As it enters its fourth decade, the Great Courses, the Teaching Company’s educational audio and video publisher, has increased its focus on digital video content and distribution—all while inking new deals with such partners as Penguin Random House and Scientific American. When the company debuted its first courses in 1990, it set the template for its programming for three decades to follow: “deep, rich, comprehensive content,” as the company’s v-p of operations, Jason Smigel, puts it. “Detailed, unbiased, curated by us, and with the best professors and experts.” Since then, that template hasn’t changed—but in its 30th year, the company has been cutting some new trails.
Foremost among the changes is the addition of shorter content to the mix. In 2016, the Great Courses launched its video-on-demand service, Great Courses Plus, where thousands of videos from its course catalog are available for streaming. (Membership plans are priced using three tiers: $20 per month for the monthly plan, $15 per month for quarterly payers, and $12.50 per month for an annual membership.) That platform inspired ideas for new, shorter video content, less lecture based but with equal emphasis on education. The first lecture, “The Opioid Epidemic: America’s Deadly Addiction,” hosted by Thad Polk, clocked in at about 33 minutes.
The next, “Game of the Century: How Baseball’s All-Star Game Began,” with a 13-minute runtime, came out of an impromptu conversation at the National Baseball Hall of Fame while members of the Great Courses team were on a visit to Cooperstown, N.Y., to work on a course the company was producing with the Hall of Fame titled Baseball: America’s Pastime. And after the Cathedral of Notre Dame caught fire in April 2019 while the Great Courses’ senior director of content, Kevin Manzell, was visiting the city, the company produced a course on the building.
The most lavish effort so far in this new direction is Going to the Devil: The Impeachment of 1868, the Great Courses’ first documentary, on the impeachment of Andrew Johnson. It was released in November 2019, just weeks before the impeachment of President Trump. The reaction to the film from its subscribers was positive, Smigel said, and outside viewers seem to have agreed, as it was nominated for a regional Emmy this year. The company continues to experiment with form, as in the recently released experiential nonfiction travel series, Exploring the Mayan World, with eight episodes clocking in at 24–27 minutes each.
Smigel said all these efforts are cases in point for the Great Courses’ hypothesis: “In our minds, short does not necessarily mean that you’re going to have any less of a deep, rich experience that we’re trying to get with our other productions. The success that we’ve had with this production and our ability to flex our creative might in that regard, and to create something that is very different from a course, is really exciting for us, and it really opens up the opportunity for us to try a variety of different things as it relates to nonfiction content. I don’t have a gigantic Hollywood budget, but we make do with what we have.”
All the while, the Great Courses has been inking more partnerships, some of which are in the vein of prior partnerships with such institutions as the Smithsonian and National Geographic. This fall, the Great Courses teamed up with Scientific American on a series titled Mind-Blowing Science, comprising a handful of 10–20-minute videos on scientific topics. And what Smigel called a “nascent partnership” with Penguin Random House, which began earlier this year, also continues to grow.
Stephanie Bowen, senior manager of publishing development and author platforms at Penguin Random House, said that the partnership will eventually bear fruit in “a series of full-length e-courses taught by academics and subject matter experts published by Penguin Random House.” Those courses are slated to launch in mid- to late 2021 and will “cover a range of nonfiction topics, including history, science, and social science—three particularly popular areas of interest for TGC’s consumers.”
For the moment, though, complications around travel and studio shoots as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic have resulted in a different, more short-term partnership: conversations for the Great Courses’ Facebook Live, featuring PRH authors like Karen Abbott (The Ghosts of Eden Park), John Barry (The Great Influenza), Sean Carroll (Something Deeply Hidden), and Jamil Zaki (The War for Kindness).
“Using our production infrastructure, we have been helping them support select authors through producing live remote videos,” Smigel said. “Those videos are book related—think of a book tour—and make an important connection between our audiences, providing authors direct access to our consumers’ voracious appetite for high-quality, curated, nonfiction content. We have always known our customers enjoy reading. What’s especially exciting about this initiative is it embraces that behavior and creates a synergy for all parties—the Great Courses, Penguin Random House, the authors, and most importantly the members of our customer community.”