advisors have to say, why do the predetermined stories trump the science? That’s a bass-ackwards way to make a documentary. But this isn’t an infrequent anomaly. This is business as usual in the world of science documentaries.
(From everything I’ve seen and heard, NOVA is a shining exception; I suspect that extends to most documentaries that are commissioned by PBS instead of commercial cable outlets.)
You can see how this practice can’t do anything other than distort the science that the shows are purporting to deliver; as long as something other than the science has priority when it comes to content, it can’t possibly be otherwise. It’s a simple matter of priorities.
Commercialism vs science…or rather, not
And before some commenter says it, I know these companies are in business to make money, not to serve as some kind of selfless science dole. I disagree violently with the suggestion that commercial concerns force them to make bad documentaries, or that there is any necessary conflict between accuracy and entertainment. The real stories are more interesting and more exciting anyway. Exhibit A: David Attenborough’s entire career. End of discussion.
It was all an innocent mistake
In comments on the previous post, the idea was mooted a couple of times that what I’d said in the interview was sufficiently complex and the editors were sufficiently harried that this could just be a simple misunderstanding.
I have three problems with this. First, I don’t see how I could have been any clearer about the second brain business. I said “For a while it was thought that X. There are a couple of misconceptions there.” How anyone could possibly get from that I subscribe to X is quite beyond me.
Second, it had been clear for months that the folks at Dangerous wanted to include the second brain business. The idea that it was a simple misunderstanding by a single editor is contradicted by the pattern described above, wherein documentary makers often seize on certain weird ideas and absolutely won’t be dissuaded no matter what the scientists say. Dangerous wanted a clip of a scientist describing the second brain, and they got it…after a fashion.
Third, the “innocent mistake by harried editor” hypothesis is Pyrrhic exculpation. I’ll explain that.
When I was a grad student at Berkeley, we had a situation once in which a student plagiarized an entire termpaper. When she was called into the course director’s office, she started to explain that she’d only done it because she’d been so busy, and there were extenuating circum–and the course director, who was also my advisor, cut her off right there. He told her that it was actually far more damaging to her credibility to blame her plagiarism on being busy, because what she was indirectly suggesting is that anytime she got busy, she’d default to cheating. That would be turning a one-time screwup into a potentially recurring pattern of behavior, and a bad decision into a facet of her character. In short, the excuse was far worse than the actual crime.
I think the same applies in the case of the dishonest editing. In the view that I’d prefer to believe, there was institutional pressure to deliver a quote on the “second brain”, and an editor made the cut either on his own or because a producer told him to. There is still a component of institutional screw-up, because of the pressure to deliver a quote on one of these predetermined script points no matter what the interviewee said, but this could still be a one-off by one or two people. In the “innocent mistake by harried editor” defense, documentary editors have to work so hard and so fast that sloppiness to the extent of completely reversing an interviewee’s testimony is inevitable, at this company and throughout the industry. Maybe I’m being dense, but how is that better?
Looking forward: where do we go from here?
There is at least one big institutional problem with the way that many documentaries are made, which is that the scientific advisors are basically there to prop up an often deeply flawed script composed without their input. Depending on who you listen to, there may also be an institutional problem in that the editing of these shows is practically guaranteed to result in quote-mining. So what do we do?
First, I agree with many commenters here and elsewhere that scientists ought to demand some level of input into the script, and the right to review any footage of them that goes into the final product. This is tough, because it may be hard to turn down a gig with lots of publicity when you’re on the job market or clawing for tenure, and even if you say no, the production companies can keep calling other people until they get someone who says yes. Hopefully if they get turned down a few times, it will start to dawn on them that making up the show (often in more ways than one!) without any input from the scientists is stupid and wrong.
There have been calls on the DML and elsewhere to create some kind of body that could oversee these things. On one hand, I can see lots of barriers to making that work; on the other hand, if such a body could be brought into existence, production companies might go out of their way to earn their imprimatur. Or better yet, networks like BBC and the Discovery Channel might start insisting that documentaries in that area get the approval of the scientific oversight body. I know, I know, it sounds impossibly optimistic, and I don’t expect it to happen, but stranger things have happened, some of them just this morning.
Second, when documentaries come out, they need to be critiqued, by anyone with knowledge to contribute (the Wikipedia/DML model), by degreed professionals (because authority still carries some weight), and especially by the scientists involved. Production companies might not take such a cavalier attitude toward accuracy if they knew their work was going to be publicly scrutinized by the very scientists they were getting to appear on camera.
Third, we have to avoid becoming complacent, and by ‘we’ I mean scientists and audience members alike. A few doom-and-gloomers have suggested that this is just how Big Media works, and I need to stop being young and naive and simply accept it. I say, sod that. We will get the programming we demand. The internet is a very long lever, and I think that if we all push together, we can move the world.
Fellow Padian lab grad, elephant wrangler, and general nice guy and scientific badass John Hutchinson came through with a boatload of good advice in a comment below. I didn’t want it to be overlooked, so I’m just going to repost it here. Thanks, John!
One practice I recommend is to ensure you always charge production companies for your time, including time spent on emails and the phone. Almost all of them have a budget for this but of course they won’t tell you. How much you charge is negotiable; $100/hr is not unusual and it is possible to charge more. I do this and have the money go straight into my research slush funds, funding grad student trips to conferences etc.
If you’re up front about this (I tell them on the first call/email that my time is money and make an agreement) then they will tend to be more efficient with their time and at least at the end of the experience you’ll have a concrete benefit. In cases where you’re putting in a lot of time, get a contract signed; universities/museums may have business development people that can help arrange this.
In general the media will try to get as much out of you for free as they can. Be mindful of this. To be cynical/realistic, the companies don’t really care about you, even if the researchers do and are very nice chaps. Normally I am appalled by taking a mercenary attitude in science, but this is one case in which I am not.
A caveat is that companies in the early stages of documentary development may not yet have funds or even a guarantee that a filmed show will come out of it. In that case they will expect pro bono help. As a large fraction of these efforts tend to go under (not get funded), I recommend being careful with such situations- I’ve been disappointed 4/5 of the time.
The same goes once filming begins; if you spend 8 hrs filming you’d better get paid, because there is still a big chance that the footage will end up on the cutting room floor or just ~5 min will be used.
I tend to demand to see the script (when I don’t forget to ask, anyway)- and remember you can deviate from it. Much is negotiable but you have to be firm and persistent. It can be excruciating.
Once you get on the “hot list” from doing a few dino docs, you tend to more and more calls for help; I get about one a month on average (once four in one month). So the pressure to say yes reduces. Be choosy and don’t be afraid to say no.
Also, many, many thanks to all of you who took up the cause, either by blogging or by getting in touch with Dangerous, Zodiak, and Discovery. I couldn’t sleep after the previous post, I was afraid that I’d brought a knife to a gun fight. Considering how quickly and painlessly this was resolved, now it looks more like bringing a bazooka to a school debate. But I didn’t know that at the time. And as Carl Zimmer pointed out, happy endings like this one are few and far between.
Finally, as happy as I am that the bad editing is going to be fixed, let’s not lose sight of the larger problem. Clash of the Dinosaurs is still a pretty lousy show, especially considering the time and effort that went into it. All of the companies involved should be aspiring to do a hell of a lot better. We have a long way to go and hand-wringing about the likely education level of the average viewer is not going to get us there. I firmly believe that it is possible to present science accurately without losing the audience. The challenge is to get the people who make documentaries to believe that, too.