Opinion: What if you can’t afford to stream science, educational shows on PBS?

Genius by Stephen Hawking

Taxpayer funded PBS now has a paywall for streaming app

A few months ago, I watched the amazing first episode of Genius by Stephen Hawking using the on-demand feature on the PBS app. In case you missed it, the six-part series brought together elements of reality television and the most enduring questions in science.

Is time travel possible? Are we alone in the universe?

What makes the show great is that the participants were of average intelligence, from all walks of life. With Hawking’s guidance, the group undertakes different missions to understand science. To answer whether time travel was possible, the group ventured across a desert, sprawling lake and mountaintop as part of several hands on lessons in science.

And guess what? The participants are able to answer what appeared to be highly complex questions based on their findings in the field.

This is the exactly the type of broadcasting that I love from PBS. The show, done in partnership with National Geographic, was aired in May. I got to see it on-demand on my PBS app for free shortly after it aired. I vowed to watch all six episodes, but life got in the way and weeks passed. And when I returned to my PBS app to watch Genius again, I was told to pay up.

PBS Passport has come to my part of the country, and it turned my nights of watching TV into writing this column.


PBS Passport is being promoted as “a new member benefit from participating PBS stations that gives eligible donors and supporters extended access to an on-demand library of quality public television programming online.”

That last line kind of got me. Especially the part about public television.

It’s true that more people probably watch PBS these days for episodes of Downtown Abbey than shows like Genius. And you know what? Paying $5 per month to watch those shows is perfectly reasonable. My favorite PBS show Austin City Limits remains (for now) outside of the Passport orbit. And I couldn’t happier about that.

But the buck, or bucks, needs to stop with shows like Genius and Nova.

Why is this so important?

If you’re a curious teen from the inner city who can’t afford shell out 60 bucks a year for on-demand PBS shows, then you’re living in the realm of a dream deferred. Chances are you’re not always going to get to watch the show when it’s available on cable or over the antenna.

Maybe the kid can find some Stephen Hawking books at the local library. I hope he does. Maybe he can’t because his chain-smoking, rough-around-the-edges mother doesn’t care if her kid ever goes to the library.

Too far fetched? I don’t think so. I challenge you to spend a day in any inner city school and volunteer. You’ll meet such boys and girls, and you’ll meet teachers who rely on educational on-demand programming to remain free of charge.

Limiting public access programming creates winners and losers

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting was formed in 1967 as part of Public Broadcasting Act. Its mission was to ensure non-commercial, high quality content. The organization gave birth to local PBS television stations all over the country and NPR radio stations. And the public has continued to benefit from some of the best children’s programming, educational shows and watchdog journalism around.

Simply put, PBS was formed for the public good, not to become Netflix.

Nonprofits formed by the government that largely rely on taxpayer dollars should be held to a different standard than for-profit streaming services like Netflix.

The 2015-2016 fiscal year budget for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting totaled $445 million in federal appropriations. Even for those who never called in during an annual telethon to make a donation, you still donated.

Intentionally or not, PBS is safely disenfranchising people who can’t afford to contribute more to their bottom dollar.

PBS first began floating the idea of paid on-demand service around May 2014, according to The New York Times. The rollout began in December and has been making its way to participating stations around the country over the last year.

Before leaving for their August recess, the House and Senate Appropriations Committees approved their 2017 Labor, Health and Human Services and Education Appropriation. That funding included funds for CPB. That’s a relief on many fronts.

On protectmypublicmedia.org, passage of the bill was lauded as a huge win for viewers and listeners that sent hundreds of emails to key lawmakers to protect the funding.

Honestly, it’s not a win for everyone.

Perhaps executives overseeing PBS Passport need to be reminded they are charged with obligations that are different than private for-profit streaming companies like Netflix. Sure, it’s very, very hard to survive between shrinking government funds, and increased for-profit competition. No one will argue with that. That doesn’t change anyone’s obligations.

Maybe that kid that I mentioned earlier – assuming he has an Internet connection at home — could also peruse YouTube like I did and find pirated episodes of Genius that are not behind a paywall. Maybe he could tell his teacher too, the one that used to show him episodes of Nova in science class back when they were always, reliably free.


Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply