Recently, the Discovery Channel’s top science reality show, Mythbusters, sent its stars, Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman, to meet with President Obama at the White House. The president, enjoying his role as guest star-in-chief, praised the show for making science “fun, exciting, and interesting.” Fans of Mythbusters can share bi-partisan agreement with the president on this point.
Over the past eight years, the Mythbusters have educated millions on scientific principles by putting popular myths to the test. These tests often involve high explosives, high powered weapons, building intricate devices for tests, and a host of other weird and wonderful touches that keep viewers coming back for more.
The presidential commendation of Mythbusters is interesting because Mythbusters is produced by the private sector for commercial television. The success of Mythbusters and a wide range of educational programs on the Discovery Channel as well as Animal Planet, The Learning Channel, and the History Channel challenges another myth: that the existence of educational and culturally enriching television depends on taxpayer-subsidized public broadcasting.
When the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) was founded in 1967, television was dominated by the three networks. However, over time, with the emergence of cable and satellite television, the amount of choices that Americans had in their viewing and listening increased considerably and the ratings threshold required to support the continued existence of a program went down.
In the 21st century, nearly every type of program that PBS is well-known for offering is offered on a private television channel. If you want nature documentaries, turn to Animal Planet. If you want to watch great British programs, watch BBC America.
In addition to this change in television, home video distribution has further altered the equation, particularly with most public libraries stocking hundreds or even thousands of educational video titles. These innovations make the case for spending $422 million this fiscal year on public broadcasting incredibly weak.