If you have ever used the internet, watched TV, been to IKEA, or maybe even dipped a toe into the world of anime you can find an episode of the YouTube show PBS Idea Channel to tickle your fancy. After more than three years on the web the show has already surpassed it’s 150th episode. Presented by Mike Rugnetta, the show initially played devil’s advocate to the latest developments in pop culture. One of its earliest episodes argues that Instagram is the best thing to ever happen to photography. Rugnetta’s affable nature and clear delivery of the argument made it hard to disagree, even if you hate the never ending food and dog pictures. Back then the show lasted about three minutes. Today, the episodes often exceed 13 minutes!
PBS Idea Channel is not a wholly unique venture on YouTube. The pursuit of pseudo-educational videos has existed for a very long time. From those godawful Maths Mansion videos from Primary School, to the many ventures of the VlogBrothers John and Hank Green, VSauce, even Zoella’s makeup tutorials. Yet Idea Channel is interesting because of its approach to nebulous and almost always philosophical concepts. While many early episodes look at the importance or impact of modern culture, more and more have taken to exploring why these things are important or applying something as seemingly trivial as Thor (the comics) to the nature of names and properties. You can see the evolution of the show not just in the growing length of episodes, but also in the changing nature of its questions.
Another part of why the show is so interesting: nearly all the episodes are framed as questions. The ideas are for discussion, not for fact. When Rugnetta calls into question the realness of Maths (admittedly not an original argument), it is clear that the whole point is to create debate. At the end of every episode he looks back to the previous one responding to comments and ideas found beneath. Some are jokes, some are abuse, but the ones which get the most traction are those which respond with ideas of their own. Links to all the featured comments from previous episodes are included with the episode that they’re discussed in. This makes Idea Channel a show about discussion. As much as the topics change each week, that is constant.
Another thing: the sheer number of GIFs per minute per episode is outrageous. So many graphics! Then there’s the references and tiny pockets of humour crammed into what is essentially a dissertation each week. Rugnetta’s fast-paced, un-garbled delivery ensures that if you pay attention it is relatively easy to follow, and actually inviting to do so. You cannot watch an episode half-heartedly. If you are preparing to settle in for a bout of procrastination watching YouTube videos, Idea Channel will make you put in as much effort as you were whilst reading the tenth journal article in as many hours.
It is this difficulty that makes Idea Channel so rewarding, and its delivery is what makes it so watchable. Episodes that you have already seen which challenge or inspire you can be revisited. The only thing you can’t do is make a fresh comment on them to be accepted into the established debate. You cannot criticise Idea Channel for diversity of topics either: from Vine to Evangelion, Nikola Tesla to Jurassic Park, The Lego Movie to Spam as the Internet’s native art form. The team making these videos would unlikely be happy if every week they were simply accepted. It is hard to find a channel as popular as this one that so frequently and successfully promotes and creates debate. When the debate is so odd, so daring, and so entertaining, it makes Idea Channel unmissable.