Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.
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Onscreen Announcer: "You're watching PBS."

Bart: "You're watching PBS?!"

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 (1952-1970)

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 Germany-) 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".

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 ten, 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 racism. This last program outraged NET's more conservative affiliates, especially those in the Southern US, and despite its critical acclaim would lead to the network's downfall once it became government-funded.

In 1967 the Ford Foundation, having invested over $130 million into a network that was still dependent on their contributions and grants, started to consider pulling its funding, 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-private[1] 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 infuriated the Nixon 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.

The PBS era (1970-present)

PBS has gone largely unchanged since then. Programming and the stations themselves are sponsored by donations from corporations, charity 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, David Gilmour and performances from the Austin City Limits festival; it's just a matter of getting through the lengthy pledge breaks or predicting when they will end and put up the next show.

In 2011 PBS launched a UK cable and satellite channel, carrying a broad cross-section of its US 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:

Most of the individual stations closely follow the main network's prime-time lineup, much of which originates at a few powerful member stations such as WGBH (Boston), WETA (Washington DC) and WNET (Newark NJ). If there are two PBS stations in the same market (such as Burlington-Plattsburgh, on Vermont's western border) there will be local adjustments to the schedule to prevent overlap.

Most PBS stations originate at least some programming, either for a local audience or for syndication. The extent and quality of this content varies widely. PBS member stations also rely heavily on syndicated programming, much of it created (or imported from abroad) by other member stations and distributed by groups such as American Public Television (APT). Occasionally, there will be changes to programming to bring in more viewers during quarterly pledge/donation drives. Thank You.

Most member stations are able to transmit multiple digital subchannels over-the-air simultaneously; the educational broadcasters have used this extra capacity in various ways. A PBS Kids channel, owned by the main network but programmed separately, is one common option; American Public Television provides Create (a subchannel for "how-to" programming) and World (documentary programming) to many member stations. A Spanish-language subchannel (V-me) used to be offered by WNET, but is no longer available free-to-air. American native programming (FNX) and regional programming have also been carried on digital subchannels at times. A few others have come and gone over the years.

The largest PBS network 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) happens to be pure Nightmare Fuel (as were some of PBS's own early logos). 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.)

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 Theater (now known simply as Masterpiece) consists mostly of British productions (including some from ITV and Channel 4).

As a government-run television network, PBS has been subjected to fights within the government over funding as far back as The Sixties (Fred Rogers' speech to the Senate in defense of the young network may just be his Crowning Moment of Awesome). 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 and satellite 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 channels are vulnerable to Network Decay.[2] 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 Original show on YouTube, The PBS Idea channel.

The radio equivalent is NPR, National Public Radio.

  1. Its board is appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate.
  2. The experience of the Discovery Channel, The History Channel, Nick Jr. and TLC in the last several years bears that out pretty well.