Big Ratings For Darwinius Day. So How Was It, Cable-Viewers?

By Carl Zimmer | May 27, 2009 9:20 am

Monday night, Darwinius masilae (a k a Ida) had her television debut on The Link, which aired on the History Channel. A lot of people saw it, says Broadcasting & Cable in a surprisingly accurate article, which managed to do a better job on the scientific side of the story than a lot of regular media outlets:

Controversy Helps ‘The Link’ Boost History–Draws 2 million viewers Monday night

By Alex Weprin — Broadcasting & Cable, 5/26/2009 1:39:59 PM MT

The Link, a History special about the recently revealed 47 million year old fossil Ida, drew 2 million viewers Monday night, according to Nielsen Fast Cable ratings. That is up 67% compared to History’s prime average.The special also drew 904,000 P25-54 and 756,000 P18-49.

Ida–and the History special–was announced just a few weeks ago at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City and in journal PLoS One. Since then, the fossil, which could be the earliest known mammalian ancestor of man, linking Anthropoids (a group which include humans) with earlier groups of primates, has been extensively covered in the media.

While the History special is dubbed The Link, implying the fossil is a so called “missing link” in human evolution, many science journalists have criticized that interpretation, arguing that there cannot be a single “missing link” and that at best the fossil adds to the already strong literature on human evolution, and at worst may not be a part of humanity’s evolutionary history at all.

I gave up cable some years ago, a bit like an alcoholic going clean and sober. So I was not among the two million who saw the show Monday, and I haven’t seen it turn up on the web since then. I’ve been trying to get a sense of it from other people’s reactions on the web. But it’s hard to judge the show based on the reactions of people who are already steeped in paleontology. After all, television, like newspapers, should be directed to the public at large. I think it’s good if a show about science makes scientists or science buffs a bit impatient or bored.

The catch is that in trying to reach as wide an audience as possible, television producers sometimes start making stuff up. Certainly the hype ginned up last week over Darwinius was packed with plenty of nonsense. But sometimes a show and its publicity are very different. What’s the case here?

Update: When I say “big ratings,” I realized after posting this, I may be suffering the soft prejudice of low expectations. Two million is a high number for the History Channel, but not for Nova on PBS. And it’s really low compared to “Jon and Kate Plus Eight,” which aired the same night as “The Link.” The most important fossil ever ever ever can’t compete with a screwed up family, I guess.


Comments (14)

Links to this Post

  1. Vetenskapens värld hypar fossilet Ida « Komplexa analyser | November 7, 2009
  1. I agree that if creating hype can help expand awareness and understanding of science to the public that it can be a good thing. I am not even against fudging some of the details to get a bigger point across.

    I saw the Ida documentary on Monday and despite the above allowances, I still thought it was a pretty bad program. It felt more like Geraldo’s uncovering of Al Capone’s Vault or the finale episode of Dancing withe Stars with drawn out and repetitive descriptions and even the same slow pan across the fossil. Frankly I dozed off a couple of times and almost missed the “payoff” moment at the end where they “uncover” the ankle bone evidence.

    I think it could have been an hour with regular commercial breaks with less repetition and it would have been paced much better with content being spaced more closely together.

    I still think Ida fossil is pretty cool, and am looking forward to seeing it at the American Museum of Natural History this weekend as part of the Extreme Mammals show.

  2. I agree with Avi. The show was agonizingly slow and repetitive with endless camera pans of the fossil. Horrible and grating. The actual information contained in the show could have been easily summed up in five or ten minutes. Very easily. Those informational nuggets were interesting, but not worth sitting through the whole show to glean. The only thing I liked about the show was how in-your-face they were about the reality of evolution.

  3. I agree – although I was expecting it to be overblown, in the end above all else it was tedious. If there was a drinking game where you took a sip every time they said it was the most complete fossil primate ever you’d have been drunk after 10 minutes. It would have been just as informative, and far more effective, if it were half as long. I also think it did a pretty crappy job of setting up any kind of drama – they were so breathless about it from the beginning that all of the discoveries along the way were anticlimactic.

  4. I wrote, “The bad news is that the documentary doesn’t stand out from any other documentary. … It’s as though all of these documentary filmmakers are perpetually stuck in one gear.”


  5. Gaythia

    I haven’t seen the Ida documentary yet because I figure that the History Channel will rerun this at some future, more convenient time.

    Although I was in Seattle then, I did not go to see the Lucy exhibit because my friends and I decided that any advantages of seeing the actual fossil were outweighed by the considerably lesser expense of seeing an also enjoyable quilt show instead.

    A third set of fairly recent headlines that may have crossed public consciousness are those regarding the “hobbit” fossil.

    For the public in general, I am concerned that they are absorbing a message that scientists making such discoveries do over promote the importance of their own work and that later these discoveries are found to be controversial and hence seemingly less significant.

    I think that this piecemeal approach tends to detract from educational efforts to explain to the public the importance of the overall fossil record and how it relates to our scientific understanding of evolution.

    I believe that more thought needs to go into conveying to the public the methods of science and how evidence is collected and evaluated. Thus, rather than “controversies” the discussion of new finds could be seen as demonstrating credible scientific analysis at work.

  6. dave souza

    Not sure, but I think the version I’ve now watched a few times was a bit different – written and narrated by Sir David Attenborough, which makes the missing link / ankle bone proves it’s a human ancestor big ending even more grating.

    Oh, and Attenborough dramatically announced as his closing statement (before a last word from Hurum) “And remarkably, exactly 150 years after Darwin put forward the proposition that human beings were part of the rest of animal life, here at last we have a link which connects us with not only the apes and monkeys, but also with the entire animal kingdom.” Stirring stuff, slightly marred by the point that Darwin didn’t put that proposition forward until 1871 – in On the Origin of Species of 1859 he merely stated that “In the distant future I see open fields for far more important researches. Psychology will be based on a new foundation, that of the necessary acquirement of each mental power and capacity by gradation. Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history.” Aaargh.

  7. Greg Peterson

    I’ll say this, at least…toward the end of “The Link” were some of the most powerful statements in favor of evolution being a fact, and a theory on par with the theory of gravity, that I have ever seen on TV. I’m not sure if even such a potent and eloquent statement of fact will do for those who get their science from Bronze Age goatherder texts, but it was thrilling to hear nonetheless.

  8. Gaythia

    In the last few days leading up to the first showing of “The Link” the History Channel did seem to show some sensitivity to criticism that it’s advertising was over-hyped. They did tone down some of the more egregious claims on their webpage, such as the “Most important discovery in 47 million years!” claim.

    Perhaps in spots encouraging the rest of us to watch the reruns, the History channel could be encouraged to run portions of some of the best statements of the show, such as the ones identified by Greg Peterson above.

    A wider audience can be reached by snippets of things than entire shows.

  9. Eva

    I watched it in Norway on NRK, but I suppose it’s the same program except for the Norwegian narration.

    It ought to have been a lot shorter. There was lots of interesting information there, but the way some of the graphics and sentences got repeated all the time was frankly annoying and almost put me to sleep. To be quite frank I blamed all the repetitions and the slowness of it all on the frequent commercial breaks and the need to hook new viewers on US-television. I might be wrong however, I don’t even know if the History Channel have commercial breaks.

    I hope there will be a new show in a few years when more people have had a chance to study Ida. A better show!

  10. Keith

    The BBC has it on their website. You might need to go through a UK based proxy server to watch it from abroad I guess.

  11. I loved the “look” of the fossil and the beginning of the show was interesting. Then it started to get annoying and I surprised myself by going off to do something else. An hour would have been sufficent. I wonder if the ratings went down for the second hour. I’m hoping for a really good show after its been studied.

  12. After watching it I proposed that someone should edit out the tripe and get to the real content. It would probably be 15 minutes of pure riveting science. I have it on my DVR and could do it… but then I would have to watch it again without nodding off.

  13. Gerdien de Jong

    Is the name Darwinius masillae valid, given that the fossil on slab B was earlier described under the name Godinotia neglecta?
    The sequence of names is described on page 4 of Franzen et al PLoS one 19-5-2009.


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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.


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