Jay Ingram and I are staring at a photo of a
viewer's fanatical cat. "This cat only pays attention when I'm on
the show," he says with a laugh. "Other cats watch the show too,
Jay," I say. My best friend's cat, I explain, likes staring at
the screen of The Discovery Channel, although Mojo prefers insect
documentaries. Ingram stares out the window of his cluttered,
high-rise office, then turns to me and says, "I smell a discovery
story," with a smile on his face. A news item about devoted cats?
On a network's national newscast? Yes, it it's on
@discovery.ca (pronounced "at discovery
Canada"), the first, and only daily science news program in the
world. Every weekday, Ingram, along with co-host Gill Deacon,
presents an hour of inventive science reporting. On
@discovery.ca science is actually fun.
Engaging, eccentric, even wacky. Science becomes entertainment.
Here are some of the things I have learned
since I started watching the show in late September: that seals
can spend up to two hours underwater at depths that would burst a
human's lung; that "Klingons" actually speak in their own tongue,
composed of different syllables from various languages; and that
if you stacked every human in the world together, they would form
a pile one kilometre cubed.
@discovery.ca describes itself as "an
eclectic mix of documentaries, features, quizzes, columns, video
essays, interviews, and panel discussions." All this in a
one-hour show. While general news programs barely touch on
science, @discovery.cais all science, A to Z,
from astronomy to zoology. And it is a purely Canadian show.
More than one person has said to me, 'You're going to
run out of material if you only focus on Canadian science,' and
the problem is actually the opposite," explains Ingram. "We don't
have the people, editing suites, to push through the amount of
material we could do." More than quantity though, it's the
quality of reporting that's drawing viewers. And people are
watching. According to Nielsen Marketing Research, roughly 1.5
million Canadians tune into @discovery.caat
least once during the week. (It's on at 7:00 p.m. EST and 8:00
p.m. PST.) What is surprising is that more than half a million
weekly viewers are women over the age of 18 - a third of the
It is not just the general public that
is hooked. Michael Smith, head of the Canadian Science Writer's
Association, calls the show "interesting, newsy, upbeat and
detailed." Stephen Strauss, science columnist for The
Globe and Mail,has said he is "amazed at the hour of
A look at one of those hours should
demonstrate what all the fuss is about.
February 12, 1997
7:00-7:07 p.m. Show intro:
@discovery.caleads with a segment on the
shuttle Discovery, which will be updating the Hubble telescope
tomorrow so that it will send better pictures back to NASA.
Ingram interviews Story Musgrave, NASA's oldest astronaut, who
explains how the Canadarm will add new lenses to the telescope.
Since it is @discovery.ca's mandate
to cover what is current and national in science, the show goes
for the Canadian connection in every story.
begins at 9:30 a.m., with a daily meeting in a modern, spacious
boardroom in North York, Ontario. Most of
@discovery.ca's 20 staff members, sleepy-eyed
and with coffee mugs in hand, are discussing past, present and
future story ideas. Many of the ideas come from recent headlines,
journals and scientific reports that the staff read regularly,
and these are their sources for stories like the Hubble repair
segment. Paul Lewis, executive producer of the show, feels it is
important to connect the latest headlines with science. "We're
putting a new spin on the stories. Like, for example, the ValuJet
crash in the Florida Everglades. We focussed on 'What exactly is
the black box?' instead of focussing on the tragedy. We're
constantly looking for a scientific, technical angle for the
other side of the story." Lewis says approximately one-third of
their story ideas are original.
During the meeting, the
staff also critique last night's show. Today's postmortem is
unusually quiet, but according to Penny Park, one of the show's
two senior producers, debate is common, and crucial, in shaping
what goes on the show. "A good debate also helps focus a story.
It is also a reminder of where exactly a segment is heading. One
of the constant problems we have is how to present information in
an interesting way, while answering all the right questions and
being accurate without boring people. For example, how to present
microscopic evidence when there is a lack of visuals but no lack
of data. We want to make our stories accessible to the viewer,
but we don't want to lose information in the process."
In half an hour, the group discusses the lineup for
tonight's show: a feature story on Jupiter, part of a weekly
series on the solar system; the latest evidence on Alzheimer's
disease; how the Canadian team is doing in the solar car race in
Australia; a discovery of fossilized "dinodung;" and a visit to a
"cubed" house in Toronto. They are a jolly group, cracking jokes
throughout the meeting. ("I hear Iceland is flooding. Could it be
from all that vodka?")
7:07-7:09 p.m. Every day in this
time slot, the show focusses on the latest-breaking science news.
Tonight, there is a report on the dangers of driving while using
a cell phone (people are more likely to get into accidents while
using them), and new research on schizophrenia, which reveals
that sufferers have fewer brain receptors than normal.
"If you want to hear an expert discussing a significant
science discovery made that day, you come here," explains Ben
Schaub, one of the show's segment producers. Today, Terry Dickson
(a comet expert) and Musgrave discuss recent events in their
The crew bring these discoveries to
light in a cramped, cluttered area on Discovery's fourth floor.
They are a mixture of journalists, each contributing his or her
own expertise to create a show devoted to the latest science
news. Some are CBC news alumni, others have reported on science,
and three of the producers used to work on CBC Radio's science
program, Quirks and Quarks. "Basically what
I've done on the staffing side is find a whole bunch of people
who had experience doing daily quick turn-around TV, and a few
people who had experience in science programming in radio, and
others who had more of a science background," says Lewis. "So we
all mixed them together and they started learning from one
another. That's why we're a pretty tight-knit group."
The "father" of this family is Jay Ingram, an
experienced journalist who came to Discovery with a reputation
for popularizing science: he hosted Quirks and
Quarks from 1979 to 1992; he has won numerous
accolades, including the Sandford Fleming Medal; and he is a
science columnist for The Toronto Star.
I first meet Ingram, 52, after he has taped a discovery
segment called "The Mindbender." He has an intimidating presence:
silver hair and beard, eyes that are focussed and intense, and an
air of seriousness and worldliness. I walk into his office
cautiously, very much aware that this is a man who lives and
breathes science - a subject I know little about. He motions for
me to sit down. Once I start asking him questions about science
and the show, his face comes alive. The eyes grow animated, and
his face crinkles in a slight smile. "Jay has never lost that
natural curiosity about science," explains Lewis. "He's a boy,
and he's constantly asking questions."
Ingram's foil is
his partner Gill Deacon. Although she has no science background,
Deacon is an experienced journalist who has spent the previous
four years as an entertainment reporter at CBC Montreal. Now in
her first season with the show, she is popular with viewers and
staff alike. Deacon says she that has gotten a "great response
from the public" and her co-workers. "She has an incredible
naturalness in front of the camera," says Lewis. "She is a lot of
fun, kind of quirky and quite brilliant in an understated way.
It's good to have a perspective from outside the science
community, someone who has had not that much science experience
but is open to many things."
And Deacon does present an
air of naturalness on first impression. I meet her after my
interview with Ingram. She is dressed in jeans, a purple
turtleneck, a pair of hiking boots and no makeup - pretty in an
understated way. I immediately feel comfortable in her tidy (and
still unpacked) office next to Ingram's. Two months into her job
at @discovery.ca,the 30-year-old Deacon has
not found the pressure of joining the program in its second
season too overwhelming. "There's pressure because the show's
standards are so high. I want to make it work as well as it's
working, and to bring it along even further.... Viewers have said
they like me, and I think it's partly because Jay and I just hit
7:13-7:15 p.m. "You Asked For It" ("YAFI") is a
daily segment in which viewers pose questions to experts.
Tonight's topic is d?j? vu - what is happening in our brains when
we experience it? (The temporal lobes in the brain make a
mistake.) "YAFI" receives hundreds of requests every week, so
many that the program now devotes an entire show each month to
the segment, with a panel of experts - such as marine biologist
Stefani Paine and astronomer Ivan Semeniuk - answering about 20
queries. Schaub explains that "YAFI" has become so popular
because viewers can get involved: "The interactive aspect is
integral to the channel. Like having viewers vote for what they
want to see.... People like having choice."
interactivity doesn't stop there: it launched a groundbreaking
Web site, the Exploration Network (EXN), on, amusingly, Halloween
at 13:13. Suzanne O'Connor, executive secretary, has high hopes
for the new venture. She calls EXN "the Web site of the future. A
few months down the road we'll have live programming that will
air the same day. We have a team of four producers that will
write stories for the site and will attempt to get the stories on
the Net before our competition does. Discovery was the first
broadcasting network to have a Web site, and now we are the very
first multi-active, high-technology network available."
@discovery.ca contributes to Cable in
the Classroom, a school program that uses television to augment
schools' curriculums. @discovery.capackages
together segments with related themes (for example, stories on
ocean wildlife) into one show weekly that is aired on Mondays at
8:00 a.m. EST. Schools across Canada are encouraged to tape the
shows to help them teach science in the classroom.
the end of the "YAFI" segment, Ingram quips, "Those are some of
the theories about d?j? vu. Have you heard of them before?" It's
not unusual for these hosts to jest with the topic of science.
@discovery.ca wants to present science with a
sense of humour. And with Ingram and Deacon hosting, the program
is one big science party. Take, for example, Deacon's intro to
the humdrum subject of car airbags: "How fast does an air bag
open up? Try 480 kilometres per hour. That's faster than Jay
packing his bag and leaving after work." But there is a danger of
the show actually being too much fun. "Sometimes we cross over
the line and people write to us and say 'There is too much humour
and not enough substance,'" Lewis says. But Bree Tiffin, an
intern who also sometimes writes for the show, says this wacky
approach to science is important. "It's really heavy on
information for science types, so the show has to be fun."
7:15-7:25 p.m. Meet Steve, a computer that thinks by
itself and was created to teach people in the U.S. Navy how to
use an air compressor. It is the first of its kind and the sort
of breakthrough that the show likes to trumpet. This type of
advancement was what inspired the creation of
@discovery.cain the first place. Technology's
role is getting larger in our daily lives. And that, in turn, has
created a market for a show about these new discoveries.
@discovery.ca was also born out of a
need to distinguish The Discovery Channel Canada (one of 12
global Discovery channels) from the other new specialty channels,
such as The Life Network and The Learning Channel, which came to
air in January 1995 and are similar to Discovery because of their
scientific content. Trina McQueen, former head of CBC
News,had been placed at the helm of the channel and
wanted a show that would be relevant to the 1990s. "A daily
nature and science show seemed right," she says. "It is a show
that connects to the day. This is a generation of Internet gurus,
technological whizzes, and this now has an atmosphere of cool
7:27-7:34 p.m. An international satellite
launched in Japan promises to rival the Hubble's pictures. Deacon
interviews Dr. Wayne Cannon, a Canadian physicist at the
Institute for Space and Terrestrial Science, who is part of the
international team that worked on the satellite. Although
interesting, this piece further saturates a show that is already
heavy on astronomy.
tries to promote an active interest in Canadian scientific
research, and this commitment is being rewarded. The show was
nominated for two 1997 Gemini awards: one for Best Information
Series, and the other for Best Special Event Coverage, for a
segment called "Canada in Space" that aired last year.
7:34-7:41 p.m. Terry Dickinson, editor of Sky News and
an avid comet enthusiast, is on hand to explain that another
comet is entering our solar system this week. But Jay isn't too
concerned about where you can view the comet. Instead, he wants
to focus on what a comet is, how close this one is to the earth,
and how bright it will be. @discovery.catakes
the time to go in-depth here.
But no episode has delved
more deeply into the inner workings of science than
@discovery.ca's notorious "Great Tomato
Experiment," which aired during the week of September 2 through
6, 1996. Lewis had a basic premise for the experiment: "Last
summer, we wanted to do something on alternative medicine. How
the mind controls the body. That by manipulating the body's
energy through the mind, you can make yourself feel better." The
experiment's subjects: four tomato batches. Two were injected
with disease, a third was injected with water and the fourth was
not touched. The audience didn't know which batch was diseased.
The show invited seven individuals from Group Therapeutic Touch,
a organization devoted to the healing powers of the human mind,
to come to the set to provide healing thoughts for the tomato
batches. Ingram then asked viewers to send positive messages to
see if they could help.
And the public did call. One man
even sang the Barney song for the tomatoes. The show also
received a barrage of publicity. Critics, such as Robert
Choquette, a professor of religious studies at the University of
Ottawa, accused the show of using this "farce" as a ratings ploy.
But Lewis dismisses the idea. "What we wanted was an experiment
that dealt directly with our viewers. And that's how we got our
idea. It was important that we showed the viewers how a
scientific experiment was put together, step-by-step." One of the
people who helped set up the experiment was Dr. Verna Higgins,
chair of the botany department at the University of Toronto. She
says, "It was a legitimately designed experiment. It required
some refinement, but we did the best job we could in the time
available." Although the show has certainly weathered the
criticism of the segment, the tomatoes suffered a less fortunate
outcome - none survived.
7:44-7:55 p.m. The largest
chunk of the show, usually over 10 minutes, is devoted to "The
Mindbender," @discovery.ca'sweekly viewer
quiz. As Ingram lists the previous week's answers, he is
comfortably propped between a dinosaur head and a large, metallic
replica of DNA. @discovery.ca's set is as
unique as the show itself.
Like a sprawling, empty
museum, the set's artifacts glow dimly after everyone has left
for the night. Here you'll find everything from a telescope to
the dinosaur head.("A museum in Alberta just happened to have an
extra dinosaur head," explains Lewis.) "The concept is the back
room of a dinosaur exhibit at a museum.... For the last two
summers we'd go out to junk shops and ask museums for any extra
items," Lewis recalls.
"Mindbender" questions run the
gamut from "What is the world's largest freshwater lake?" to
"What is the closest living relative of the largest mammal of all
time?" After Ingram reveals the previous week's answers, he
apologizes for the show's mistake of showing an image of a
porcupine instead of a beaver in answering a question. Of course,
attentive as they are, @discovery.ca's viewers
were quick to point out the mistake. One woman went so far as to
question the show's "Canadianness," to which Ingram responds: "We
remain among our Majesty's most loyal Canadians!"
visit the set one afternoon, Schaub is packaging the "Mindbender"
segment in a large control room. He shouts directions to Ingram
via a headset. It's quite dark, but the numerous TV screens and
buttons allow enough light for me to see my notepad. This is one
of seven or eight segments that will make up tonight's show. Some
segments have been taped well in advance, others, on that very
day. Ingram has just finished taping another segment to air on
Halloween - an interview with a Transylvanian doctor on the myth
of Dracula. The atmosphere is jovial. Laughter and jokes echo
through the control room and through the headset. Between takes,
Ingram is flashing his teeth, and the camera zooms in dangerously
close, giving us a good view of his dental work.
7:58-7:59 p.m. How did tabloids get their name? The
topic seems an unlikely one for a weekly segment called "Joe's
Chemistry Set," hosted by Joe Schwarcz, a professor of chemistry
at Vanier College. But there is a science link, all right. When
one company in the late 1800s made small pills, it called the
tiny tablets "tabloids." Before long, anything else that was
reduced in size became referred to by the same name. Since many
newspapers had become more compact, the name attached itself to
them as well. It's a quick but amusing tidbit, and a tidy way to
end the show.
7:59-8:00 p.m. Time to say good-bye. "Too
bad," Deacon laments. Ingram tells the viewers what to expect
tomorrow - one story is on how men and women behave differently
from each other on the Net. "Like we didn't know that!" cries
Off camera the banter doesn't change. On another
day, while taping show intros, Ingram and Deacon are up to the
same old antics. He jokes that she has only been there two months
and already "runs the show!" But seconds later, once the camera
is on, they execute their intros perfectly. Soon enough the
humour kicks back in, and Deacon uses her monotone teacher
impression (from the movie Ferris Bueller's Day
Off) to introduce the "YAFI" segment on whether frogs
are able to burst their own vocal sacks. (The answer is no.)
Ingram and Deacon feel comfortable enough, both because of their
scientific knowledge and their personalities, to ad-lib certain
stories. According to Lewis, the hosts know how to feel out the
tone of a story: "We don't want them to sound rehearsed.... They
both have a great sense of humour and are spontaneous, and we
don't want them sounding too serious all the time."
Since the show is a success, will the world's other 11
Discovery channels, particularly the U.S. one, follow with their
own daily science news programs? Would this concept work well in
other countries? "There's a huge tradition in documentary,
in-depth current affairs programming in the U.S., and there's a
large audience there, so I don't see why it wouldn't work. We
could put together a U.S. show tomorrow, if we had to," says
Ingram. Deacon echoes the same sentiments. "I think it's a format
that could work anywhere, and it would probably be an even easier
time in the U.S. They tend to have more disasters...and even more
money for research."
With a budget of only $4,000 per
show, @discovery.calooks incredibly polished.
Especially considering the big money and large staffs of glossy,
big-production news magazine shows, whose daily budgets could
produce a month's worth of @discovery.cashows.
The task may seem daunting, but with little money and lots of
imagination, @discovery.cahas Canadian viewers
- and Canadian cats alike - fascinated by science. Just ask