TV commemorates Titanic centennial

The exterior of a half-scale replica of the The exterior of a half-scale replica of the Titanic cruise ship in Pigeon Forge, Tenn. Photo Credit: AP

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Old Titanic experts never die. They don't even fade away.

They just keep making TV shows.

And plenty are premiering to mark this month's 100th anniversary of the legendary ocean liner's loss at sea on April 15, 1912.

James Cameron, director of 1997's blockbuster movie "Titanic" and a busy underwater explorer, is hosting NatGeo Channel's "Titanic: The Final Word" (April 8, 8-10 p.m.), in which he convenes a panel of experts for "the ultimate forensic investigation" into the ship's sinking.

That quest also fuels History's "Titanic at 100: Mystery Solved" (April 15, 8-10 p.m.), in which some of those same experts examine the latest evidence: 2010's first complete mapping of the ship's 15-square-mile debris field, shown being carried out by side-scanning sonar robots at the Atlantic wreck's 2-mile depth.

And then there's Bob Ballard, whose team discovered the wreck in 1985 and who, like Cameron, is a National Geographic "explorer in residence." The title of his new hour special, "Save the Titanic" (April 9 at 10 p.m. on NatGeo), carries a double meaning: Ballard visits Belfast to recount the shipmakers aboard Titanic's maiden sail who labored to keep the doomed ship afloat; he also sounds a century-later alarm of the wreck being damaged by today's underwater tourists. (You, too, can visit Titanic, via Russian submersible. The cost: a mere $60,000.)

"It's the largest museum on Earth, but there's no lock on the door," Ballard says in a phone interview from London, his speech racing about as fast as the car speeding him toward Heathrow Airport. This eloquent underwater archaeologist has become a globe-trotting evangelist for preserving the Titanic wreck and others like the wood shipwrecks he's now finding in the Black Sea. "We're watching amazing damage being done by trawlers to ancient antiquities that they don't even realize are there.

"No one has a voice to protect these things," contends Ballard, who's been pushing an international treaty to regulate exploration and salvage. "So I'm using, honestly, this [Titanic] anniversary as a soapbox, and not only to protect Titanic. Because if we can't protect Titanic, it's hopeless for all the others."

 

Loving Titanic 'to death'

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Indeed, 10 decades later, Titanic continues to excite the public imagination to unique extremes. We are, as Ballard says in his "Save the Titanic" narration, "loving the thing to death." That's why TV producers keep churning out Titanic documentaries annually. It's "because people really like to see them, and they rate really well," says History executive producer Carl Lindahl. He attributes that to the story being "fascinating on so many different levels. We all know about the drama of different types of people on board, from so many countries and classes. But it's also a story about history and technology and science."

Ballard thinks pop culture keeps Titanic alive. "It's sort of like every generation has rediscovered it," he says by phone. "The first generation lived through it, and the next was when Walter Lord wrote 'A Night to Remember' and there was that movie with Barbara Stanwyck . And then I found it [the wreck] , and then Cameron did his movie. So I'm sure it's going to be rediscovered every 20 years."

Yet both NatGeo and History are positioning their new two-hour specials as The Ultimate Answer to how Titanic broke apart after hitting that iceberg on a gloriously calm night 100 years ago. History's premiere covers a 2010 expedition undertaken with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Park Service and RMS Titanic Inc., owner of the wreck's salvage rights. Lindahl says just 60 percent of the debris field had been seen before, and "with the use of new technologies, we've photographed every inch of that 15-square-mile debris field in high-definition video for every piece of Titanic that's there."

 

A 'virtual hangar'

Like an airplane crash investigation where recovered debris is reassembled inside a hangar, "we're using what we call a virtual hangar, where we've brought all those pieces, and virtually laid a grid on the floor and put them back together," Lindahl says. "We've reverse-engineered it, so you can see those pieces coming off the bottom of the floor and back together, with the ship raising up to the surface." Show it backward, and you've got "virtual footage" of Titanic breaking apart.

So what's left to say or do with Titanic? Well, Ballard has an idea. "This is gonna sound crazy, so I hope you're sitting down," he enthuses by phone, launching into explaining how too-big-for-drydock supertankers are cleaned by underwater robots of the kind often seen tidying local swimming pools. "They now have a particular type of epoxy paint where these robots can literally apply paint underwater." Ballard shifts toward Titanic. "When I came on it for the first time, we came upon the bow and around the starboard side, and on the bottom, past the bilge keels, all of a sudden we saw pink paint with no corrosion and no growth. The antifouling paint they'd put on a hundred years earlier was still working.

"So, you could easily, and within a matter of days, clean and paint the hull of Titanic. It would be a piece of cake. I'm actually applying for a permit to do that, because the hull is what's holding this ship together."

And you thought watching paint dry was boring.

"Painting the Titanic" -- coming soon to a documentary channel near you.

 

A boatland of Titanic specials

TITANIC DOCUMENTARIES

TITANIC PROGRAMS (Planet Green, 4-8 p.m. April 1)

SAVING THE TITANIC (PBS/13, 10 p.m. April 1; WLIW World, 9 p.m. April 5) -- New: Dramatization of the final moments

THE REAL STORY: TITANIC (Smithsonian, 7 p.m. April 5) -- Comparing the 1997 movie to what actually happened

TITANIC'S FINAL MYSTERY (Smithsonian, 8-10 p.m. April 5) -- New: Examining rare natural phenomena involved in the tragedy

TITANIC: THE FINAL WORD (NatGeo, 8-10 p.m. April 8) -- New: James Cameron convenes an expert panel to detail how the ship sank

SAVE THE TITANIC (NatGeo, April 9 at 10 p.m.) -- New: Bob Ballard on ship-saving efforts then and wreck-preserving efforts now

TITANIC WITH LEN GOODMAN (PBS/13, April 10 at 8 p.m.; WLIW World, April 12 at 9 p.m.) -- New: "Dancing With the Stars" judge and former ship welder visits Titanic descendants.

TITANIC PROGRAMS (H2, April 12, 9 a.m.-3 a.m.)

NAZI TITANIC (H2, April 14 at 9 p.m.) -- New: Third Reich propaganda film about the disaster

TITANIC AT 100: MYSTERY SOLVED (History, April 15 at 8-10 p.m.) -- New: Deep-sea robots chart the ship's entire debris field

TITANIC PROGRAMS (NatGeo, April 15, 10 a.m.-7 p.m.) Includes a five-hour "Rebuilding Titanic"

TITANIC DRAMATIZED

TITANIC (ABC, April 14 at 8-11 p.m., April 15 at 9 p.m.) -- New: Miniseries by "Downton Abbey" creator stars Linus Roache

A NIGHT TO REMEMBER (Turner Classic Movies, April 14 at 10 p.m.) -- The acclaimed 1958 British film.

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