I got cable TV for the first time in the 90s. It was truly revolutionizing. We’ve never had so much access to so many different channels before, and I think we were getting something like 30 or 40 channels. I clearly remember two things about it:

  • Channels that would play the same movie over and over the whole day, one movie per day, with no interruptions.
  • Very high quality documentaries.

We had a channel called QualityTV which was exactly what its name said. I think it was a local (Argentinian) channel. For our family it was an Oasis. Our TV was tunned to it a lot of time and the documentaries were truly educational. Many of them happened in classrooms, with professors and blackboards. Sometimes in labs, doing scientific experiments. Before I went to high school I’ve already had a good grasp of magnetism thanks to that. I still remember the experiments with wires, electricity and a compass.

Then other documentary channels appeared including Discovery and there was a process which put channels like QualityTV out of business and today the documentary programming looks like this:

  • The 10 biggest explosion ever recorded.
  • The history of machines, and how they explode.
  • The future of explosive and how they could destroy the moon.
  • Dictatorships of the world, and the explosions they caused.
  • Medicine of the future: saving people from explosions.
  • Urban explosions.
  • Let’s build something and the blow the hell out of it.
  • Watch 1200 explosions en 45 minutes of TV.
  • Explosions, how the fuck do they work?
  • Building motorcycles (don’t worry, we’ll blow up something in the process, or at least, get someone hurt).

They are obviously after numbers, after rating and dollars. It’s a sad day for education. Well, no, it isn’t. It’s a sad day for TV, which is in its path to death anyway (at least as we know it). Today my living room has a huge TV connected to… my computer. I got cable and we watched maybe for 10 hours total. So I canceled it.

We’ve never had so much access to so much quality “TV” as we do today. And we are able to pick at any moment what we want to watch, nobody picks for us (isn’t that powerful?). Yes, there’s a lot of noise and crap out there, you just have to filter it out. Let me show you what the big screen at my home shows when it’s on (and I’m not watching a movie):

  • TED: amazing talks, lot’s of them, very interesting people, very optimistic most of the time. Since I’ve discovered they’ve added subtitles I’ve been watching TED at dinner with my wife almost every day and the result is amazing conversations, it’s so stimulating.
  • Ignite: it’s similar to TED, they are conferences but they are very short and fast. I think the quality is not evenly high as TED’s, but it’s still quite good. Their slogan: enlighten us, but make it quick.
  • FORA.tv: I know it because Neil deGrasse Tyson seems to be there quite often, but I haven’t watched it a lot.
  • BigThink: feels very much like TED or Ignite. I don’t know it well because a friend just recommended it to me yesterday.
  • This Week In: this is a podcast network; I mostly watch This Week in Startups but there’s a lot of different video podcasts that you can also watch live and interact with the hosts. You can also download to listen to them or watch them on your iPod or Android phone or whatever.
  • TWiT: another network of podcasts, more radioish in feel, which you can watch live sometimes or download for later. It’s more techish than This Week In. You may want to start with This Week in Tech.
  • GoogleTalks: lot’s of amazing 1-hour-long conferences.
  • Open Universities: many universities are recording their lessons and putting them online. You won’t get a title, but you’ll get what matters: knowledge. I think one of the reasons I’ve landed at google was SICP, which is a set of lessons about programming, probably one of the first open classes. Now MIT has Open Course Ware and I’m sure there are many others out there.

Notable mentions: sometimes there are good speakers and I just search for them on YouTube and I play one video after the other. Some I like:

  • Neil DeGrasse Tyson: he’s an astrophysicist and the director of the New York planetarium. He’s also a great speaker and quite funny.
  • Dan Savage: he has a column about sex and love and most videos are him answering questions about sex, love and relationships. Quite hilarious although the content might be NSFW.
  • James Burke’s Connections is now online. That’s a documentary about the modern history of society, the history of technology.

There’s enough educational and interesting material that exists and that’s being produced to keep me busy full time, every day of the week for the rest of my life. The challenge is picking which ones I want. There’s really no excuse for watching crappy TV other than wanting to watch crappy TV (and there’s nothing wrong with that!).

I bet there are even many more gems out there that I’m missing. So, what’s your source of quality TV? Please share!

One response to “The quality of documentaries”

  1. Wesley Avatar

    I would generally agree with you. One thing that infuriated me was when TLC (The Learning channel) shifted to the overnight sensationalist stuff. Ghost hunter, Bigfoot, and similar non sense. History channel was another one that shifted from high quality content to crap overnight. At least as of Aug of 2022, the local ABC affiliate has a subcarrier channel called STORY, which carries the material that History Channel used to carry.

    I was going to simply note the apparent decline in quality between James Burkes, Connections 1 and Connections 2. C2 seems more haphazardly written, some of the connections are not always clear, and certainly not memorable. Still beats the heck out of the alternatives out there. The history of Science and how change came to be is fascinating stuff. (at least to some of us)

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