The ep5 Educational Broadcasting Foundation

educational content for public radio and television

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Please, read this first:

In these days of short attention span content, we at ep5 seem addicted to very long-winded expostulation. We have been warned that this will prove self-defeating, and web-site analytics gives considerable support to this contention. Why, then, do we try to explain our purpose in something as voluminous as this page obviously is?

Perhaps an analogy might make this clear. Go back in time a number of decades to a Senate sub-committee hearing room in Washington. An earnest and clearly worried engineer sits at the witness table and listens to a very senior senator ask him, “You want the United States to go to the Moon, Mr von Braun? Please explain to us in twenty-five words or less why we should give you the money.”

Some things, as monumental as going to the Moon and as modest as making educational television programs, cannot be explained or justified in a single paragraph. If you are seeking light entertainment and, above all, brevity, then this web-site may prove unrewarding. For those willing to invest the time and consideration that television’s role in education merits, then reading these pages with an open mind will prove worthwhile.

Education? Or an art-form?

Is educational television pedagogy or an art-form?

This is hardly a trifling or academic distinction. If we regard it strictly as an educational tool, then a more diegetic style of presentation suggests itself. “This is what you need to learn. Now, learn it.” Sound familiar? Remind you of some of your less-inspired teachers in school?

We do not regard the narrative/declarative style of presentation of information as inappropriate or completely out of place in this context. But, and you just knew that there’d be a ‘but’ here, it is by itself not at all enough. This isn’t high school, where skipping class had consequences. (Well, it did in our day.) No one obliges you to watch public television or listen to public radio. There needs to be a quality that draws you to it and holds you there.

To the extent that the program achieves this by appealing to an emotional sensitivity in the audience, it’s an art-form. Once again, we emphasize the necessity of combining education with entertainment. Or, rather, entertainment must inhere indistinguishably within the education.

Briefly, what substantive form does this take?

Consider just one detail among the many that differentiate our programs from those proliferating across the vast expanse of YouTube. Technical expertise, we all agree, constitutes a necessary condition. It most assuredly falls well short of sufficiency.

Visualize, for a moment, an analagous scene. Avid fans of Star Trek have, with the studio’s consent, made amateur movies of Star Trek stories in which they put on authentic costumes and play the various roles themselves. Good fun for them, but for such audiences as these productions draw, often painful. For all of their sincere enthusiasm, these simply are not real actors. shows.

The magic of a real actor is that she makes the role believable. Done well, it looks effortless. Trust us, it is nothing of the sort. It takes consummate skill, talent, and a great deal of effort to make it look effortless. Equally, not every technical expert can be or is a good teacher. Many of you have experienced the futility and frustration arising from trying to follow a YouTube tutorial presented by someone with an impenetrable accent, distracting mannerisms, or a halting and annoying style of delivery.

Experts? Almost certainly.

Teachers? Not a chance.

Whom, then, do we put in front of the cameras? Do we search for a technical expert with amazing charisma and a smooth personal style? Do we engage a skilled teacher and give her the means of teaching a subject about which she knows nothing? After all, well-written scripts and teleprompters can do wonders. Do we hire the best actress we can con into working for us and get her to simulate a real teacher?

Each of these approaches can be used, everything depending upon availability of the right people. In the end, you make obeisance to Fisher’s Law, which clearly stipulates that you gotta go with what works.

But, wait! There’s more!

Pick one single difference between soi-disant educational television — including YouTube — and the real thing, a good teacher or instructor in a classroom, alive and in person.

In a word, interactive participation by the students.

Okay, so that was five words. Get over it.

No matter how well the teacher prepares and how thorough her explanation is, no matter how extraordinary the clarity of her characterization of things . . . there will always be questions. A class that asks no questions is either sound asleep or there on false pretenses. The teacher requests questions and answers them. To do otherwise is to flout the general laws of the Cosmos. It just ain’t natural.

What do we make of television, YouTube, and that great white hope, computer-based training? No matter what you do, in any but the most unusually contrived of circumstances, there is no interactivity. Yell at the screen all you want, the teacher cannot hear you.

Until this failing has been dealt with, educational television will always remain what we have today: informational television. Educational means both (a) the technical rigor that will always be the difference separating a tour through a subject from the actual study of it and (b) the ability of the student to freely enquire, pose questions, challenge any lack of clarity, and simply get a response in real time.

It’s no use blaming the student. Even idiots occasionally ask the most extraordinarily perceptive questions. And anyway, all of this exists to serve the student; it’s not there for the benefit of the teacher or the school administration. Regrettably, we have all known teachers and administrators desperately in need of reminding why they get paid to show up each morning.

Do we have a magical solution to this?

We wish.

What we do have comes as close as the state of the art allows. A combination of resources, methods, and other efforts — well, you can’t expect us to reveal all of our trade secrets here, can you? — enables us to reduce as far and as much as attainably possible the frustration students experience when they cannot reach the teacher.

None of this is trickery, or sleight-of-hand. Everything we propose to do is solid and proven; it’s all common-sense. Although, as the man asked, why do they call it common sense when it’s uncommonly uncommon?

But, why bother? Why not YouTube and Discovery Channel?

Many ask why public television should even exist. Forever the mendicant, coming hat in hand to the public to plead for money on which to continue operating...

This can be answered in numerous ways, but we choose to address it in terms of one question: whom are you working for? If your employment, whatever its capacity or nature, is purchased by a for-profit entity, such as a large corporation, then you are working not for your department supervisor, the CEO of the company, the customers, or the public. You work for the shareholders. You are paid with their money, so you serve their interests. How could it be otherwise?

Several years ago, we talked with a young lad at The History Channel about carriage of our historically-oriented educational documentaries. He chuckled and explained to us that they no longer do that sort of thing.

“No,” he explained, “take a look at what we broadcast. You’ll see.”

We did. We watched a little of something called “Ice Road Truckers”. It was – how can we put this politely? – an eye-opening experience. If that is educational or historic, then so is a stern lecture by the local drug dealer who cares little for you setting up shop on his turf. Not to be offensive, but cable television has realized that there is no profit in educational broadcasting.

Still skeptical?

Find something on cable television that you know a great deal about. Then, watch a few episodes of whatever that is. It will not take long to see or hear something that simply is not so. We once watched a program on Discovery in which the audience was earnestly assured that a particular airplane had been used on a specific mission of great moment. Knowing something about such things, we checked the facts and verified that, as we had suspected, the very first example of that airplane, its prototype, had not yet made its first flight at the time of the supposed mission.

They are not practicing deliberate deceit; they simply do not care enough about their subject matter to bother ensuring that they get it right. All that matters is selling advertising, and, to judge from what we’ve seen, they are pretty good at that.

How can public television compete against this?

Suppose that your sole ambition in life is to design and build automobiles. You come into some money and decide to do it. One of your very first decisions will be the type of automobile to manufacture and take to market. Expressed differently, against whom will you compete? Will you try to out-do Ford Motor Company in the family sedan market segment?* Now, that’d be a brave choice, indeed. Or, do you build and sell high-performance, hand-made, very high-technology sport cars? In short, you do what you are good at and do it in an environment which allows the chance of success. Selling family sedans, you will not last long; that is as certain as the rising of the Sun. However, as a look around reveals, some companies do make money in the top-end performance market segment.

Equally, the cable networks know precisely where their bread gets buttered. It is not in the educational field. That is supposed to be the responsibility of public television. Is that how it has turned out?

Predictably, the answer depends upon whom you pose the question to. Those in the public television industry, conscious of the size of their market share, ardently defend their status quo. No suprise here. Force the issue by demanding a substantive answer, and the discussion predictably becomes heated and, eventually, hostile. This suggests that something may be wrong with this particular status quo.

We suggest that the reality is simple enough: public television cannot survive unless it competes with commercial broadcasting, including cable, for market share. On this basis, they go after the same market that commercial television is very good at winning. The eventual outcome of this competition may not be all that challenging to predict.

We argue that the public good will be served, even if only in a small context, by neatly evading this issue altogether. That is, we do not propose to compete against commercial television for the entertainment market. Our interest and concern center upon that part of the market with a genuine interest in self-betterment and learning. It may well be too small to warrant the attention of large advertisers: this does not concern us. Unless you are prepared to argue that education should be the exclusive domain of the formal university, with its degree programs and staggering prices, you have to acknowledge that the public good is served by making practical technological education freely available to all with an interest in it. Not as entertainment; as education.

We repeatedly stress that educational programming must necessarily be entertaining enough to secure and hold audience interest, but this does not make this into television for entertainment. Our viewers will be those who find the learning itself fascinating. We are simply packaging it in a way that protects and enhances its viewability.

*  An amusing irony. When that was written, Ford made rather a lot of family sedans. More recently, they announced that they will no longer manufacture sedans. Time mocks all of us...

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