Ida-lized! The Branding of a Fossil

Media / by Elizabeth Cline /

Jørn Hurum, the History Channel, and PLoS ONE editors tell us how and why they kept the story of the "missing link" fossil a secret.

Illustration by Tyler Lang

Scientists are hunkering down for what could be years of debate around “Ida’s” place in the evolutionary tree of life. But their verdict won’t alter the fact that the instantaneous fame of this fossil, as well as the secrecy and spin used to create it has indeed “changed everything”—about the relationship between scientific research, media, and popular culture. At the center of this shift is Jørn Hurum, the Norwegian paleontologist who revealed Ida to the world; a modern-era, media-savvy scientist with the right amounts of showmanship, populist sensibility, and disregard for the normal avenues of scientific prestige required to pull this off. As Hurum, a PLoS ONE editor, and a History Channel executive explained to SEEDMAGAZINE.COM this week, it took a breathtaking amount of coordination between networks, museums, producers, scientists, and most impressively, a level of secrecy impossible to come by in the internet age.

Ida’s debut to the world was comprised of an astonishingly slick, multi-component media package—certainly the first of its kind. In addition to the press conference itself, Little, Brown, and Company released The Link: Uncovering Our Earliest Ancestor, by Colin Tudge on Tuesday; a multimedia-rich website, RevealingTheLink.com, was launched; and a two-hour documentary will air on the History Channel, the BBC, and various stations in Germany and Norway next week. And for the first time in the History Channel’s history, their television programming is timed with the release of a scientific paper: The paper published on Monday by Hurum’s team in the open-source journal, PLoS ONE. While the scientific community is just beginning to determine Ida’s significance on the evolutionary spectrum, her place in the zeitgeist is secured.

In the past three months, there have been a spate of other headline-grabbing fossil finds, including the supremely preserved baby wooly mammoth named “Lyuba,” and a giant, toothy pliosaur found near the Arctic, provocatively dubbed “Predator X.” While fascinating and scientifically important, these fossils achieved their fame as a result of cross-pollination between scientists and popular network television channels. Lyuba’s discovery announcement was PR for a National Geographic Channel movie called The Waking of the Baby Mammoth, and Predator X grabbed headlines days before starring in a titular History Channel documentary. Neither film was tied to a scientific paper, although one will be published on the pliosaur before the year’s end.

“It’s an incredible coup from the business side of things,” says Ronnie Krensel of Camouflage TV, a production company whose clients include the Discovery Channel, A&E, and TLC. “The way these things used to work is that a finding was released in the scientific journals and then it finds its way into the more popular media, and then production companies find out about it and do a TV show.” In the case of Ida, a production company got in on the ground floor, filming the entire research process as it happened.

But in order for the story and the film to pack the most punch—and to reach the public—Hurum and the production company knew they had to keep it secret. Hurum seemed particularly preoccupied with the way the blogosphere is able to dissipate a story, mentioning an Arctic excavation he worked on several years ago that was picked-up by a blog in Japan within three hours of posting his pictures on the internet. “I’ve seen Chinese specimens of dinosaurs and so on destroyed like this with lots of bad early descriptions [from] blogging,” he says. Hurum wanted to subvert the system and take his story straight to the masses in a way that would appeal to the average person, especially kids: “If we really want kids to get involved with exciting scientific findings, no matter what kind of field, we really need to start [thinking] about reaching people other than [our] fellow scientists. This paper could have been drowned in other papers and would have been read by 15 people around the world.”

A couple of years ago, Hurum, a regular commentator on Norwegian science and children’s TV and radio programs, knew he wanted to make a documentary about his latest excavation in the Arctic: a fossil of an unusually large prehistoric sea monster. That’s when he first met with Anthony Geffen, the CEO of London-based Atlantic Productions who has experience working in high profile, top-secret science documentaries like the Discovery Channel’s Egypt’s New Tomb Revealed, and has also produced shows for the History Channel, as well. “He came for a meeting and we had a really good connection,” says Hurum, “And he sounded like the man who could keep something like this secret.”

The pair’s first project was, not coincidentally, Predator X, which aired in March on the History Channel. The tagline, “It makes tyrannosaurus rex look like a puppy,” and the trailer, dotted with grandiose one-liners like, “We’ve uncovered a new world that will rewrite history,” are the kind of media-savvy affects we now know to associate with Hurum and Geffen. The incredible state-of-the-art animation showing the beast biting down on the neck of a rival plesiosaur helped the monster gain traction with the press and was an excellent a rehearsal of Ida’s fame-making machine.

Meanwhile, Hurum had taken Geffen down into the basement of the University of Oslo Natural History Museum to introduce him to Ida, which Geffen was instantly taken by. “That’s actually rare for someone making television to understand how important a flat, small, cat-sized animal was,” says Hurum. Afterward, Hurum began putting together what he calls his “Dream Team”—paleontologist Philip Gingerich, primate specialist Holly Smith, paleontologist and German fossil expert Jens Frenzen—to help him investigate Darwinius masillae in secret. Geffen began to set up the media package that would ultimately sell Hurum’s findings and his perfectly preserved fossil to the world.

Negotiations began with the History Channel, who the New York Times reported paid more for The Link than they have for any other single documentary, along with the BBC, the German broadcaster ZDF, and the Norwegian station NRK. Legal agreements between all parties involved and anyone shown the fossil were drafted to keep the film and the scientists’ findings under wraps. “I think a lot of people jumped on the project and held the secret because they understood Jørn’s passion and they knew the importance of the science enough to really do everything they [could] to protect it,” says Michael Feeney, the vice president of Corporate Communications for A&E, the History Channel’s parent company, “You couldn’t do that at most media companies today.” Feeney says the deal with the History Channel went through summer, 2008.

Jørn Hurum is an unapologetic showboat, but it’s difficult to accuse him of executing this as direct means to get rich or even to fund his research. He insists that while his team will share a percentage of the book deal, they won’t see a dime of the money from the film or the website, and that the mega-bucks deal between Atlantic and the History Channel “has nothing to do with him.” When asked if The Link will make him rich, Hurum says “absolutely not,” adding that he gets a lot of reactions like this in Norway when he’s worked on science and children’s programming. “I’ve never charged anything because generally, I think it’s important to get science out there, and I really love what I’m doing, and I really like to tell people about it.” He did acknowledge that The Link was a business move in the sense that it was about “branding” for the museum and his research, which could lead to future investments. “It’s not the movie that will get the money or even the book that will get the big money,” says Hurum, “but it’s the sponsor[s] that then think, ‘Okay, the Natural History Museum in Oslo and maybe even Jørn Hurum are interesting’ that will generate the money.”

As for the matter of the paper, it was not an official part of Geffen’s media package but it was certainly part of the team’s strategy. An open-access journal, rather than the more esteemed Nature or Science, was intentionally sought, Hurum says, so that the public could access and read the findings without paying for it.

“If they had gone to Nature, everyone would have been complaining that they couldn’t actually read the paper because they’d have to hand over $20 or $30 or whatever their rate is to read it,” says Peter Binfield, PLoS ONE’s managing editor. Binfield says that PLoS ONE also attracts scientists looking for a quick review process. The paper was first submitted for peer review in March and was accepted on May 12, which according to Binfield is actually twice as long as the journal’s normal review process. “The scientific evaluation of this paper was completely as normal. It wasn’t rushed or hurried or on any deadline,” he says.

Even though the paper was only held for seven days after acceptance, the journal has come under fire for not releasing the paper before the press conference, so that other scientists could read it and be prepared to respond. Binfield confirms that once the paper was accepted, the journal agreed to speed the publish date along so that it would be released in conjunction with the press conference. He says he was just doing what his journal often does, which is accommodate authors on their publish date.  “If people tell us that they have a certain publication date that they’d like to hit, within reason, we try and meet that of course.”

Ida’s fame is a case of a seasoned producer, a media-savvy scientist, and a once-in-a-lifetime fossil find. It was indeed history making for the public’s perception of science—known more for films featuring robotic reenactments than for inspiring web and television events that millions of people participate in. Though a perfect storm like Ida’s will not come along again soon, research intersecting with mass media and scientists seizing the tools and technologies of modern communication appear to be the way of the future. How all of this will affect the peer review process, the credibility of science, or the way researchers secure funding remains to be seen. When asked if calling Ida the “missing link” or the “scientific discovery that changed everything” was taking things too far, Hurum says, “Well, it is changing everything. It’s changing our perspective. I’ve been in interviews all day and they are amazed that we have relatives this old. What it’s also changing is that we are really packaging science for the first time in history on different platforms to make it accessible for a lot of people.” Whether that’s a good thing or not may be as hotly contested as Ida’s place on the family tree.

Originally published May 22, 2009

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