According to former CNN science features producer Marshall Masters, media coverage of catastrophic threats has improved dramatically since 2005.
As a former television science feature producer for the Cable News Network and Texas Cable Network, Marshall applauds a 2005 shift in the way the American media now addresses the threat of future global catastrophes.
This shift in content treatment happened when The Discovery Channel teamed up with BBC to produce Supervolcano, a realistic docudrama about a supervolcano eruption in Yellowstone Park. With the airing of this program in April 2005, the American media was dragged away from its use of Pollyanish titillation to address very real possibilities of future global catastrophes.
Yellowstone Ends the Trivialization
The show opened with documentary-like introduction by NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw, and the science that drove the story kept faith with Brokaw’s gravitas.
This 2-part program featured a consistent plot with phenomenally lifelike CGI sequences. In a word, it was ‘brilliant.’ Gone were the dueling pundits of titillation where one promises inconceivable disasters before the break; and the next who appears after a mind-numbing string of commercials with the real message: “keep on consuming and please do not worry.”
Before the pundits could brand Supervolcano as an attempt “scare up the ratings,” the U.S. Geological Survey reclassified the Yellowstone caldera eruption threat level to high — within a month after Supervolcano aired. Since then, a number of solid PBS broadcast documentaries and cable TV catastrophe series have aired:
- History Channel — Mega Disasters
- The Weather Channel — What If?
- The Discovery Channel — Perfect Disaster
Each of these series offers science based on recent findings, historically relevant events and highly realistic catastrophic scenarios for tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, impact events and more. Gone are the days of “maybe it will and maybe it won’t” Pollyanish titillation.
Does Catastrophe Coverage
Still Need Titillation?
Is this new realism intended to “scare up ratings” as the pundits suggest? Nonsense. The titillation programs of the past did a very handy job of brining in high ratings, so why are these programs so darn serious now? It is because audiences are not only ready for it: they’re demanding it. Case in point is the catastrophic failure of a catastrophe titillation program aired by Asahi Television Network, one of Japan’s major networks, last year.
Marshall hosts his own Internet Radio Show, Cut to the Chase to interview authors working along similar lines to his own. He records his shows on an ad-hoc basis and in April 2006, he interviewed Solar Code author Echan Deravy from Japan. The interview focused on two television programs in Japan that had interviewed Echan. One was for the Asahi Television Network and the other, Mondo 21, a mid-size cable TV network.
The Asahi Television Network program centered on the 2012 Earth change prediction of Graham Hancock and Echan Deravy. It was heavily promoted and aired during the very last hour of 2005, as a lead-in to the new year. A prime TV spot for sure.
As Deravy expected, show trivialized the subject matter as usual, but this time the network’s use of Pollyanish titillation backfired in the worst possible way. While the program opened with a substantial 15% market share, the trivialized subject matter turned viewers off. Midway into the program, they began leaving in the droves. By the end of the broadcast, Asahi’s opening 15% share had dropped to 6%!
Viewers are Demanding the Hard Truth!
What happened? Long accustomed to thinking within their own cultural bubbles, Asahi executives had failed to appreciate a major change in viewer expectations following the December 2004 Sumatra 9.1 magnitude earthquake in the Indian Ocean. That catastrophic event shocked the world with live coverage of the resulting tsunami which took the lives of nearly 230,000 and displaced more than 1 million.
Ergo, Japanese viewers no longer wanted catastrophe entertainment. They wanted catastrophe information they could use. Simply put, the Asahi executives were oblivious to this sea shift in viewer expectations and consequently suffered a humiliating loss of a prime time audience.
However, the other similar program on which Echan appeared with Mondo 21 used a different approach and enjoyed phenomenal success. Echan’s The Mondo 21 program was produced by Takeshi Hatoyama with 2012 predictions by Echan Deravy and others.
Keep in mind that Mondo 21 is essentially a Japanese clone of America’s Spike TV cable network with an entertainment format geared to Japanese men in their twenties to forties. Their usual programming favors male humor, fast cars and lots of giggly-wiggly cleavage — not global catastrophe shows.
Ergo, Mondo 21’s senior management was initially hesitant to gamble on Hatoyama’s proposal for a straightforward, tell-it-like-is approach to catastrophic Earth changes show. Still the same, Hatoyama’s track record of success with previous Earth changes shows helped his 2012 proposal win the approval of his superiors.
A keen observer of changing viewer expectations, Hatoyama risked his own political capital and reaped the rewards. After the show aired, the results came in and the audience share was impressive for Mondo 21, and Hatoyama’s risk enjoyed an unforeseeable gain as well. With each rebroadcast of Hatoyama’s program, the demographics started reflecting something new for Mondo 21. Women were tuning in!
Simply put, the ladies started watching a “guy’s channel” to see reruns of Hatoyama’s 2012 program. All of this is reminiscent of an old Russian saying. “He who takes risks, drinks champagne,” and Hatoyama certainly pulled the cork on this one.
The Audience is Everything
As a former science feature producer for the Cable News Network and Texas Cable Network, Marshall sees TV producers like Takeshi Hatoyama of Mondo 21 in Japan and those who produced Supervolcano, as the harbingers of more savvy generations of Television producers who really do get it.
Audiences have woken up to the issue of global catastrophes and they no longer want Pollyanish entertainment pap. Now that they’ve woken up and smelled the coffee, they want a fresh-ground reality - and make it a double. Television producers with the common sense to see that, will be the ones to fill their cups.