Oct 4, 2020 - Economy

PBS turns 50

Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios; Photos: Getty Images

Amid a global pandemic and an election year, PBS, the public broadcaster turning 50 on Sunday, faces its most transformative period yet.

The big picture: While PBS is best known for shows like "Sesame Street" and "Downton Abbey," its legacy also includes innovations in technology, like creating closed captioning to make TV accessible to the deaf, and pioneering diversity in television.

Catch up quick: PBS was created in 1969 following the passage of the 1967 Public Broadcasting Act, which established the government-funded Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

  • "It was a way for our individual stations to create scale,” says Paula Kerger, president and CEO of PBS. “It was signed into law by Lyndon Johnson, who was looking at other great public broadcasters around the world, like the BBC, while envisioning what public broadcast could look like in America."
  • Today, PBS has nearly 330 member stations around the country, many of which were created with the explicit purpose of providing educational programming to local communities.

PBS’s educational foundation is proving critical during the pandemic, as children and parents who are stuck at home are forced to rely on remote learning.

  • "Like politics, education is very local,” says Kerger. “Many of our stations work closely with educators locally, so we are able to take their resources to help develop programming for broadcast.”
  • This year, the broadcaster is doubling down on the tools and resources it provides for free to parents and educators during the pandemic, like LearningMedia, which is providing over a million teachers and parents with standards-aligned videos, interactives and lesson plans.
  • “We thought, 'This is going to be a very difficult time for communities and families,' says Kerger. "'What should we be doing?'”

PBS is probably best known for championing children's programming, like "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," "Barney and Friends," "Sesame Street," "Reading Rainbow," "Clifford the Big Red Dog" and "Zoom" — the first kids show made by kids, for kids.

  • Before PBS, networks didn’t allocate much time and energy into children-specific programming, so television wasn’t as much of a resource for parents.
  • ”Prior to public TV, the local weatherman put on a clown suit and ran a few cartoons,” says Kerger. “Children's television was created by us.”

The broadcaster has long championed efforts around diversity and inclusion. In 2013 and 2016, it became the first TV network to have an all-female team co-anchor a network newscast and a debate, with the late Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff.

  • "In many ways, a lot of our roots are driven by extraordinary women," says Kerger.
  • Speaking of “The French Chef“ with Julia Child, which premiered on PBS affiliate WGBH in 1963, Kerger notes, “Women heard about this extraordinary TV show and began working to create community stations around the country."
  • The broadcaster has also long featured programming with LGBT characters and Black reporters and newsmakers.
  • “When I look at our response to the pandemic and the issue of systemic racism in America, I think it helps that we were built on a strong 50-year foundation of work and relationships that stem from local communities," says Kerger.

Between the lines: Despite being known mostly for its programming, a massive part of PBS’ legacy lies in the technological innovations it pioneered for all of broadcast, from closed captioning to high-definition programming to the use of satellites to transmit programming signals across the country.

  • ”We were one of the earliest adopters of high-definition programming as well as multicast. We had the idea that we were going to do channel syndicated programming and divide it up so we could simultaneously provide channels for kids and adults,” says Kerger.

Yes, but: Its legacy also includes decades-long fights for public funding. Today, the Trump administration has routinely proposed major budget cuts to public broadcasting, but Congress has continued to support funding PBS, citing bipartisan support for having stations in local communities.

  • “An interesting part of our story is that despite all of this innovation, technology and content, we have interwoven with our history periodic moments of support as well as concern about continuation of public broadcasting," Kerger says.
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