If the federal government had not launched the Public Broadcasting System on television in 1970 along with its sister network National Public Radio, what would we have missed?
We would have never seen “Sesame Street” as children. We wouldn’t have learned about kindness and understanding from Mister Rogers. We would have missed LaVar Burton’s guidance for young readers on “Reading Rainbow.” (The show was so admired and popular, it ran for 26 years, won 26 Emmy Awards, and became the most watched PBS show ever in American classrooms.)
Adults would have missed great history lessons, from Ken Burns’ epics “The Civil War, “The Vietnam War,” “Baseball,” and “Country Music,” to the two-hour documentaries of “American Experience.” We wouldn’t have learned about the universe with Carl Sagan in “Cosmos” or modern art with Robert Hughes in “The Shock of the New.”
We wouldn’t have learned to cook with flair as Julia Child taught us on “The French Chef.” Or painted landscapes with Bob Ross, who showed us how to make “happy little trees” from his studio in Muncie, Indiana. Or found the courage to pick up a hammer and take on home repairs with the crew from “This Old House.”
We would have missed some of the best in-depth reporting on public affairs anywhere, from “Frontline” and “The PBS Newshour” on television to “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered” on NPR. Many of us would not have learned about investing had “Wall Street Week” not made it accessible and oddly entertaining. And we would never have witnessed William F. Buckley, Jr. debating guests in his intelligent and genteel way on “Firing Line.”
We would have missed generations of live music performances on “Austin City Limits,” which started with a bang in 1974 with Willie Nelson, followed by a parade of talent including Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimmy Buffett, the Indigo Girls, Ray Charles, Vince Gill, Townes Van Zandt, Lyle Lovett, Neil Young, Lightnin’ Hawkins, Steve Winwood, Rosanne Cash, Norah Jones, Los Lobos, B. B. King, Jerry Lee Lewis, Loretta Lynn, Van Morrison, the Neville Brothers, and scores more.
And, of course, we would have missed the British dramas that PBS delivered every season, works that took us into the triumphs and troubles of people unlike any we had ever met, from “Upstairs/Downstairs” and “The Jewel in the Crown” to “Prime Suspect” and “Downton Abbey.” These dramas made us more worldly as they entertained.
It gets better. We got all this—a world of learning greater than the Metropolitan Museum, the Smithsonian Institution, and the British Museum rolled into one—at no charge to viewers and little expense to governments. This resource was available coast to coast, from remote villages in Alaska to the poorest neighborhoods of big cities, because PBS reaches 94 percent of Americans and NPR reaches 98 percent over public airwaves, a reach greater than any commercial broadcasting network’s. And unlike cable television, it’s free to anyone with a TV and an antenna.
And viewers clearly loved public broadcasting. For 18 consecutive years, Americans have ranked PBS and its member stations as America’s most-trusted institution, ranking it above the courts, other broadcasters, and newspapers. (Americans also have a high regard for the military.) When President Ronald Reagan tried cutting public broadcasting’s budget in the 1980s, Congress overrode him. Same thing happened when President Donald Trump cut funding for public broadcasting. Not only did Congress replace the money Trump took out, it raised the appropriation.
So how did we get this popular source of education and information? Why was it created? Why does it remain so popular with viewers and members of Congress amid an explosion of new media? (There are now more than 200 streaming services.) And why is public broadcasting considered such a bargain for governments?
Like other government services, public television came about slowly and without a plan at first. Its origins go to the 1920s and 1930s and the founding of college radio stations, where students learned about broadcasting and broadcast engineering. Most of these stations had scant audiences, as they tended to be on the FM band. (In those days, the popular stations were on the AM band.) So few commercial stations wanted an FM presence that, in 1938, the Federal Communications Commission reserved the lower portion of the FM band just for these nonprofit stations. (It’s why you still find most of these stations grouped to the left of your dial.)
There was no network serving college stations in the early years. From sign-on to sign-off, students played music for other students and in rural areas gave the weather and agricultural news to farmers.
Public television had a similar, mostly unplanned start in the late 1940s and early 1950s as a handful of civic groups and educational institutions around the country wrangled spots on the TV spectrum by convincing the FCC they could educate children through this newly popular medium. Problem was, they had no means of doing so.
The first coherent plan came in the form of National Educational Television, a collaboration of nonprofit stations founded in 1952 and funded largely by the Ford Foundation. NET did not produce shows. It collected programs individual stations had created, awarded grants for new shows, and mailed the recordings on kinescope film to others in the NET system.
This was a step forward and gave civic groups a reason for starting stations in cities that didn’t have an educational station, but most observers agreed that if television was to play a role in educating children and informing adults, it needed something more sophisticated than low-quality productions delivered through the mail. This was when the Carnegie Foundation stepped forward.
In 1965, the Carnegie Commission on Educational Television began a two-year study of educational television with the aim of figuring out how a non-commercial broadcasting system dedicated to education and information could succeed. Two years later, it delivered its report. And while it was wrong in some of the details (it suggested a tax on television sets to support public broadcasting), it got the main parts right:
- Public television (as it suggested renaming it) should be a bottom-up system, similar to the way other successful federal-state-local programs worked. (See our entries on unemployment insurance and cooperative extension for examples.)
- The federal government’s contribution should be managed by a federally-chartered nonprofit called the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which would receive federal appropriations and make grants to TV and radio stations and content providers.
- TV stations should be connected through the Public Broadcasting System and radio stations by National Public Radio, and these nonprofits should be in charge of program distribution.
- The first objective of PBS and NPR should be to connect the public stations so programs could be shared easily. (After experimenting with telephone lines, PBS turned to satellites to beam shows to stations.)
- Rather than having PBS create its own programs, CPB should make programming grants to local stations and a small number of national production agencies. (NPR does things differently.)
- CPB, then, would not make grants directly to PBS. So how could PBS support its work? Through dues paid by the stations themselves, which created the accountability a “bottom-up” system needed.
With a speed that seems surprising today, President Lyndon Johnson and Congress agreed to most of what the Carnegie Commission recommended (ignoring its tax suggestions) and established the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in 1967. PBS and NPR debuted three years later.
And here’s the ingenious part. This federalist-inspired, bottom-up system (federal government funds some things, but local interests much more; programming comes from the stations, not the network; the stations support the system through dues) has not only given PBS and NPR programming as sophisticated as the commercial networks’, it has remained true to its mission of educating and informing viewers rather than pursuing profits. Along the way, public broadcasting has become thrifty and politically resilient. Just ask Presidents Reagan and Trump.
So how much does the federal government pay today for the system it created more than 50 years ago? About $465 million a year. That amounts to about $1.40 a year for each American and 0.01 percent of the federal budget. (By contrast, the federal government’s annual appropriation to the Smithsonian Institution is $1 billion.)
You can’t run 1,500 public TV and radio stations for that amount of money. So the stations leverage the federal appropriations. At the Indianapolis public TV and radio station, for example, individual members contribute 36 percent of WFYI’s budget, local businesses another 21 percent, and grants from foundations make up 14 percent. Federal funding (passed through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting) makes up 13 percent of the budget, and state government chips in another 5 percent. The rest comes from miscellaneous sources.
OK, then. Public broadcasting is a bargain for viewers and taxpayers. But do we still need it? When the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was created in 1967, there were just three major TV networks, CBS, NBC, and ABC, plus a handful of independent stations in big cities.
A half century later, the media landscape is far different. There are now four major networks (including Fox), scores of specialized cable channels (the Game Show Network, the Discovery Channel, the Beauty Channel, the History Channel, the Cooking Channel, the Travel Channel, the Golf Channel, etc.) and an ever-expanding universe of streaming services (Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, Disney Plus, HBO Max, Apple TV Plus, YouTube, and many more).
Some of these new media outlets offer things that we once could get only on PBS, like British dramas, home-improvement shows, and history documentaries. So do we still need PBS and NPR? Some conservatives say no.
But despite all these alternatives, it’s worth noting how popular public broadcasting remains. Viewership numbers do not appear to be affected by new competitors. And donations by members are growing.
What explains public broadcasting’s enduring appeal? It could be that PBS remains a bargain. You don’t need an expensive cable package or streaming subscription to get it. And its shows are better. “Fixer Upper” and “Property Brothers” are entertaining home-improvement programs on HGTV, but they’re no “This Old House.” And whatever the History Channel’s purpose is, with its offerings of “Ice Road Truckers” and “Nostradamus,” it doesn’t offer anything as good as “American Experience” and certainly doesn’t compete with Ken Burn’s films.
So why don’t commercial outlets offer programming as good as the government-supported nonprofit networks? The answer goes back to the founding of PBS and NPR; they were given a mission to educate and inform. The only mission of CBS, Hulu, the History Channel, HGTV, and the rest is to turn a profit for their owners. A profit motive works fine for most things, like supplying us with clothes, cars, groceries, and technology, but it doesn’t work as well when it comes to educating children and informing citizens.
For those tasks—so important to the country’s future and its democracy—we need something we can depend on to act in the country’s best interests, to put children’s welfare and a respect for facts, scholarship, and logic first. We got those things when public broadcasting signed on a half-century ago. And for that, we can thank government.
Give the credit to: federal government 85%, state governments 10%, local governments 5%
Photo by CDBerrios licensed under Creative Commons.