Glenn R. Jones, chairman and chief executive officer of Jones Intercable and creator of Mind Extension University, wants to "make all America a school." Ruth Otte, who runs the Learning Channel, offers "the greatest bookstore you've ever been in."
School and bookstore should be the perfect combination in a nation that has, in three decades, seen the virtual collapse of parts of its public school system. Yet Mr. Jones and Ms. Otte, who contend that they are not in competition, find themselves vying in many markets for ever-dwindling channel space.
Although technology is promising up to 150 channels in some cable systems, most still are limited to somewhere between 36 and 50. When the average system operator is offered two educational channels, he is likely to take only one, even though their bills of fare are entirely different.
Last year, before the Discovery Channel acquired the Learning Channel from the bankrupt Financial News Network, TCI, which is a major Learning Channel stockholder, dumped it in Chicago and replaced it with Mind Extension University. A short time later, Prime Cable of Chicago, in need of three adjacent channels to accommodate HBO's multiplex service, also canceled the Learning Channel, taking it completely out of the nation's third-largest market. Today, the Learning Channel has climbed back to 16.5 million households nationwide.
Meanwhile, Mind Extension University, which offers its viewers everything from General Education Development tests for high school diplomas to bachelor's and master's degrees at the college level, has grown from 1 million subscribers at its birth in November 1987 to 17.7 million households in 554 cable systems today. It serves its viewers both in their homes and as a teaching aid in classrooms.
Ms. Otte, president of the Learning Channel, said that, since losing the Chicago market and several others under the old FNN stewardship, her channel has undergone an overhaul, dropping the classroom settings that duplicate Mind Extension University, moving the infomercials that once cluttered the slate at all hours into late night, and bringing Discovery's big production guns to bear with documentaries, magazine shows and other non-fiction offerings.
"The two services now are so different, you really can't compare them," Ms. Otte said in a telephone interview from Discovery's Landover, Md., headquarters.
"Our philosophy is that people learn, not just from lectures, but from the entire experience of the pictures, the scripting and the music.
"We've revitalized the entire channel, and primarily our theme is we're going to take you, through television, to the greatest bookstore you've ever been in and we're going to explore all its different aspects from geology through astronomy to literature and music."
Mr. Jones' goal is equally ambitious. Appalled by studies that he said show that one-fourth of all American high school students will drop out before graduation, and that one in five of those who do graduate will be functionally illiterate, he said he will not rest until every citizen, young and old, is back in the classroom.
Now, for the first time in the history of communications, that is feasible. A student, whether he lives in the belly of the inner city or in a remote mountain cabin, needs only cable (or a satellite dish, of which there now are 3.3 million), a TV set and a VCR to participate.
In a telephone interview from his Englewood, Colo., headquarters, Mr. Jones pointed out that more than 90 percent of Americans have access to cable.
"Most major countries don't have that going for them," he said. "In America, we have more entrepreneurs than anybody else in the world, so we can get our entrepreneurial juices focused on this problem and make education exciting and interesting.
"We need to approach this problem with the same serious commitment that we give to military problems, because it's that meaningful to the country," he said. "We don't want to be peasants in an information age. People who can react to this problem of educating America need to do it. They have a national responsibility to do it."
Mr. Jones said Thomas Jefferson, who held that the key to self-government was equal opportunity in education, would have understood.
"My approach is Jefferson's approach," Mr. Jones said. "You give quality education, make it available to millions of Americans wherever they are and whoever they are, and it's going to be very productive, because with the help of further education, some 85-year-old retired chemical engineer, working in his basement, could discover a cure for cancer.
"I'm looking for Thomas Edisons," Mr. Jones added. "Thomas Edison had about 1,100 patents when he died. He was very creative. This channel is looking for Thomas Edisons in the general population.
"Our mission is to make all America a school," he said, "and we mean school -- underlined and in capital letters."