And Farnsworth passed away in 1971 -- one can only guess at how he'd feel now about filling people's living rooms with the spectacle of people eating enough bugs to avoid getting voted off the island. Not to mention South Park.
But TV still has the power to educate, and lately that mission has been migrating beyond the broadcast spectrum of public TV. And it all started with the success of documentaries at the multiplexes -- Fahrenheit 9/11, An Inconvenient Truth, The March of the Penguins, The Fog of War. Typically movies and TV offer an escape from the world, but recent docs have proven that there is an appetite in America for learning something new about the world. And that means documentaries can actually make money.
Perhaps the clearest proof of that is HBO purchasing the broadcast rights to some of the hottest new documentaries made in the past year. And every Monday night through the end of August, you can tune in.
The series kicked off with Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, a riveting recollection of the legal case that ended with Polanski fleeing the United States, never to return. Polanski had sex with a 13-year-old girl (under a plea agreement, it was not ruled rape), but the legal case that spooled out from there was anything but black and white. The case offered a preview of America's obsession with all things Hollywood.
HBO followed that up with Resolved, about high school debate teams, and Hard Times at Douglass High, about a failing Baltimore school. This week, it's Ganja Queen, about an Australian woman accused of running an international drug smuggling ring. As the summer goes on, topics range from long-time White House correspondent Helen Thomas to Sergeant First Class Clay Usle, a most persuasive military recruiter.
To fit your summer schedule, HBO is posting each show to its On Demand offerings, under documentaries.
And if you watch, you're proving HBO made a good bet. And that means filmmakers can make a living on documentaries. And that means there is hope that TV can be more than a wasteland. And that means old Philo Farnsworth can stop rolling over in his grave just a little.
The NBA Draft
The Sonics have two first-round picks to add to their youth movement anchored by Kevin Durant. How about O.J. Mayo and Roy Hibbert? Or maybe Kevin Love and D.J. Augustin? But they'll probably be playing in Oklahoma next season, so the next NBA expansion draft may be the only one worth watching. Guess we'll have to root for Portland now. (Thursday, 6/26, 4:30 pm, ESPN)
The War of the World
Based on the 2006 book by (and hosted by) brilliant historian Niall Ferguson, this two-parter shows how the struggles of the 20th Century were really one big war, rather than a bunch of separate fights. His reevaluation of the past century hinges on his controversial analysis that the East prevailed while the West declined. (The Clash of Empires, Monday, 6/30, 10 pm; A Tainted Victory, Monday, 7/7, 10 pm; both on KSPS)
Hell's Kitchen Finale
It's the Season Four finale, and the two finalists have to cook for Chef Gordon Ramsay's circle of experts in New York and finish off their concept restaurants back in L.A. And no trip to L.A. is complete without a drop-in from Whoopi Goldberg. (Tuesday, 7/1. 9 pm, FOX)