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NBC can't get enough Bad Astronomy!

I'm no psychic, but I knew this would happen.

When the asteroid 1997 XF11 passed us by recently, I predicted we would see TV schedulers hurredly putting their asteroid programming in the lineup. The Family Channel won the race by replaying the insultingly bad "Doomsday Rock", and TBS placed a close second with their documentary "Fire from the Sky" which was mostly well done, but did have a stumbling point or two.

But faithful Bad Readers know who my dark heroes are in this category: the forces at NBC television. My review of their execrable movie "Asteroid" help put this web site on the map. Well, NBC is at it again: they are also jumping on the death-from-above bandwagon by replaying their horribly inaccurate little asteroid tale (air date: Sunday, March 29 1998 at 7:00 p.m. Eastern; as always, check your local listings). The wonderful irony of this is that NBC placed an ad for the movie in the TV Guide, which features an image of a bumpy lump headed for some large city, and a caption that reads "Experts say an asteroid may destroy the Earth in 30 years. Tonight, get an early preview."

They have a way of densely packing Bad Astronomy into a few words. First, an asteroid would have a very hard time destroying the Earth. Although a medium-sized asteroid can carry enough energy to wipe out our ecosystem, it would take something a thousand kilometers across or more to "destroy the Earth". Loose phrasing is not a crime, but why cut them slack after all their other offenses?

But no, the real beauty of that ad is the timing. When XF11 was announced, the best data available showed a miss by about 40,000 kilometers, with an uncertainty just barely large enough to include an impact with Earth, although the probability was something like 1 in 1000. After the announcement, some other astronomers found old images of XF11 which allowed a better orbit determination, and they got a miss distance of about a million kilometers. That announcement came about one day after the original announcement.

So did NBC decide to rerun the movie "Asteroid", get it scheduled and get an ad into TV Guide sometime between those two announcements? Because if they did manage to squeeze all this in in under 24 hours then they can perhaps be forgiven, but somehow I doubt they could. I think that ad got submitted after the original announcement had been retracted; they must have known their caption was wrong, but ran with it anyway.

Is it really so hard to do a good job selling science on TV? Bill Nye does it, PBS does it, the Discovery Channel does it five days a week. If only NBC would learn from them.

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