Public Broadcasting Service

PBS redirects here; for alternate uses see PBS (disambiguation).
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The Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) is a non-profit public broadcasting television service with 349 member TV stations in the United States. PBS headquarters are in Alexandria, Virginia. PBS was founded in 1969, at which time it took over many of the functions of its predecessor, National Educational Television (NET). PBS commenced broadcasting in October 1970. For some of its historical logos, see PBS logos.

Stations that produce a significant amount of PBS network programming include:



PBS is not a broadcast network in the sense in which that term is usually used in the United States. Unlike the commercial television broadcast model of American networks such as NBC, CBS and ABC, in which affiliates give up portions of their local advertising airtime in exchange for network programming, PBS member stations pay substantial fees for the shows acquired and distributed by the national organization.

This relationship means that PBS member stations have greater latitude in local scheduling than their commercial counterparts. Scheduling of PBS-distributed series may vary wildly from market to market. This can be a source of tension as stations seek to preserve their localism and PBS strives to market a consistent national lineup. However, PBS has a policy of "common carriage" requiring most stations to clear the national prime time programs on a common schedule, so that they can be more effectively marketed on a national basis.

Unlike its radio counterpart National Public Radio, PBS has no central program production arm or news department. All of the programming carried by PBS, whether news, documentary, or entertainment, is created by (or in most cases produced under contract with) individual member stations. WGBH is one of the largest producers of educational programming; news programs are produced by WETA-TV, and the Charlie Rose interview show and Nature come from WNET. Once a program is distributed to PBS, the network (and not the member station that supplied it) retains all rights for rebroadcasts; the suppliers do maintain the right to sell the program in non-broadcast media such as DVDs, books, and licensed merchandise.

See List of PBS affiliates.

Sources of funding

The largest source of revenue for U.S. public television stations comes from donations by individual viewers. In addition to these member fees, PBS receives federal government money through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). PBS-distributed programs may be funded in part by corporate sponsors and non-profit groups such as the Annenberg Foundation. Depending upon their location and licensee, local stations may also be funded in part by state governments, colleges and universities. They can sell small portions of their airtime in the form of underwriting, which differs from traditional advertising in terms of restrictions on language and product usage.

Organizational Structure

Unlike the CBC-SRC state broadcaster in Canada, it is uncommon to find a single PBS broadcasting entitity serving an entire state. This is partly due to the origins of the PBS stations themselves, and partly due to historical license issues. This organizational structure is outmoded in the modern broadcast marketplace. One PBS network per state is probably the most optimal arrangement. This can be done by a legal restructuring of the PBS network in each state, and not violate the original madates of the PBS member stations.


PBS' evening schedule emphasizes fine arts (Great Performances), drama (Mystery! and Masterpiece Theatre), science (Nova and Scientific American Frontiers), public affairs (Frontline) and independent films (P.O.V. and Independent Lens).

PBS has distributed a number of highly regarded children's shows such as Sesame Street, The Electric Company, Villa Allegre, Zoom!, The Letter People, Barney and Friends, Shining Time Station, Thomas & Friends, Reading Rainbow and Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. Popular animated series have included Clifford the Big Red Dog, Arthur, Liberty's Kids and The Magic School Bus. The service has also imported British kids' series including Teletubbies and Boohbah. (Some of these series have since migrated to commercial television in the U.S., at least.)

But PBS is not the only distributor of public television programming to the affiliates. Other distributors have emerged from the roots of the old companies that had loosely held regional public television stations in the 1960s. Boston-based American Public Television (former names include Eastern Educational Network and American Program Service) is second only to PBS for distributing programs to U.S. non-commercial stations. Another distributor is NETA (formerly SECA), whose properties have included The Shapies and Jerry Yarnell School of Fine Art.

Member stations do not rely solely on PBS for their programming. Among the major U.S. syndicators is American Public Television (APT); from these public television syndication sources, stations acquire programming such as The McLaughlin Group. They also produce a variety of local shows, some of which subsequently receive national distribution through PBS or the syndicators.

They are known for rebroadcasting British television dramas and comedies (acquired from the BBC and other sources); so much of the exposure of American audiences to British television (particularly comedies) comes through PBS it has been joked that PBS means "Primarily British Series". However, a significant amount of sharing takes place. The BBC and other media outlets in the region such as Channel 4 often cooperate with PBS stations, producing material that is shown on both sides of the Atlantic. Also, though less frequently, Canadian and Australian, among other international, programming appears on PBS; the syndicators are more likely to offer this programming to the US public stations.

Other shows


PBS has been the subject of some controversy.

  • Some conservatives perceive it to have a liberal bias and criticize its tax-based revenue and have periodically but unsuccessfully attempted to discontinue funding of CPB. Although state and federal sources account for a minority percentage of public television funding, the system remains vulnerable to political pressure. Kenneth Tomlinson, chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, in November 2004 in Baltimore, told PBS officials "they should make sure their programming better reflected the Republican mandate." Mr. Tomlinson said that his comment was in jest and that he couldn't imagine how remarks at a fun occasion were taken the wrong way. [1] (
  • Certain on the left dislike how much of its funding comes from corporate sponsorships and some are uncomfortable with shows such as Wall $treet Week which they see as promoting a corporate outlook without any corresponding series featuring opposing views from labor unions. For example, one of PBS' documentaries, Commanding Heights, strongly supports globalization while painting labor unions as socialist organizations.
  • Some of its documentaries on Islam and the Arab world, such as Empire of Faith are attacked as either fawning or factually challenged.
  • It was founded to provide diversity in programming at a time when all television was broadcast (as opposed to today's coaxial cable or satellite transmission methods) and most communities received only three or four signals. Today most households subscribe to cable TV or have satellite dishes that receive tens or hundreds of signals, including varied educational and children's programs. However, public television proponents insist that the service be intended to provide universal access, particularly to poor and rural viewers. It is also argued that many cable and satellite productions are of lower quality.
  • Most stations solicit individual donations by methods including pledge drives or telethons which can disrupt regularly scheduled programming. Some viewers find this a source of annoyance since they replace the normal programmes with specials aimed at a wider audience.
  • Kenneth Tomlinson, who took over in 2003, began his tenure by asking for Karl Rove's assistance in overturning a regulation that half the CPB board have practical experience in radio or television. Later he appointed an outside consultant to monitor the regular PBS programme NOW with Bill Moyers. Told that the show had "liberal" leanings, Bill Moyers eventually resigned in February 2005 after more than three decades as a PBS regular, saying Tomlinson had mounted a "vendetta" against him. Subsequently, PBS made room ( for conservative commentator Tucker Carlson (now of MSNBC, a former co-host of CNN's Crossfire), and a show with Paul Gigot, an editor of the Wall Street Journal editorial page.

New networks

PBS has also begun at least three new TV networks: PBS YOU, PBS Kids, and PBS DT2 (a feed of HDTV and letterboxed programming for digital affiliates), along with packages of PBS programs that are similar to local stations' programming, the PBS-X feeds. (See List of United States broadcast television networks). Some or all are available on many digital cable systems, on free-to-air TV via communications satellites [2] (, as well as via DirecTV direct broadcast satellite. PBS YOU is also available on Dish Network.

With the transition to terrestrial digital television broadcasts, many are also often now available as "multiplexed" channels on some local stations' standard-definition digital signals; DT2 on the HD signals.

How the PBS network might survive in future

Here are some possiblities that might allow the PBS network to survive in the future.

  • PBS stations should carry the Pentagon Channel on their 3rd anciallary DTV channel nationwide. This would allow the Pentagon Channel to be seen on a wider basis, and remove any possibility of conflict between US cable providers and the Department of Defense.
  • PBS stations should carry a boquet of rolling news and information radio programming in English: BBC World Service (BBCWS), World Radio Network (WRN), Radio Australia and Radio Canada International (RCI) can be placed in 'thin' PBS digital sub-channels.
  • Merge PBS stations that are close to each other (at the state level). In Washington State there are 3 or 4 PBS stations (KCTS, KBTC etc...). Geography dictates that need only one PBS network station in Washington State. Vermont has only one PBS station, and provides a good cost / coverage area model.
  • PBS stations should advertize and resell their teleport capabilities. This would only be a small revenue stream for each PBS station, but a useful service for those in need of TV relay services.

Further reading

  • B. J. Bullert, Public Television : Politics and the Battle over Documentary Film, Rutgers Univ Press 1997
  • Bary Dornfeld, Producing Public Television, Producing Public Culture, Princeton University Press 1998
  • Ralph Engelman, Public Radio and Television in America: A Political History, Sage Publications 1996
  • James Ledbetter, Made Possible by : The Death of Public Broadcasting in the United States, Verso 1998

See also

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