Culture / 

21 Jan 2019

From College Credit to Honey Boo Boo

I’m sure I’m not the only one who has watched the sad, embarrassing decline of “The Learning Channel”, as it moved from a sort of 24-hour feed of videos that a substitute teacher would show, to plumbing the depths of the public’s appetite for softcore exploitation porn, “educational only in the way that a bacon double cheeseburger can be described as part of a healthy, balanced diet” according to one columnist.

If you’re morbidly curious what happened, Audrey Watters has a great article (written back in 2015 but evergreen): “What Happened to Educational Television: The Story of ‘The Learning Channel’”.

It’s an interesting case study of a good idea leading to an organization that decides to perpetuate itself at the expense of its mission. What began as a well-meaning experiment in satellite delivery of teacher training to inaccessible Appalachian regions in the mid-1970s, later billed as a way of democratizing education, became merely a vehicle for a for-profit company to sell advertising by the late 1990s.

While today we have the Internet – probably a better vehicle for educational content than one-way TV broadcasts – it’s painful to consider what opportunities for actual educational programming were wasted. As someone who grew up in a rural area (with cable TV, but painfully slow Internet to this day), I was theoretically the target audience; it would have been pretty neat if some of The Learning Channel’s original instructional programming – cooking shows that actually taught you how to cook, college credit courses on business management, even shows covering basic computer programming – had remained on the air.

It’s entirely possible that the public would have been better served if the Appalachian Community Service Network, onetime operator of The Learning Channel, had just closed its doors when they could no longer succeed as an independent non-profit, rather than selling out. By doing so, they created PR cover for growing cable companies desperate to convince the public of the value of (frequently subsidized) commercial Cable TV, and they likely suppressed the emergence of other competitors in the bandwidth-limited, channelized world of cable.

A cautionary tale, if ever you see a public-benefit organization beginning to “pivot” in order to stay afloat.

Via The History of Teaching Machines, via Hacker News.