“Whatever you do, don’t breathe it,” the chemistry professor had told me on the phone.
By “it,” he meant the bromine that was sloshing around in a large glass jug, which he had carefully packed in Styrofoam and sent to me at my request.
It was the year 2000 and I was a producer and contributor on the world’s only daily science TV show, originally called @discovery.ca and later rebranded as Daily Planet, on Discovery Channel Canada. On this day, bromine was to be the answer to an on-air quiz question (“What is the only element in the periodic table besides mercury that is liquid at room temperature?”), so, naturally, when the package arrived at my desk, I was curious to have a look.
My plan was for Jay Ingram, the show’s co-host, to hold up the bottle in studio while revealing the answer. But I had forgotten that bromine is heavier than iron. No sooner had I gripped the bottle to lift it out of its packaging than the top popped off in my hand and a smelly brown cloud appeared in the midst of our newsroom.
For a moment, I thought I’d killed us all. Luckily, the bottle had two corks. I had released a residual bit of toxic vapour, not the whole container. We survived to produce the show another day.
The memory was one of many that ran through my mind like a highlight reel after I learned that Bell Media, Discovery Channel Canada’s parent company, had abruptly cancelled Daily Planet after 23 years on the air. The decision, announced two weeks ago, meant that most of the show’s production team was laid off immediately. Prepackaged episodes have been running since then, the last of which airs, without fanfare, on Tuesday night.
Like many who have a history with the show, I came away with a set of professional experiences that would be impossible to replicate in any other media job in Canada. I’ve had to to speak on camera while giddy from the thin air five kilometres above sea level at the world’s largest radio observatory in Chile and I’ve shot stories ‘round the clock in the High Arctic to take advantage of a sun that doesn’t set. I witnessed a landscape carved by rivers of liquid methane appear for the first time before human eyes after a probe landed on Saturn’s giant moon Titan. My former colleagues can rattle off their own equally mind-blowing and sometimes comical moments.
Once, during a series of parabolic flights in a NASA aircraft intended to reproduce weightlessness, co-host Gill Deacon turned to her producer and asked the immortal question: “Did I barf all my lipstick off?”
From the Great Barrier Reef to the Great Wall of China, @discovery.ca/Daily Planet took viewers around the world. “You are there” was the early slogan the show embodied when it launched as Discovery’s flagship Canadian offering in January, 1995.
Born when the internet was vast and growing but Google had not yet arrived to make sense of it, the show was built by a team that was equal parts CBC and TSN (the all-sports channel belongs to the same specialty cable family). The result combined intellectual curiosity with physical spectacle in a way that was entirely unique.
The show's signature strength was its sheer volume. An hour of original science programming every weekday is an astonishing amount of television to put together. Over the years, the show’s roving lens captured everything and everyone of consequence in science and technology and quite a bit more that was just plain interesting or weird.
For science communicators, that meant a national platform to demonstrate their chops, while for those behind the camera, it was the ultimate television training ground – the place where you could try anything because you had to do everything. Those who spent time on the show’s credit roll became beneficiaries of Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule, developing an expertise that has since migrated throughout the industry.
Perhaps the show’s defining moment was its response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, which played out in real time during what would otherwise have been a regular morning story meeting. That night’s episode, assembled on the fly with an all-hands effort, included a prescient assessment of why the twin towers fell, how planes were rerouted and what technology might be brought to bear in thwarting future attacks. There was no question of airing a repeat episode and waiting until the dust settled. The show was there when it mattered to help its audience make sense of the world.
That world has changed immeasurably since then. Cable cutting and a plethora of online offerings have hammered the specialty-channel universe. The audience has shrunk; Canadian content requirements during prime time have loosened. In its later years, the show was increasingly pushed to chase a male audience drawn to less cerebral fare (though current hosts Ziya Tong and Dan Riskin know their science).
With the show cancelled, an entire category of compelling stories and characters that would be considered too small or too Canadian to find their way onto BBC or National Geographic has lost its conduit.
That’s a shame and a real loss. But thanks to the show’s many alumni, the ability and the urge to tell those stories lives on. We were there.
Ivan Semeniuk is the Globe and Mail’s science reporter. He spent 11 seasons with @discovery.ca and Daily Planet