When I was growing up both of my parents worked during the day, so I spent a large portion of my time with my grandmother. She lives in the attached apartment of my parent’s house (in fact, my grandmother is a part owner). I have a lot of memories of that time--the smell of the cut flowers she brought in from the garden, the taste of mac and cheese, the oriental rug and the antique teapots. One of my strongest associations with that time period is PBS, with the educational programming that my grandmother preferred for me to watch, and those ridiculous commercials asking for donations and offering free tote bags (my grandmother has a few of those tote bags, in fact). As I got older, my grandmother told me that she watched PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre with her husband for decades before his death, and even now I often find her watching British shows like The Vicar of Dibley on PBS. In many ways, PBS is and always will be inextricably linked with my grandmother.
Now, my grandma is an amazing person. But I think we can all admit that when something is considered ‘grandmotherly’ it’s generally not also considered ‘hip.’ PBS, however, seems to have found a way to maintain it’s classic kitsch and also make strides into modern internet culture.
PBS Digital Studios is a youth-aimed project that sponsors and produces free educational content (mostly through YouTube). ‘Educational Content’ sounds hokey and boring, but PBS has integrated itself seamlessly into the existing educational arm of YouTube. By partnering with pre-established creators and sponsoring successful but underfunded series, PBS has skipped the floundering, desperate stage of so many companies suffer through when they attempt to take on youth and internet culture. Rather than attempting to recreate the PBS brand in its entirety, PBS has found a way to merge its core educational values with digital media. It is a method that more companies should study.
With more than twenty series under the PBS Digital Umbrella, it seems that you can learn anything for free as long as you have ten minutes and access to the internet. BrainCraft explores scientific quandaries and questions, Crash Course--created by the Vlogbrothers--teaches a variety of subjects in alignment to AP criteria, and The Art Assignment works to ‘demystify’ contemporary art and make art more accessible and less intimidating.
My personal favorite series is Idea Channel. Hosted by KnowYourMeme founding member Mike Rugnetta, Idea Channel, according to the official website, “examines the connections between technology, pop culture, and art.” I like Idea Channel because it takes popular media and internet culture and investigates them in terms of philosophers like Kierkegaard or Barthes or applied linguistics, sociology, and psychology. Generally, Idea Channel and its host think deeply about parts of the culture generally deemed ‘low brow’ or even “vapid.” An interesting recent episode investigated the validity of mourning celebrity deaths online and asked why so many people feel the need to police other people’s feeling. One of my all-time favorite episodes studies the cartoon Over the Garden Wall, and utilizes Kierkegaard’s theory of the Knights of Faith and Skepticism to think about the protagonists.
Using extremely intellectual materials to think about a cartoon may seem silly, but it’s a fantastic method for introducing hard to parse academic texts to all sorts of people. Idea Channel never asserts that it is necessary to understand Kierkegaard in order to watch or enjoy Over the Garden Wall. Instead, the show simply introduces its theories as one of many ways to look at a piece of media. Each episodes begins with host Mike Rugnetta stating “Here’s an idea…” and ends with Rugnetta asking viewers for their input. The comments on Idea Channel videos are an integral part of the show, and each week the host makes a separate video to discuss his favorite comments from the previous episode. Idea Channel encourages its viewers to question its theories, and by extension, to question media.
Interestingly, Idea Channel never provides concrete answers. Episodes usually end in aporia, or else a kind of philosophical impasse. In what is perhaps the series’s most important lesson, Idea Channel teaches that while there are not always answers, it is always important to question.
My grandmother’s living room is much the same as was when I was little--same oriental rug, same antique teapots (though the collection has grown), same fresh flowers despite my dad’s anxiety over her gardening. She still sits in her arm chair and watches “her programs,” many of them on PBS. And PBS, too, is largely the same as ever--it just has some new appendages. Knowledge is so important, and widespread access to educational materials is so rare. PBS is admirable for its enduring commitment to public knowledge. I think I’m actually beginning to itch to donate and acquire one of their dorky tote bags.