After posting yesterday about the oddities of NASA TV, I heard from Robert Jacobs, director of NASA’s News and Multimedia services. The reason NASA TV comes off as unprofessional is that it isn’t an ordinary television channel at all. NASA TV is really a “feed service,” funneling raw material for news reports and documentaries to television stations, schools, museums, etc. All the networks maintain feed channels to deliver information to their affiliates, we just never see them. NASA’s feed channel is carried free of charge by cable and satellite systems as a public service. The reason we see experts answering interviewers, but can’t hear the questions, is that audible questions would create feedback for the stations conducting the interview. At some point in the future, NASA TV is going to go to multiple digital feeds, after which we won’t even be able to receive the single analog channel we see now.
Alright, I’ve explained why NASA TV is so odd. But given the fact that there’s an active cable channel already up, why not improve it by producing programming for “end users?” The answer, of course, is money. NASA once had major production capabilities. It still produces the occasional award winning documentary, but most of NASA’s production capabilities have been ended by budget cuts. Cuts in the early nineties also did in NASA’s radio production. Were the cuts a mistake? Not really. For one thing, they saved taxpayer dollars. And NASA’s new strategy makes sense. NASA provides the raw material, while the Discovery channels of the world produce the documentaries. Keep in mind that the NASA channel is carried free of charge by satellite and cable companies, and reaches a relatively small number of homes. Turn it into a full blown channel, and the carriers may start charging. That would mean a lot of money to reach a relatively small audience. After the transition to multiple digital feeds, NASA hopes to partner with a broadcaster who would assume some of the more costly responsibilities of a real channel (Close Captioning, etc.) while drawing on NASA’s expertise to produce compelling television. I’m no expert, but this sounds to me like a case where partnership with private industry in lieu of taxpayer dollars works well. In the meantime, if it’s available in your area, NASA TV, notwithstanding the oddities, is well worth a look.