March 2010


Cue Oprah Winfrey: “The poison dart frog will make five more long journeys into the jungle canopy to protect her tadpoles, from predators and each other, in their own pool of water before the day is over.”

Cue Sir David Attenborough: “The poison dart frog will make five more long journeys into the jungle canopy to protect her tadpoles, from predators and each other, in their own pool of water before the day is over.”

What’s the difference?

Well, if we could conjure his ghost, Charles Sanders Peirce might have a thing or two to say about the voice factor on Discovery Channel’s new Life series. We can’t, so the Coles Notes substitute goes like this:

For some viewers, Oprah’s voice resonates with authenticity. For others, Attenborough’s is more authentic. The difference is in their indexicality or, arguably, their iconicity. For Peirce indexicality refers to the process through which certain cues (smells, sounds, sights, feels etc.) have some kind of factual, spatio-temporal link with something else. I go into a carpet shop, see what the owner says is a Kashmiri prayer rug, and can judge the degree to which I believe it is authentically so by analyzing colours (pink or blue could be dominants), thread count (higher than average, even by the Iranian standards), motif (old school Persian, maybe a lotus or two) and such. In contrast, iconicity refers to the process by which, were I not to have some experience in Kashmiri carpet factories, I might judge the authenticity of the carpet based on less factual filters such as how I imagine Kashmiri carpets to be thanks to watching documentaries about the region. In short, indexicality suggests a ‘been there, done that’ element while iconicity is more akin to ‘seen that, heard about that’. Which brings us to why Oprah’s just not indexing it for me.

Having seen the Planet Earth documentary series from 2006, I was stoked to learn that the producers had decided to shoot another pass at the complexity of life on earth. Life, however, wasn’t what I expected. Somehow the poison dart frog, the Jesus lizard, the hippo and all of their jungle friends seemed less awe-inspiring, less mysterious, magical, complex even. And the reason, I suspect, was in the voice.

For me, Attenborough indexes hundreds of years of British natural science, from the pith-hatted colonial floral thieves of Victorian England to, well, years of Attenborough being the go-to voice of the wildlife documentary. Oprah, in contrast, is, for me, the voice of inspirational stories – like the Philipino guy who finally broke into stardom as the new voice of Journey. She just doesn’t index the authority I require in a wildlife documentary. Perhaps its because I imagine Attenborough, with his years of experience, co-authoring scripts while Oprah just reads what others have given her about the Jesus lizard. Perhaps it’s a Canadian thing, that we’re just more comfortable with voices from our colonialist British forefather culture telling us about the worlds we’ve never seen.

I read on Wikipedia that Discovery dropped Attenborough’s voice for its U.S. airing of Planet Earth and subbed him with Sigourney Weaver. Again, not the voice I associated with wildlife unless it’s on LV-426 or Pandora. So do two women, one TV and one film, index authenticity for U.S. audiences? Not sure, but I’d bet on some focus group research to have driven confidence at Discovery in their choices.

Like the President from 24 doing Allstate ads and James Earl Jones as the early voice of CNN, the voice is key to generating authenticity and believability. How successfully these voices travel over cultural, national, ethnic etc. boundaries is key to watchability. Me, I’m done with Life – unless BBC’s Natural History Unit drops a DVD box set of it with Sir David.

A 2-man social slalom down the streets and through the alleys of The Mission District in SF, nearly a dozen derelict movie theaters that reference a golden age ago, and patch-up jobs that keep science and storytelling alive – regardless of crumbling infastructure.

Other than the sight of a hearse or a police-led auto procession to an internment, North American culture is fairly thin on expression of public mourning. A taped-up eulogy ripple of a shift? Shot in the Haight-Ashbury hood in SF.

Design + Anthropology + Retired Longshoreman = Key Insights for Clients Everytime.