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Off the Board: 21st Century Fox/National Geographic partnership signals decline in accessible education

a/Off the Board/Opinion by

On Sept. 9, 21st Century Fox struck a 725 million-dollar deal with National Geographic, thus ending the 127-year-old magazine’s era of non-profit existence. Under this deal, Fox will own 73 per cent of the new joint media venture—National Geographic Partners—making Fox the majority stakeholders. Only 27 per cent will remain under the control of The National Geographic Society.

While the news seems surprising, a 21st Century Fox and National Geographic partnership has existed since 2001. The National Geographic Channel—National Geographic’s foray into television —was launched for the first time in the U.S. on Jan. 12, 2001 as a joint project between National Geographic Television & Film and Fox Cable Networks. At the time, it was met with great excitement and praise; however, after 14 years, the tides have turned in favour of mass media reality TV.

This partnership puts the future of National Geographic as we consume it today at risk. It echoes steps taken by many channels in the past (such as The History Channel, the Discovery Channel, and TLC) that led to a sharp decline in diverse, educational, and reliable content. And when the U.S. education system—which relies on standardized testing—is clearly in dire need of a reboot, the reduction in outlets that produce, and thus provide access to, educational content is gut-wrenching.

Declining standards of of educational media sacrifice the intellectual prospects of future generations for short-term fiscal gains. While the decision may have partially been a response to a lack of demand for educational content on TV, the solution should not be to reduce its supply.

Declining standards of of educational media sacrifice the intellectual prospects of future generations for short-term fiscal gains.

National Geographic settled this deal mainly due to fiscal struggles, but its decision to choose Fox as the partner for this undertaking is an unfortunate one. Fox is controlled by News Corp., one of a few large corporations responsible for controlling 90 per cent of the media consumed by Americans. National Geographic will likely become just another media puppet for Fox to control, thereby reinforcing and likely accelerating the rate at which education-oriented media declines.

Companies are clearly prioritizing a target-for-profit strategy over education. In the U.S., only 13 per cent of programs were deemed “highly educational,” by a 2008 Children Now report. Arguing about the morality of such a decision is fruitless—this is a world where money speaks. Such a shortage of educational content carries heavy long-term repercussions, especially in light of shortcomings in public sector education. In a 2012 Council on Foreign Relations report, the U.S. Task Force warned, “Educational failure puts the United States’ future economic prosperity, global position, and physical safety at risk.” Therefore, this investment in mass media is the wrong one.

The deal is ominously similar to The Learning Channel’s (TLC) buyout by Discovery Communications. In the years following its purchase, TLC began phasing out educational material opted to use TLC for all marketing purposes—no longer “a place for learning minds.” On The National Geographic Channel, we could watch Wicked Tuna: Outer Banks, Dead Zone, and Diggers. On TLC: 19 Kids and Counting, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, and My 600-lb Life. These shows are thrilling, entertaining, and not educational.

This partnership adds to ever-increasing media consolidation. National Geographic will ultimately begin to forgo unique, educational, and in-depth stories for the sake of pleasing their new corporate overlords and the public that is growing increasingly averse to using TV as an educational outlet. As media integrates and seeks revenues, the editorial process is lost and create homogenized opinions. In times like this, we turn to you PBS.

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