The Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) is America's publicly-owned TV network, though its history dates back much further than the government's involvement with it. It is not so much a traditional network as a consortium of non-commercial, educational TV stations.
The NET era (19521970)
PBS' first incarnation was the Educational Television and Radio Center in 1952, originally a private network set up by the Ford Foundation's Fund for Adult Education in order to serve as an educational television service complementing the entertainment programming of the commercial networks. Unique among American networks, content was produced not by the network itself, but by the individual stations — a model similar to that of the (then West-) German public broadcasting, which had been imposed on them at the end of World War II by the Western Allies. This led to content that was very in-depth in its subject matter, but also very dry, academic, low-budget and dull. As a result, ETRC floundered in its early years, earning the nickname "The University of the Air". note
In 1958, ETRC changed its name to National Educational Television and Radio Center (NETRC), and then to just National Educational Television (NET) in 1963. Under new network president John F. White (formerly the station manager at WQED in Pittsburgh), it tried to shake off its ultra-academic reputation and become America's "fourth network". It expanded from five hours of programming a day to 10, imported shows from The BBC and other international networks to fill those hours, and became more centralized. It created a slew of programming, such as the adult drama program NET Playhouse, the seminal children's show Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, and a hard-hitting, controversial TV Documentary series called NET Journal that frequently explored social issues like poverty and prejudice. This last program outraged NET's more conservative affiliates, especially those in the Southern United States, and despite its critical acclaim would lead to the network's downfall once it became government-funded.
In 1966, the Ford Foundation, having invested over $130 million into a network that was still dependent on their contributions and grants, decided to start withdrawing funding for the network, causing many affiliate stations to consider turning to the federal government for financial assistance. As a result, the government passed the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, creating the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a semi-privatenote corporation to fund NET. While it did this for a few years, it soon became clear that NET's documentary programming had not only alienated many of its affiliates, but also angered Richard Nixon, who saw NET's documentaries as nothing more than propaganda against his administration. As a result, the CPB created the Public Broadcasting Service in 1969 as a new entity to take over network operations, and in 1970 NET was dissolved and merged into WNDT in Newark, New Jersey (which became WNET), ending its existence as a formal network. NET's decentralized system was retained by PBS, largely because the existing commercial networks and conservatives in Congress did not want an American version of the BBC.
Please note that National Educational Television is not to be confused with Japan's Nippon Educational Television (also abbreviated as NET), which would later become TV Asahi.
The PBS era (1970present)
PBS has gone largely unchanged since then, though for the first couple of years it only operated Sundays through Thursdays, and it didn't broadcast a regular Sunday morning schedule until 1977. Programming and the stations themselves are sponsored by donations from corporations, charitable foundations and Viewers Like You. The federal government chips in, as well, by means of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which also funds NPR and public-radio programs. Instead of interrupting programs with commercials, PBS stations run a sponsor tag at the start and end of each program, and hype their other programs during a five-minute break at the end of each show. For a week or two every however-many months, they also run a pledge drive, during which viewers are asked to donate money to help the station stay on the air. This is usually when they drag out their highest quality programs, such as concerts by The Grateful Dead and David Gilmour, and performances from the Austin City Limits festival, though this is also where you'll see endless self-help and financial gurus; it's just a matter of getting through the lengthy pledge breaks or predicting when they will end and put up the next show. Some stations take off programming for a few days to air an auction of products, services and trips where funding goes to the station, or "friends" of the station, a concept where an outside third party or a board of volunteers are the ones who makes programming purchase and scheduling decisions rather than station personnel.
In 2011, PBS launched a UK cable and satellite channel, carrying a broad cross section of its U.S. programming.
Each PBS station sets its own schedule with a mix of local productions, national programs and foreign imports, but they tend to follow a rough pattern with their scheduling:
- Children's shows in the daytime. Over the years, this block, known as PBS Kids since 1993, has included Sesame Street, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, Reading Rainbow, WordGirl, Bill Nye the Science Guy, The Magic School Bus, Arthur, Dragon Tales, Cyberchase, Barney & Friends and Teletubbies. PBS has generally placed a strong emphasis on education and Aesops with its kids' shows, even when children's programming on other networks started getting more geared towards selling toys. People who grew up before children's programming started proliferating on cable (or even after, if they had parents who objected to the Merchandise-Driven nature of many Saturday morning cartoons or did not have the money to afford cable or satellite) were probably raised on PBS.
- News in the early evening. Their main news programs are the PBS NewsHour nightly newscastnote and the award-winning Frontline documentary series (not to be confused with the Australian series). Nearly all stations also run the Nightly Business Report. Some stations also air BBC World News America, and a few stations might air local news broadcasts, such as WNET in New York, which, as a result of being licensed to Newark, NJ, airs semi-sister station NJTV's nightly news broadcasts (which with commercial station WWOR making a mockery of its Jersey programming commitments (thanks, Fox), is a downright public service to the Garden State). On Fridays, stations run the news talk show Washington Week, which was shown on Thursdays when it premiered on NET in 1967 and during the network's five-days-a-week phase in the early '70s.
- Prime Time brings entertainment for mature viewers, such as Masterpiece on Sundays and Antiques Roadshow on Mondays, along with science documentaries on Wednesdays such as NOVA and Nature. Educational, instructional or documentary programs like This Old House, The Joy of Painting and The American Experience are also typically found on stations' early evening and prime-time lineups.
- Late night brings more public affairs programming. This block was severely affected by the Weinstein Effect and resulting #MeToo movement, which saw both of its mainstays get the boot in a span of three and a half weeks. The current inhabitant of the block is CNN, which produces in association with WNET sister station WLIW an hour-long daily program Amanpour & Co., featuring British CNN personality Christiane Amanpour and other PBS public affairs personalities, including Hari Sreenivasan. Stations have also been known to run BBC World News, Nightly Business Report, The Whole Truth with David Eisenhower, Great Decisions in Foreign Policy, NHK Newsline, Asia Insight, and Democracy Now!, among others, in this block as part of their own local programming.
- The late night graveyard slot is full of prime time reruns, though most stations just use the feed given to them by PBS regardless of what they had themselves run during prime time that night. A notable exception is KQED, which does repeat its own prime time programming in the late night. Some stations carry telecourse programming, while others will throw on encores of popular pledge programming without the pledge breaks.
- Saturdays and Sundays usually bring out content meant for older audiences, such as repeats of The Lawrence Welk Show and BritComs such as Are You Being Served? and Keeping Up Appearances that have been run so much by the stations that the tape is probably nearly worn out by this point. Various Cooking Shows also may be featured, particularly in the afternoons.
Some local PBS stations create their own content, but most buy content produced by others. The largest content producer in the country is Boston's WGBH, which has produced shows like the science documentary series Nova and the edutainment show ZOOM. And while we're on the subject, WGBH's ident (which has remained unchanged since 1977, and features theme music from synthesizer pioneer Gershon Kingsley that the station has used since 1971) happens to be pure Nightmare Fuel (as were some of PBS's own early logos). WQED in Pittsburgh was historically another major provider, but it gradually petered out (with the end of the Neighborhood in 2001, it ceased to produce nationally-distributed programming). Similarly, WTTW of Chicago's output has dwindled in recent years; in the past it provided Siskel & Ebert their first TV series, The Frugal Gourmet, Lamb-Chop's Play Along as well as a revival of Kidsongs on television. It still co-produced The McLaughlin Group for both PBS and network stations until creator, executive producer, and host John McLaughlin's death in 2016. WNET of New York also contributes major programming, including Great Performances, American Masters, Nature, producing PBS NewsHour Weekend, and a large amount of PBS Kids programming. Some noteworthy programs broadcast throughout PBS' history include many of Ken Burns' documentaries and the controversial show An American Family in 1973, which is now viewed as the Ur-Example for the entire genre of reality television. (The irony of a network with a reputation as highbrow as PBS inventing the Reality Show is not lost on some of us.) Some PBS affiliates also let other companies use their studios for filming non-PBS programs. An example is Philadelphia's WHYY, who had among other things, Nickelodeon's quintessential game show, Double Dare, as well as sister series Finders Keepers and Think Fast, taped at their facilities until Nick moved to Orlando- and Universal Studios- in 1990.
Many PBS stations also rely on content from the BBC, leading to a joke claiming that the network's acronym stood for "Primarily British Series." For many years during its original run, PBS was the U.S. distributor of Doctor Who. Two other popular British imports are Monty Python's Flying Circus and Are You Being Served?, which have been airing on a PBS station somewhere or other since they first acquired the programs in the mid-1970s. The sci-fi sitcom Red Dwarf was also broadcast on some PBS stations, on occasion being the focus of the aforementioned pledge drives. Finally, the long-running Masterpiece Theatre (now known simply as Masterpiece) consists mostly of British productions (including some from ITV and Channel Four), the most popular of which currently are Downton Abbey and the revival of Upstairs Downstairs, which have been among the biggest hits the network's had in its history.
As a government-run television network, PBS has been subjected to fights within the government over funding as far back as The '60s (Fred Rogers' speech to the Senate in defense of the young network was a defining moment in television history for just that reason). The usual cry of public television's opponents is that PBS was created in a time when there were only three television networks in the United States as opposed to over a hundred, and that the public need for it no longer exists in today's world of cable, satellite and streaming TV. Supporters, meanwhile, argue that PBS is essential for rural viewers and those who can't afford cable or satellite, that it provides things like science documentaries, hard-hitting investigative journalism and educational children's programming that would never last a day on commercial television, and that commercial educational and niche programming channels are vulnerable to Network Decay.note The large degree of control given to local affiliates is also a point of contention, with some people arguing that this is an outmoded, inefficient structure that should be replaced with something more centralized, and others saying that it's necessary for the community involvement for which PBS stations are known. Also, despite the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 prohibiting political bias in PBS broadcasting, it has been accused of such by both sides over the years (and let's just leave it at that). On at least one occasion, the reverse has happened: In 1982, Congress asked PBS to abandon its official neutral position in order to air the program Let Poland Be Poland, which criticized the Soviet-enforced declaration of martial law in Poland in 1981.
Currently, they have branched out to the Internet, creating a well-received, informative Web Video series on YouTube, The PBS Idea Channel. Other TV ventures include several diginets, including World, offering PBS' current affairs library 24/7, and Create, focusing on DIY-type and cooking shows; these digi-nets are not operated by PBS, but by close ally American Public Television, which syndicates various programs to PBS stations. (Previous PBS digi-nets included PBS YOU, which was the predecessor to Create and carried college tele-courses, and V-Me, a Spanish-language network that has since broken away from PBS.) PBS also has a home video division, PBS Home Video.
The radio equivalent is NPR.
Shows aired on PBS stations note include:
- PBS Idea Channel
- PBS Kids (the channel's famous children's programming block)
- Sprout (digital cable channel it formerly co-owned)
- 'Allo 'Allo!note
- Are You Being Served?note
- As Time Goes By
- Blake's 7
- Call the Midwife
- The Cobblestone Corridornote
- Death in Paradise
- Doc Martinnote
- Doctor Whonote
- Downton Abbey
- The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrinnote
- Father Brown
- Fawlty Towersnote
- Hollywood Television Theatre
- House of Cards (UK)
- Inspector Morse
- Keeping Up Appearancesnote
- Last of the Summer Winenote
- Little House on the Prairienote
- May to Decembernote
- Mercy Street
- Midsomer Murdersnote
- Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteriesnote
- Monty Python's Flying Circusnote
- Moone Boy
- Mystery Science Theater 3000note
- New Tricks
- Nightmare Theatre
- One Foot in the Gravenote
- Only Fools and Horsesnote
- Open All Hoursnote
- Red Dwarf
- The Red Green Shownote
- So Haunt Menote
- Spooks (as MI-5)
- Star Trek: The Original Seriesnote
- St. Elsewherenote
- To the Manor Bornnote
- Upstairs Downstairs
- Upstart Crow
- The Vicar of Dibleynote
- Waiting for Godnote
- Yes, Ministernote
- 3-2-1 Contact
- Antiques Roadshow
- Don't Look Now! (a short-lived 1983 spinoff of You Can't Do That on Television from the same creators, Roger Price and Geoffrey Darby)
- Firing Line: Conservative-leaning political discussion show airing on PBS (moving from First-Run Syndication) from 1971 until 1999 and revived in 2018.
- The Joy of Painting
- The Lawrence Welk Show
- The McLaughlin Group
- Motor Week
- Newtons Apple: An edutainment show for kids about science that aired in the 1980s.
- Robot Warsnote
- This Old House
- The Wonderful World Of Disneynote