In June 1979, 38-year-old explorer and filmmaker Philippe Cousteau died at the controls of a Cousteau Society seaplane in an accident in Lisbon, Portugal. For television viewers around the world, it seemed to be a personal loss. Since 1968, millions had watched handsome young Phillippe grow into his prime aboard the Research Vessel Calypso on his father’s popular documentary series, The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau.
Six months after Philippe’s death, his widow Jan gave birth to a son and named him Philippe Jr. As an infant, he was heir to an environmental brand and media dynasty that spanned the globe, yet was already falling into decline. The Calypso sank in 1996, family squabbles began even before Jacques Cousteau’s death in 1997, and the legal fights over the Cousteau legacy continued for years. “People think we grew up rich, but the only thing (Jacques Cousteau) left us was a lawsuit,” Philippe Jr. says.
Talk about a tough act to follow.
Today, 32-year-old Philippe Jr. bills himself as an “explorer, social entrepreneur, and environmental advocate,” and his list of involvements is too long to fit on a business card. He’s best known for his television work for Animal Planet (he was with Steve Irwin when the Crocodile Hunter star died on an Animal Planet documentary expedition), Discovery Channel, and, most recently, CNN International, but he’s more deeply entwined in a series of environmental nonprofits.
Cousteau sat down with the City Paper at the College of Charleston’s Stern Center on July 25. He was in town for an ongoing workshop for teachers sponsored by EarthEcho International, the youth-oriented non-profit organization Philippe Jr. and his sister Alexandra founded in 2007. He’s one month removed from the launch of the environmentally focused Global Echo ETF mutual fund and actively promoting his nonprofit’s plan to build and train a national network of student environmental journalists.
CP: What do you remember about your grandfather (Jacques Cousteau died when Philippe Jr. was 17)?
PC: He knew how to communicate. He knew how to be a storyteller. Go to where your audience is, don’t expect them to come to you. And that was an important lesson to me.
We probably didn’t have the childhood people expect. When my father died, my mother moved home to L.A. So I went to school in L.A., my sister and I. Grew up with a single mom. Nice little house in Pacific Palisades, middle-class community. We saw my grandfather once or twice a year, but people think we … grew up on expedition, and that was my fantasy, too, but that just wasn’t the case.
My mother spent 13 years on expedition. She kept [the Cousteau legacy] alive for us, watched all the films with us. So she was really the conduit, daily, to keeping that legacy alive. It’s all from my mother. My grandfather was great and a huge influence, but if there was a foundational awareness and understanding of what Cousteau was, it was from my mom.
CP: Did you always think you’d grow up to continue the family enterprise, or did you consider anything else?
PC: I certainly for a time thought that we’d grow older and life would be very much like it was for my father and grandfather, that we’d be away on expedition for months all over the world. But the media market and the media world are very different today than they were then. There were three to five channels on television. Now there are 100,000 on TV these days.
So we always fantasized about being on expedition, doing what my father and my mother did. It’s a different world today. It’s a very different media world, a very different funding world, and without the funding, you just can’t do it the way they did it.
[Jacques Cousteau] was a storyteller, and he innovated ways to tell the story, and at the time, he did television, he did books, he did radio, he did school programs, he did comic books, everything that was available. He blanketed the media that was available at the time. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized he would not be doing that today. I like to think that if he were doing it today, he’d be doing a lot of the same things as us.
CP: Such as?
PC: We launched a socially responsible investment fund a month ago on the New York Stock Exchange. I think he’d be looking at financial markets. I believe that he’d be really fascinated with technology in the same way that we’re looking at how can we leverage games and phones and the internet to have more of a ground-up approach to getting young people engaged in a way that interests them.
CP: You’re interested in networked media, social media, new media, but you work in traditional media too. How do you see the balance between big media and small media?
PC: Certainly the television media market is important — that’s why we’re still there. But it’s very much saturated in a way it wasn’t then. Although the international market is very interesting.
I think [the new media landscape] is fascinating. There’s an opportunity now for anyone to have a voice. It’s good and bad. But the power is not in the hands of the Sumner Redstones and the Rupert Murdochs. Or it is, but it’s shifting. It’s all changing, and in many cases for the worse. You’re seeing budgets slashed and good investigative reporters and beat reporters being fired and laid off, and you’re seeing the quality of journalism in many cases decline because there just aren’t the resources.
But I do think that the internet is powerful, and it’s fascinating because, for example, I think the ad-sales network and the public promotional system has yet to catch up to it, but there are people online that have YouTube programs and millions of people watch them every day. A program like Keeping Up with the Kardashians … much of the time, it’s getting far fewer people than some of these online internet programs. And yet the ad dollars and the public attention and the magazines are all still following this kind of traditional media platform. The strategic people I talk to … they’re all saying it’s going to change. Because if it was pure ad-sale-volume driven, they would not be advertising on a lot of these crap programs on television that have half a million people watching but get all this media attention.
CP: But just because everyone can communicate doesn’t mean anyone will pay attention. How do you address that with the people you’re training as citizen journalists?
PC: I understand the importance and the power of the documentary series I do on CNN is not necessarily just the budget that they invest in making that documentary, but the inordinately larger budget that they spend promoting it. There’s just not that mechanism yet online.
The growth model for STREAM (EarthEcho International’s Students Reporting Environmental Action through Media) is how do you build the capacity within an organization, or several organizations, so we can essentially create bureaus, and curate content, and have a single umbrella brand through which it can be promoted? We’ve got a big network, we’ve known other groups that have huge networks as well, and our partners collectively can reach tens of millions of kids and teachers. It’s a funding issue, but we have faith that it just takes curation and the management of that under an umbrella (brand).
So that’s the long-term goal of STREAM is to have bureaus around the country that young people are part of and can share their content with and that we can place into newspapers, that we can help place onto television. We build the relationship, and we can have editor-in-chief kinds of people in communities.
CP: How did you get involved in networked media?
PC: Technically, I was writing blogs when I was doing Discovery shows in 2006, 2007, but … it really started with the oil spill (the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010). The oil spill reminded people that maybe they ought to pay attention to the environment a little bit. I was just pissed off, basically. I felt like we weren’t getting the story. So I got the idea to just go down there and start talking to people. We didn’t have a budget or any money or anything. I think what’s important in this new media world is authenticity and credibility. (On the Gulf Coast) I was able to see it and touch it and get my hands dirty and talk to people on the ground.
We make a lot of mistakes in the environmental space. A big mistake is assuming that just because we’re passionate about something, if we can just give people enough statistics or we can just talk to them, we can convert people to understand how important it is. Because of that, we end up becoming overly reliant on messaging that makes sense to us, statistics and information and science that we care about. And we don’t do a good-enough job of asking, “What are the fundamentals of telling a good story?” And that is not statistics, it’s usually not science, or at least complex science. It’s people stories.
The fundamental of story is that people relate to people. They don’t relate to information, statistics, science, animals — unless they’re anthropomorphizing. We try to take pages from that book and say this first and foremost has to be a damned awesome story. It’s got to have adventure, it’s got to be funny, it’s got to pull my heart strings, it’s got to have conflict, setting, character. It’s a story. And if it doesn’t have those things, it can be the best-meaning story in the world, and nobody’s going to buy it.