I often discuss the television industry but I tend to focus mainly on commercial television. The public television industry is different in many significant ways. The most popular public television broadcaster is the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and everyone who grew up with a television likely grew up watching it, so that’s the one I will discuss.
The most clear difference between PBS and commercial television networks like NBC, CBS, ABC, FOX and The CW is the lack of advertising in the middle of the programming. Commercial TV networks make deals with local affiliates to carry their programming in exchange for a cut of the revenues the networks earn from advertising. For example, when FOX allows their San Francisco affiliate KTVU to air The Simpsons, KTVU gets a cut of the advertising that a popular series like The Simpsons will draw eyeballs to.
On the other hand, PBS is strictly a distribution channel and not really a network at all, which means individual PBS member stations have more latitude to control their schedules on the local level because they don’t have huge corporations like Disney (owner of ABC) and Comcast (owner of NBC) pressuring them to have consistent schedules for ultimate viewership.
As a matter of fact, the various PBS affiliates around the United States are responsible for producing much of their nationally shown programs. This is why you sometimes see the logo for Boston affiliate WGBH at the end of shows like Arthur, Nova, Masterpiece and Frontline even if you don’t live in Massachusetts.
Other examples include New York City affiliate WNET (Nature, Cyberchase), Washington D.C. affiliate WETA-TV (Washington Week, PBS Newshour), Austin affiliate KLRU (Austin City Limits), San Francisco affiliate KQED (The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That) and Pittsburgh affiliate WQED (Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood).
Public broadcasting began with radio. Public radio stations in cities like New York, Chicago and Boston have established the system in America for providing free government-funded public service with underwriting from foundations and businesses before 1970 when the two most popular public service stations National Public Radio and PBS were founded.
The history of public television and PBS specifically began in 1952 when the Educational Television and Radio Center (ETRC) was founded by a grant from the Ford Foundation’s Fund for Adult Education (FAE) which distributed educational television programs produced by local television stations in direct contrast with commercial TV networks like NBC, CBS and ABC.
The ETRC did not produce their own programming but served solely as a distribution network for in-depth educational programming featuring hour-long interviews with people of historical and literary significance in a very dry and solely academic manner.
The organization began functioning more like a network in 1954, and after moving operations to New York City in 1958, the organization would become more ambitious in its goal to be known as America’s fourth television network, even importing shows from British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in 1961 beginning with 15-part Shakespearean serial An Age of Kings. That was followed by acquisitions of programs from Canada, France, Italy, Australia and other countries.
In 1963, a year after the federal government took over the FAE’s grants-in-aid operations, the organization changed its name to National Educational Television (NET), and starting in 1966 with its centerpiece program NET Journal, the network began airing hard-hitting documentaries that explored controversial social issues such as poverty and racism, which made the network popular with television critics and scholars but objectionable to conservative markets that saw these programs as having a liberal slant.
In 1967, after President Lyndon Johnson arranged for the Carnegie Foundation to study the future of educational television, Carnegie recommended that educational television be transformed to “public television,” which led to the federal government forming the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) that year as a distribution center for independent producers to create educational programming.
In 1969, while NET was still under fire from conservatives, the CPB and the Ford Foundation decided to shut NET down and the network merged with NYC affiliate WNDT in 1970 which caused WNDT to change its identity to WNET and to change its national identity to the Public Broadcasting Service, although some TV series that began on NET like Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and Sesame Street continued to air on PBS.
PBS was founded specifically by four people: Hartford N. Gunn Jr. the president of WGBH, John Macy the president of the CPB, James Day the last president of NET and Kenneth A. Christiansen the chairman of the Department of Broadcasting at the University of Florida.
The network’s profile actually got a huge boost pretty soon after it launched thanks in large part to the Watergate scandal which reporters Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer covered regularly on a nightly basis much to the interest of television viewers across the country.
The station has actually aired some of the most popular television programs since the 1970s (with some shows from the seventies continuing to air to this day) and the shows that have aired on the station come in a variety of genres, including art (The Joy of Painting), cooking (The French Chef), music (Austin City Limits), science (Nova, Nature), talk shows (Charlie Rose), drama (Masterpiece), public affairs (Frontline, PBS Newshour), home improvement (This Old House) and history (American Masters, American Experience, Antiques Roadshow, Finding Your Roots).
It was also popular for its British imports. PBS was many Americans’ introductions to shows like The Benny Hill Show, Doctor Who, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Fawlty Towers, Mr. Bean, Keeping Up Appearances, Are You Being Served?, Sherlock and Downton Abbey.
PBS has always had a wide variety of acclaimed programs aimed at children as well including Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Sesame Street, The Electric Company, Zoom, Reading Rainbow, Barney & Friends, Ghostwriter, Wishbone, Arthur, The Magic School Bus, Liberty’s Kids, Clifford the Big Red Dog, Cyberchase, Wordgirl and Curious George, and PBS would import foreign children’s programs as well. While Shining Time Station was made in America, the Thomas the Tank Engine segments were actually from the British series Thomas & Friends. Other examples include Teletubbies which came from Britain and Bananas in Pajamas which came from Australia.
Other public television stations have existed since PBS was founded including MHz Networks (1972), World (2005) and Create (2006). These networks and PBS all offer free programs uninterrupted by commercials but they do have sponsors and funders that they mention at the beginnings and endings of their programs with PBS going out of its way to thank “viewers like you” every time. Further compounded by the fact that PBS regularly airs pledge drives for its programming as well.
PBS is my favorite television network and KQED (the San Francisco affiliate for PBS that airs in Oakland) has consistently been the channel me and my family have watched the most throughout our lives. Even though I had Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network and the Disney Afternoon I often went back to PBS to watch Sesame Street, Reading Rainbow, Arthur and The Magic School Bus and as an adult I continue to watch the network to receive political news, get educated about history and watch the various documentaries from filmmakers like Ken Burns.
As much as I love commercial television, I will always gravitate towards public television. I may be an entertainment junkie but I’m also a history buff so if there’s a television network out there discussing the history of the Civil War I am likely to be just as enthusiastic about it as I am when I watch an episode of my favorite sitcom.