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.