Public Broadcasting System

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Public Broadcasting System

The Public Broadcasting System (PBS), is a nationwide network of television (see entry under 1940s—TV and Radio in volume 3) stations producing television programs dedicated to education, the arts, and culture. PBS accepts no advertising, receiving all its funding from the government and from the voluntary contributions of its viewers. Without having to appeal to advertisers, PBS offers a different kind of programming than the major, commercial networks do. Because of this, PBS has long been an alternative to commercial television.

As television began in the late 1930s, and as it developed in the 1940s and 1950s, there was tension between the commercial stations, owned by big corporations intent on making money, and the desire to keep some channels open for public use. Public television began with local educational broadcasts in the early 1950s. When National Education Television was formed in 1958, it broadened the programming from educational, classroom programs to focus on larger cultural programming, including arts programming, documentaries, public-affairs shows, and children's programming. Public television became a national, government-sponsored program when President Lyndon B. Johnson (1908–1973) signed the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967.

Over the years, PBS has produced a number of well-known and important television programs. Among its first and most famous shows was the children's educational program Sesame Street (see entry under 1970s—TV and Radio in volume 4), featuring live actors and puppets teaching children about letters, numbers, and other topics. Sesame Street's puppets, called muppets (see entry under 1970s—TV and Radio in volume 4), included Kermit the Frog, Big Bird, Bert and Ernie, and Oscar the Grouch. The muppets became immediate favorites with kids. PBS also produced music programs like Great Performances, cooking shows such as The Frugal Gourmet, and home improvement shows like This Old House. PBS also aired dramatic and comedy series, including Brideshead Revisited and Monty Python's Flying Circus (see entry under 1970s—TV and Radio in volume 4). In the 1990s, PBS had great success with the series The Civil War and Baseball by acclaimed documentary filmmaker Ken Burns (1953–).

Public television has not been without its critics. Many conservatives complain that PBS is too liberal, too open to new ideas. Indeed, PBS has at times pushed the boundaries in American life by discussing controversial subjects such as homosexuality and by taking a critical stance on the Vietnam War (1954–75). Members of Congress have at times tried to withdraw funding for PBS or close it down altogether. Although never as popular as the mainstream commercial stations, PBS has provided a necessary and serious alternative to commercial television, allowing educational and cultural programs a place on the nation's airwaves.

—Timothy Berg

For More Information

Hoynes, William. Public Television for Sale: Media, the Market, and the Public Sphere. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1994.

Macy, John W., Jr. To Irrigate a Wasteland: The Struggle to Shape a Public Television System in the United States. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974.

PBS. PBS Online. (accessed March 20, 2002).

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Public Broadcasting System

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