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.

But…why?

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.

UPDATE

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.

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32 Responses to “Clash of the Dinosaurs: The Discovery Channel steps up”

  1. davidmaas Says:

    Good to hear it worked out. At least the slander part is out.

  2. ReBecca Says:

    Glad to know someone is listening and reading their email.

  3. BJ Nicholls Says:

    Congratulations!

  4. LeeB Says:

    Hi Matt,
    its an interesting last few days you have had.
    The tv company treated you in a totally reprehensible way, you publicised this in your blog, it was picked up in other blogs and on the DML, and the tv people were forced to back down and promise to re-edit any further broadcasts of this program.
    Your blog has given you a forum that has the power to influence tv producers and now you are aware it has this power.
    Good.
    If they wish to keep making programs about dinosaurs the tv companies must pay attention to the amount of bad publicity you can give them.
    Otherwise no one responsible will work with them as their talking heads.
    Sure they could hire a rent a head to say what they want, but they will be able to sell more of their documentaries if the talking head is one of the few in the field who has developed a public persona sufficient to have status as a recognisable knowledgeable expert.

    And your blog is giving you this recognition.
    I think tv companies will be forced to treat you better in future, and hopefully others if they fear that blogs can be used to give them bad publicity.

    LeeB.

  5. Albertonykus Says:

    Glad to hear about the happy ending… for now. Let’s hope for the future!


  6. Hey, glad it’s resolved. Hopefully this won’t happened again.

  7. Eugene Ortiz Says:

    Methinks your assertions about the inner workings and motivations of their world are no better informed than their attempts to understand yours.

  8. Matt Wedel Says:

    Methinks your assertions about the inner workings and motivations of their world are no better informed than their attempts to understand yours.

    That’s cool. Would you care to explain that, or defend it?

    Also, I really don’t know about the inner workings of their world. But there are some behaviors I’ve seen repeatedly, and heard of from others, that produce bad documentaries. I’m not going to refrain from pointing those out, or suggesting that they could do better.

  9. Doug Henning Says:

    Pessimist that I am, I suspect that the “experts” on the poltergeist-hunting shows get more respectful editing than you did. Crueler than the misrepresentation was the act of inserting your commentary into the middle of such a outright boring show aimed for people whose hyperactive tastes make Michael Bay look like Andrei Tarkovsky.

    Good on you for raising the spectre of palaeo-blogger’s vengeance incinerating them like the Ark of the Covenant and getting somewhere with the threat.

  10. Anonymous Says:

    “The internet is a very long lever, and I think that if we all push together, we can move the world.”

    We can stand up to those people who refuse to accept the way science works, and state….

    “Who the HELL do you think we are!”

    We’re scientists/people who work or associate with science dang it, and we stand by the facts, no matter where they go. I think Huxley summed it up the best.

    “Sit down before fact as a little child, be prepared to give up every preconceived notion, follow humbly wherever and to whatever abysses nature leads, or you shall learn nothing. I have only begun to learn content and peace of mind since I have resolved at all risks to do this.”

  11. Nathan Myers Says:

    Ultimately the solution is for scientists — or, at least, retired scientists — to move into the driver seat. Why should documentaries be made by ignorant idiots who have to be coaxed to do the right thing?

    It means learning new skills, but scientists can learn new skills. As it is, there are too many science graduates for the posts available. It takes a long time to move from apprenticeship to producer, but the sooner you start, the sooner you get there. Moving into educational video production might feel like a step down from Doing Science, but it’s all part of the big project.


  12. These are good suggestions. 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. I have long been very happy that I said No to the “Animal Faceoff: Elephant vs. rhino” show in my younger days, even though they dangled a free trip to New Zealand in front of me… That show sucked ass.

    Just a few thoughts from my limited experience.

  13. TopGon Says:

    Hey I follow your blog not so long ago, but I find it so interesting to me. I’m illustrator and all good anathomical stuff is wellcome ;).
    I want to congratulate you by your success in making a big TV channel fix a mistake like this in a superproduction documentary. The usual (sadly) is that they don’t hear to this kind of claims. Continue with your duty and congratulations again!

    Pd. sorry about my english…

    Greetings from Barcelona.

  14. David Marjanović Says:

    Third, the “innocent mistake by harried editor” hypothesis is Pyrrhic exculpation.

    Oh, absolutely. My comment to that effect wasn’t meant as an excuse, it was meant as noticing the existence of a Lovecraftian eldritch abomination.

  15. Matt Wedel Says:

    Just a few thoughts from my limited experience.

    No need for modesty, this is all very good advice, and I’m going to add a pointer to it up in the post.


  16. […] Clash of the Dinosaurs: The Discovery Channel steps up « Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week Says: December 17, 2009 at 8:38 pm […]

  17. Sarah Says:

    “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?”

    Oh, I wasn’t saying it was better. It isn’t. I have a friend who works in the tv industry, and nothing he has told me makes me confident that anyone in the for-profit part of that industry gives a shit about ANYTHING except the bottom line. That would include labor laws, dispersal of accurate information, accurate presentation of people and their words, ruination of personal lives or representation, etc. It’s abhorrent.

    Looking at Dangerous Ltd’s next dino documentary: http://www.dangerous.co.uk/programmes/programme_lastdays.asp
    do you honestly think it will be any better? I bet most of the animation is already done for this.

  18. David Tana Says:

    Dr. Wedel,

    I’ve been following this series of events here at SV-POW and on the vertpaleo mailing list, and am glad to hear that things have resolved themselves in a satisfactory manner. I still feel, like many others, that there is still a lot of work that needs to be done to ensure that things like this don’t happen in the future.

    Savor your victory!

  19. Larry Treadwell Says:

    Prof. Joseph Henry said “If science doesn’t put an end to quackery, then quackery will put an end to science.”

    He was talking about the people that went around in the name of science showing off “real mermaids, dragons in a jar, and lead into gold”.

    I think it’s just exactly what happened here, they were more interested in showing off fantasy realm monsters than flesh and blood animals.
    Maybe it was just an editing mistake, I hope it was just an editing mistake. But it’s just as likely your answer wasn’t strange enough for the theme of the show “see the dinosaurs from the inside”.

    Just waiting for the day when one of these programs tell us Allosaurus could breath fire.


  20. […] Clash of the Dinosaurs: The Discovery Channel steps up Great news! I just got off the phone with someone at the Discovery Channel. He asked not to be named, but he has […] […]


  21. I am so pleased to hear a presumed resolution to your situation, which just made me feel sick when I first read it. I am so frustrated by TVs misrepresentation of science for the sake of entertainment.

    I also appreciate the input by John Hutchinson. I’ll be keeping that in mind.

  22. beccrew Says:

    I’m so happy for you!


  23. […] brought his case directly to the Discovery Channel, and they agreed to change the show so that he would not be saying something that was not true. […]

  24. Graham King Says:

    Congratulations Matt, and very well done for making this the public issue it has to be. Media and documentary people should be ever-mindful that
    “With great power comes great responsibility”..


  25. […] today the story has another ending. Wedel now reports that someone from the Discovery Channel called him up and is going to make things right. I can only […]

  26. Mario from Brooklyn Says:

    Cool stuff Matt, I’m real glad this worked out. I hope to see you on future documentaries. I like your style.

  27. qmackie Says:

    My experience with documentaries most recently was quite disillusioning. The BBC asked if I could be interviewed and of course I agreed, thinking that they wanted to know what I knew, so to speak, and after all, it is the BBC.

    But it very quickly became clear that they had written a script back in London and were not interested in talking to me. Rather, they had a narrow range of things they hoped I would say, and kept coming back to those. They had zero interest in talking to me on or off camera in order to find out what my thinking was or what my opinions were.

    So the actual filmed interview was frustrating because it was clear that, probably for some kind of continuity reasons, that they wanted me to say something in a certain way and in a certain order. It would have been vastly preferable if they were upfront about this because then I could have (a) helped from a useful script for them, one I agreed with, and (b) felt positive about the experience rather than a useless tool.

    But really, the key is: documentaries are not journalism. The interviews are not designed to be fact-finding but to be storytelling. All the research has been done and the interview is an enactment of a scene. They are tightly scripted with an agreed-upon, fixed story-line. The role of the scientist is not to say what they know, but to say (with prodding, perhaps) what the documentarian wants to hear, or needs to have said.

    Probably I was naive but I found this all rather surprising, and disillusioning.

  28. Phil Manning Says:

    This is a positive outcome…having watched one of the shows over the holidays, it was clear that folks were being mis-quoted and/or poorly edited.

    John Hutchinson’s sage words ring true with many who step into the spotlight of television. Larry Witmer and I exchanged similar words before the holidays regarding the debate on a scientists role in making such documentaries.

    Diving neck-deep, as I have, into the television production side does have many benefits in terms of the involvement in content/story side, but it is very expensive in terms of time. Whether there is a halfway house for academics to safely interface with the media is very much down to the production company involved…some are great, whilst others have the potential to…quoting John, ‘suck ass’!


  29. […] Clash of the Dinosaurs Clash of the Dinosaurs: Dangerous Ltd document their own dishonest editing Clash of the Dinosaurs: The Discovery Channel steps up A scientist is QUOTE MINED on a Discovery dinosaur documentary Share this:TwitterFacebookLike […]


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