Masterpiece Television: Celebrating 50 Years of PBS

By Scott Vierick, Historian

Tonight on Frontline.

This is Masterpiece Mystery!

Let’s build a happy little cloud.

Won’t you be my neighbor?

Can you tell me how to get to Sesame Street?

Fifty years ago, the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) began broadcasting, the culmination of years of effort to improve the quality of programming available on television. The story begins in the 1940s and 1950s. As more and more Americans began buying televisions, critics worried that the shows available did not adequately serve the public interest. In response, public television stations began to appear throughout the country during the 1950s. These stations sought to offer programming that was educational and not dependent on advertisers for funding. Soon, however, it became clear that public television would need more support in order to thrive in the United States.

Early public television star Julia Child introduced countless Americans to the joys of French cooking. Source: Paul Child/PBS

An early effort to fill this vacuum was National Education Television. Partially funded by the Ford Foundation, this public television network worked to provide engaging educational content for the viewers of its member stations. In 1967, Congress created the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) to provide funding for local public television stations. During the 1960s, noteworthy and beloved staples of public television like Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and Sesame Street came on the air. However, the need for an umbrella organization that could properly coordinate funding and programming soon became clear. In 1970, PBS made its formal debut.

Public television has long struggled with securing adequate funding, as CPB and PBS experienced right from the beginning. In 1969, as plans for PBS were being formulated, the Nixon Administration proposed slashing CPB’s congressional funding. Fred Rogers of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood went before Congress to testify. Despite the initial indifference of Senator John Pastore, the subcommittee chairman, Rogers’ eloquent, passionate defense of programming that helps children understand, accept, and work through their emotions won over the committee. When Rodgers finished reciting a song he wrote for the program, Senator Pastore, with a smile on his face, declared, “I think it’s wonderful. I think it’s wonderful. Looks like you just earned the 20 million dollars.” Rogers had helped save the subsidy and give PBS a future.

Fred Rogers testifies before Congress. Source: PBS

Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff began hosting PBS NewsHour in 2013. Source: PBS

As time passed, PBS and the stations it supported grew, and viewers tuned into the eclectic mix of shows available. Masterpiece Theatre debuted in 1971 and would in the decades to come introduce Americans to British series like I Claudius, Upstairs Downstairs, Poldark, Sharpe’s Enemy, and Downton Abbey. In the early 1970s, PBS stations helped introduce American audiences to Monty Python’s Flying Circus, setting the stage for the group’s future success in the United States. In 1974, the long-running science program NOVA first aired. In 1975, Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer unveiled the Macneil/Lehrer Report, which would later become PBS NewsHour.

PBS stations have introduced Americans to many iconic British sitcoms, including Keeping Up Appearances. In this series, ambitious social climber Hyacinth Bucket (“it’s pronounced ‘bouquet,’” she tells her friends) finds herself in many embarrassing situations, mostly of her own making. Source: Maryland Public Television

The list of viewer favorites goes on. PBS distributed Ken Burns’ first documentary, Brooklyn Bridge, in 1981, beginning a relationship between the network and the acclaimed filmmaker that continues today. In 1983, the in-depth documentary series Frontline made its debut. In 1997, Antiques Roadshow first appeared on televisions across the country, causing Americans everywhere to wonder how much their old furniture and trinkets might be worth. In 2012, Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. began helping his guests explore their genealogies with Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

Just as critically for PBS, as its programming for adults expanded, so did its programming for children. In 1983, the same year that Frontline debuted, LeVar Burton introduced Reading Rainbow. In the 1990s, children could learn about science with Ms. Frizzle and her students on The Magic School Bus, geography with Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego, and science with Bill Nye the Science Guy. Kids today can enjoy shows like Dinosaur Train, Odd Squad, and Elinor Wonders Why.

PBS has also been a pioneer in helping make television more accessible. It helped introduce both closed captioning and the Descriptive Video Service, which, respectively, help deaf and blind/visually impaired viewers better enjoy its programs. Today, many PBS stations have accessibility guidelines to ensure that programming is as inclusive as possible.

It was a wonderful kind of day when Arthur debuted in 1996. The show covered topics like sharing, honesty, sibling rivalry, pet training, friends moving away, and whether aliens took DW’s snowball. As of 2020, the popular show is still on the air. Source: PBS

Much has changed since PBS got its start in the 1970s. The organization now has a robust web presence and many of its member stations operate streaming services. New Sesame Street episodes air first on HBO, before being rebroadcast on PBS stations. It has been years and decades since public television icons like Bob Ross, Julia Child, and Fred Rogers took their final bows. At the same time, many of its iconic shows remain on the air and as relevant as ever. Frontline still provides hard-hitting, in-depth documentaries, PBS NewsHour journalists cover breaking stories, Masterpiece showcases British drama, and Arthur and his friends embark on new adventures. And even as old favorites go off the air, new ones arise to take their place. In its efforts to serve the public interest, PBS’s mission is as vital as ever and will remain so as long as Americans want to learn about history, science, social issues, and how to get to Sesame Street.

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