This October marked the 50th anniversary of the launch of the Public Broadcasting Service, or PBS, known to Americans as the standard-bearer for quality journalism and educational value in the rather riotous world of television. Everyone knows PBS programming — Sesame Street, Frontline, The PBS Newshour, Masterpiece Theater. PBS has also been home to the work of Bill Moyers. His series, Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth, remains one of the most popular programs in PBS history. Even as the media explodes all boundaries, everyone knows someone from PBS, whether Big Bird or Lady Grantham.
Launched in an era when Americans primarily watched only three major networks, the goal of public television was to create a national television service that would serve the public good, coordinating the efforts of existing educational television stations operating throughout the country at the time.
Bill Moyers, then special assistant to President Lyndon B. Johnson, worked with a 15-member commission who thoroughly researched educational television in the United States and abroad, releasing the landmark report in 1967 titled Public Television: A Program for Action by the Carnegie Commission on Educational Television.
The Carnegie report spurred the passage of the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967. When President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the act, he stated:
“It announces to the world that our nation wants more than just material wealth; our nation wants more than a ‘chicken in every pot.’ We in America have an appetite for excellence, too. While we work every day to produce new goods and to create new wealth, we want most of all to enrich man’s spirit.”
PBS has weathered the rise of cable and streaming, to be ranked as America’s most trusted institution for 17 consecutive years, and America’s most trusted source of news.
PBS introduced closed captioning to audiences, was the first network to launch its own satellite system, and provided the first all-female team of journalists — Judy Woodruff and Gwen Ifill — to moderate a US presidential debate.
And during the summer of 1973, in an unprecedented move, PBS broadcast all 250 hours of the Watergate hearings, throughout the day and again at night during primetime so viewers could watch the hearings after work. The hearings were anchored by Jim Lehrer and Robert MacNeil, who later started The MacNeil/Lehrer Report, now known as The PBS Newshour.
And when coronavirus lockdowns began in March of 2020, PBS quickly partnered with the Los Angeles Unified School District to broadcast educational programming and resources across the three PBS stations in the Los Angeles area for children who were home from school. The partnership quickly became a model for other public television stations around the country.
PBS has not gone without criticism. There has been a sustained effort over the past 50 years to defund the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the private nonprofit corporation funded by the federal government that provides funding for PBS.
Memorably, in 1969, Fred Rogers testified before the Senate Subcommittee on Communications to preserve $20 million in funding for the newly formed Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
More recently, starting in the mid-‘90s, Republicans in Congress and other right-wing advocates waged a campaign to defund public media, including targeting Bill Moyers’ program Now with Bill Moyers, claiming a left-wing bias in its reporting.
Candidate Mitt Romney famously said, in 2012, to journalist Jim Lehrer, during a presidential debate:
“I’m sorry, Jim. I’m going to the stop the subsidy to PBS. I’m going to stop other things. I like PBS. I love Big Bird. I actually like you, too. But I’m not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for it.”
PBS’ champions and allies have been quick to point out its failures as well. In 2007, Hispanic American scholars, filmmakers and viewers throughout the country decried the lack of Latinx representation in Ken Burns’ documentary series The War, about the experiences of Americans during World War II.
And last year, Bill Moyers called on PBS, in a New York Times ad, to once again broadcast the impeachment hearings of President Donald Trump during primetime so Americans would have the opportunity to watch the hearings when they arrived home from work, just as they did almost 50 years prior.
In today’s crowded media landscape, PBS will continue to fight for its viewership and financial support. Its mission seems as important today as it did 50 years ago:
PBS is a membership organization that, in partnership with its member stations, serves the American public with programming and services of the highest quality, using media to educate, inspire, entertain and express a diversity of perspectives. PBS empowers individuals to achieve their potential and strengthen the social, democratic and cultural health of the US.