Founded by Hartford N. Gunn Jr., PBS began operations on October 5, 1970, taking over many of the functions of its predecessor, National Educational Television (NET), which later merged with Newark, New Jersey station WNDT to form WNET. In 1973, it merged with Educational Television Stations.
Unlike the five major commercial broadcast television networks in the United States, ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and The CW – which compensate their affiliate stations to carry their programs – PBS is not a network but a program distributor that provides television content and related services to its member stations. Each station is charged with the responsibility of programming local content (often news, interview, cultural and public affairs programs) for their individual market or state that supplements content provided by PBS and other public television distributors.
In a television network structure, affiliates give up portions of their local advertising airtime in exchange for carrying network programming, and the network pays its affiliates a share of the revenue it earns from advertising (although this structure has been reversed in recent years, with the network compensated by the stations). By contrast, PBS member stations pay fees for the shows acquired and distributed by the national organization. Under this relationship, PBS member stations have greater latitude in local scheduling than their commercial broadcasting counterparts. Scheduling of PBS-distributed series may vary greatly depending on the 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," which requires most stations to clear the national prime time programs on a common programming schedule to market them nationally more effectively. Management at former Los Angeles member KCET cited unresolvable financial and programming disputes among its major reasons for leaving PBS after over 40 years in January 2011.
Although PBS has a set schedule of programming (particularly in regard to its prime time schedule, while many members carry a feed of night-time programming from the PBS Satellite Service), member stations reserve the right to schedule PBS-distributed programming in other time slots or not clear it at all if they choose to do so; few of the service's members carry all its programming. Most PBS stations timeshift some distributed programs. Once PBS accepts a program offered for distribution, PBS, rather than the originating member station, retains exclusive rebroadcasting rights during an agreed period. Suppliers retain the right to sell the program in non-broadcast media such as DVDs, books, and sometimes PBS licensed merchandise (but sometimes grant such ancillary rights as well to PBS).
In 1991, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting resumed production for most PBS shows that debuted prior to 1977, with the exceptions of Washington Week in Review and Wall Street Week (CPB resumed production of Washington Week in 1997).
In 1994, The Chronicle of Philanthropy released the results of the largest study on the popularity and credibility of charitable and non-profit organizations. PBS ranked as the 11th "most popular charity/non-profit in America" from over 100 charities researched in the study conducted by the industry publication, with 38.2% of Americans over the age of 12 choosing "love" and "like a lot" for PBS.
In December 2009, PBS signed up for the Nielsen ratings audience measurement reports, and began to be included in its primetime and daily "Television Index" reports, alongside the major commercial broadcast networks. In May 2011, PBS announced that it would incorporate breaks containing underwriter spots for corporate and foundation sponsors, program promotions and identification spots within four breaks placed within episodes of Nature and NOVA, airing episodes broken up into segments of up to 15 minutes, rather than airing them as straight 50- to 55-minute episodes. The strategy began that fall, with the intent to expand the in-program breaks to the remainder of the schedule if successful.
In 2011, PBS released apps for iOS and Android to allow viewing of full-length videos on mobile devices. An update in 2015 added Chromecast support.
On February 28, 2012, PBS partnered with AOL to launch MAKERS, a digital documentary series focusing on high-achieving women in male-dominated industries such as war, comedy, space, business, Hollywood and politics.
PBS initially struggled to compete with online media such as YouTube for market share. In a 2012 speech to 850 top executives from PBS stations, Senior Vice President of Digital Jason Seiken warned that PBS was in danger of being disrupted by YouTube studios such as Maker Studios. In the speech, later described as a “seminal moment” for public television, he laid out his vision for a new style of PBS digital video production. Station leadership rallied around his vision and Seiken formed PBS Digital Studios, which began producing educational but edgy videos, something Seiken called “PBS-quality with a YouTube sensibility.” The studio’s first hit, an auto-tuned version of the theme from one of their most famous television programs, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, was one of YouTube’s 10 most viral videos of 2012. By 2013, monthly video views on PBS.org had risen from 2 million to a quarter-billion, PBS.org traffic had surpassed that of the CBS, NBC, and ABC web sites, PBSKids.org had become the dominant U.S. children’s site for video, and PBS had won more 2013 Webby Awards than any other media company in the world.
On May 8, 2013, full-length episodes of PBS' prime time, news and children's programs were made available through the Roku streaming player; programming is available on Roku as separate streaming channels for PBS and PBS Kids content.
The evening and primetime schedule on PBS features a diverse array of programming including fine arts (Great Performances); drama (Masterpiece, Downton Abbey, American Family: Journey of Dreams); science (Nova, Nature); history (American Experience, American Masters, History Detectives, Antiques Roadshow); music (Austin City Limits, Soundstage); public affairs (Frontline, PBS NewsHour, Washington Week, Nightly Business Report); independent films and documentaries (P.O.V., Independent Lens); home improvement (This Old House); and interviews (Charlie Rose, Tavis Smiley, The Dick Cavett Show). In 2012, PBS began organizing much of its prime time programming around a genre-based schedule (for example, drama series encompass the Sunday schedule, while science-related programs are featured on Wednesdays).
PBS broadcasts children's programming as part of the service's (and including content supplied by other distributors not programmed by the service, its member stations') morning and afternoon schedule. As the children's programs it distributes are intended to educate as well as entertain its target audience, PBS and its stations have long been in compliance with educational programming guidelines set by the Federal Communications Commission in response to the enactment of the Children's Television Act of 1990. Many member stations have historically also broadcast distance education and other instructional television programs, typically during daytime slots; though with the advent of digital television, which has allowed stations to carry these programs on digital subchannels in lieu of the main PBS feed or exclusively over the Internet, many member stations/networks have replaced distance education content with children's and other programming.
Unlike its radio counterpart, National Public Radio, PBS does not have a central program production arm or news division. All of the programming carried by PBS, whether news, documentary or entertainment, is created by (or in most cases produced under contract with) other parties, such as individual member stations. Boston member WGBH-TV is one of the largest producers of educational television programming, including shows like American Experience, Masterpiece Theatre, Nova, Antiques Roadshow and Frontline, as well as many other children's and lifestyle programs. News programs are produced by WETA-TV (PBS Newshour) in Washington, D.C., WNET in New York City and WPBT in Miami. Newark, New Jersey/New York City member WNET produces or distributes programs such as Charlie Rose, Secrets of the Dead, Nature, and Cyberchase.
PBS member stations are known for rebroadcasting British television costume dramas, comedies and science fiction programs (acquired from the BBC and other sources) such as Downton Abbey; 'Allo 'Allo!; Are You Being Served?; The Benny Hill Show, Red Dwarf; The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin; Father Ted; Fawlty Towers; Harry Enfield and Chums; Keeping Up Appearances; Monty Python's Flying Circus; Mr. Bean, The Vicar of Dibley, Doctor Who, and Sherlock; consequently, this has led to jocular references that the service's name stands for "Primarily British Series". However, a significant amount of sharing takes place. The BBC and British broadcasters such as Channel 4 often cooperate with PBS stations, producing material that is shown on both sides of the Atlantic. Less frequently, Canadian, Australian and other international programming appears on PBS stations (such as The Red Green Show, currently distributed by syndicator Executive Program Services); public broadcasting syndicators are more likely to offer this programming to U.S.-based public television stations.
PBS is not the only distributor of public television programming to the member stations. Other distributors have emerged from the roots of companies that maintained loosely held regional public television stations in the 1960s. Boston-based American Public Television (which, among other names, was formerly known as Eastern Educational Network and the 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. In addition, the member stations themselves also produce a variety of local shows, some of which subsequently receive national distribution through PBS or other distributors.
Rerun programming is generally uncommon on PBS or its member stations, with some exceptions. The Lawrence Welk Show has aired continuously in reruns on PBS (through the Oklahoma Educational Television Authority) almost every weekend since 1986. Other programs that have been aired in reruns are generally past PBS series whose hosts have retired or are now deceased (for example, The Joy of Painting and Mister Rogers' Neighborhood) or have simply ended production (such as DragonflyTV and Clifford the Big Red Dog).
Launched in 1994 as PTV, PBS Kids is the brand for children's programs aired by PBS. The PBS Kids network, which was launched in 1999 and operated until 2005, was largely funded by satellite provider DirecTV. The channel ceased operations on October 1, 2005, in favor of PBS Kids Sprout, a commercial digital cable and satellite television channel originally operated as a joint venture with Comcast, Sesame Workshop and Apax Partners (NBCUniversal, which Comcast acquired in 2011, later acquired the other partners' interests in the channel in 2012). However, the original programming block still exists on PBS, filling daytime and in some cases, weekend morning schedules on its member stations; many members also carry 24-hour locally programmed children's networks featuring PBS Kids content on one of their digital subchannels. As of 2016, PBS Kids and MiTelemundo are currently only two children's programming blocks on U.S. commercial broadcast television.
As PBS is often known for doing, PBS Kids has broadcast imported series from other countries; these include British series originally broadcast by the BBC and ITV (such as Rosie and Jim, Tots TV, Teletubbies, Boohbah, and Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends), as well as several Canadian programs (such as Theodore Tugboat). Through American Public Television, many PBS stations also began airing the Australian series Raggs on June 4, 2007. Some of the programs broadcast as part of the service's children's lineup or through public broadcast syndication directly to its members have subsequently been syndicated to commercial television outlets (such as Ghostwriter and The Magic School Bus).
Many PBS member stations and networks – including Mississippi Public Broadcasting, Georgia Public Broadcasting, Maine Public Broadcasting Network, Nebraska Educational Telecommunications and WKYU-TV – locally broadcast high school and college sports. From the 1980s onward, the national PBS network has not typically carried sporting events, mainly because the broadcast rights to most sporting events have become more cost-prohibitive in that timeframe, especially for nonprofits with limited revenue potential; in addition, starting with the respective launches of the MountainWest Sports Network (now defunct) and Big Ten Network in 2006 and 2007 and the later launches of the Pac-12 Network and ESPN's SEC Network, athletic conferences have acquired rights for all of their member university's sports programs for their cable channels, restricting their use from PBS member stations, even those associated with their own universities.
From 1976 to 1988, KQED produced a series of Bundesliga matches under the banner Soccer Made in Germany, with Toby Charles announcing. PBS also carried tennis events, as well as Ivy League football. Notable football commentators included Upton Bell, Marty Glickman, Bob Casciola, Brian Dowling, Sean McDonough and Jack Corrigan. Other sports programs included interview series such as The Way It Was and The Sporting Life.
The board of directors is responsible for governing and setting policy for PBS, consisting of 27 members: 14 professional directors (station managers), 12 general directors (outside directors), and the PBS president. All PBS Board members serve three-year terms, without pay. PBS member stations elect the 14 professional directors; the board elects the 12 general directors and appoints the PBS president and CEO; and the entire board elects its officers.
As of March 2015, PBS maintains current memberships with 354 television stations encompassing 50 states, the District of Columbia and four U.S. possessions; as such, it is the only television broadcaster in the United States – commercial or non-commercial – which has station partners licensed in every U.S. state (by comparison, none of the five major commercial broadcast networks has affiliates in certain states where PBS has members, most notably New Jersey). The service has an estimated national reach of 93.74% of all households in the United States (or 292,926,047 Americans with at least one television set).
PBS stations are commonly operated by nonprofit organizations, state agencies, local authorities (such as municipal boards of education), or universities in their city of license; this is similar (albeit more centralized in states where a licensee owns multiple stations rebroadcasting the main PBS member) to the early model of commercial broadcasting in the U.S., in which network-affiliated stations were initially owned by companies that owned few to no other television stations elsewhere in the country. In some U.S. states, a group of PBS stations throughout the entire state may be organized into a single regional "subnetwork" (such as Alabama Public Television and the Arkansas Educational Television Network); in this model, PBS programming and other content is distributed by the originating station in the subnetwork to other full-power stations that serve as satellites as well as any low-power translators in other areas of the state. Some states may be served by such a regional network and simultaneously have PBS member stations in a certain city (such as the case with secondary member KBDI-TV in Denver, which is not related to Colorado member network Rocky Mountain PBS and its flagship station and primary Denver PBS member, KRMA-TV) that operate autonomously from the regional member network.
As opposed to the present commercial broadcasting model in which network programs are often carried exclusively on one television station in a given market, PBS may maintain more than one member station in certain markets, which may be owned by the licensee of the market's primary PBS member station or owned by a separate licensee (as a prime example, KOCE-TV, KLCS and KVCR-DT – which are all individually owned – serve as PBS stations for the Los Angeles market; KCET served as the market's primary PBS member until it left the service in January 2011, at which time it was replaced by KOCE). For these cases, PBS utilizes the Program Differentiation Plan, which divides by percentage the amount of programs distributed by the service that each member can carry on their schedule; often, this assigns a larger proportion of PBS-distributed programming to the primary member station, with the secondary members being allowed to carry a lesser amount of program offerings from the service's schedule. Unlike public broadcasters in most other countries, PBS cannot own any of the stations that broadcast its programming, therefore it is one of the few television programming bodies that does not have any owned-and-operated stations. This is partly due to the origins of the PBS stations themselves, and partly due to historical broadcast license issues.
Most PBS member stations have produced at least some nationally distributed programs. Current regularly scheduled programming on the PBS national feed is produced by a smaller group of stations, including:
PBS has spun off a number of television networks, often in partnership with other media companies. PBS YOU, a distance education and how-to service operated until January 2006, and was largely succeeded by Create (a similarly formatted network owned by American Public Television); PBS Kids Channel was superseded by Sprout at the start of October 2005. The PBS Kids Channel relaunched January 16, 2017. World began operations in 2007 as a service operated by PBS but is now managed by American Public Television.
PBS has also restructured its satellite feed system, simplifying PBS-DT2 into a timeshift feed for the Pacific Time Zone, rather than a high-definition complement to its formerly primary SD feed. PBS Kids Go! was proposed as a replacement broadcast network for PBS Kids Channel, however, plans to launch the network were folded in 2006. Programming from the PBS Satellite Service has also been carried by certain member stations or regional member networks as a placeholder feed to fill their overnight schedules (particularly those that have transitioned to a 24-hour schedule since the late 1990s), in lieu of providing their own programming sourced by outside public television distributors and repeats of local programming (program promotions shown on the satellite feed advertise upcoming programs as being aired on PBS during the timeslot card normally used as a placeholder for member outlets to insert local airtime information during their station breaks).
Some or all of these services are available on the digital cable tiers of many cable providers, on free-to-air (FTA) television via C-band satellite, as well as via direct broadcast satellite. With the exemption of Sprout, some of these services, including those from PBS Member stations and networks, have not made contracts with Over-the-Top Internet services such as PlayStation Vue and Sling TV. With the transition to over-the-air digital television broadcasts, many of the services are also often now available as standard-definition multicast channels on the digital signals of some member stations, while PBS-DT2 serves as a secondary HD feed. With the absence of advertising, network identification on these PBS networks was limited to utilization at the end of the program, which includes the standard series of bumpers from the "Be More" campaign.
While not operated or controlled by PBS proper, additional public broadcasting networks are available and carried by PBS member stations.
From 2002 to 2011, Buffalo, New York member station WNED-TV operated ThinkBright TV, a service that was carried on several stations in upstate New York.
A separate but related concept is the state network, where a group of stations across a state simulcast a single programming schedule from a central facility, which may include specialty subchannels unique to that broadcaster.
Since 53% to 60% of public television's revenues come from private membership donations and grants, most stations solicit individual donations by methods including fundraising, pledge drives or telethons, which disrupt regularly scheduled programming. This annoys some viewers, since regularly scheduled programming is often replaced with specials aimed at a wider audience (such as music specials aimed at the baby boomer generation, and financial, health and motivational programs) to solicit new members and donations; during fundraising events, these programs are often interrupted within the broadcast by long-form segments (of six to eight minutes in length) encouraging viewers to donate to their PBS member. Underwriting spots are aired at the end of each program, which differ from traditional commercials in several ways. Each spot must be approved to meet several guidelines. The main guidelines state that underwriting spots cannot be qualitative in any way, nor can they have any call to action.
A 1982 broadcast of the United States Information Agency program Let Poland be Poland about the martial law declared in Poland in 1981 was widely viewed in the U.S., but met with skepticism on the part of eastern European broadcasters (communist countries at the time) due to concerns that the program's "provocative and anticommunist" tone was intended as propaganda.
Individual programs aired by PBS have been the targets of organized campaigns by individuals and groups with opposing views, including former United States Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings.
Bill Moyers resigned in 2005 after more than three decades as a PBS regular, citing political pressure to alter the content of his program and saying Chairman of the Board of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting Kenneth Tomlinson had mounted a "vendetta" against him. Moyers eventually returned to host Bill Moyers Journal, after Tomlinson's resignation from CPB. Subsequently, PBS made room temporarily for center-right commentator Tucker Carlson, formerly of MSNBC and co-host of CNN's Crossfire, and The Journal Editorial Report with Paul Gigot, an editor of The Wall Street Journal editorial page (this program has since moved to Fox News Channel) to partially balance out the perceived left-leaning PBS shows.
In the 1990s, PBS became involved in a dispute over home video licensing rights with Pacific Arts Corporation, a multimedia company owned and operated by former Monkees guitarist Michael Nesmith.
In 1990, Pacific Arts secured a contract with PBS to distribute their back catalog of programming on VHS under the PBS Home Video banner. However, in the early 1990s, Pacific Arts and PBS went through a series of serious disagreements. Lawsuits were filed: by Nesmith and Pacific Arts against PBS for breach of contract, intentional misrepresentation, intentional concealment, negligent misrepresentation, and interference with contract; and by PBS against Nesmith and Pacific Arts for lost royalties. The lawsuits escalated in 1994 and 1995 into major litigation between the parties over these rights and payments. PBS and Nesmith and Pacific Arts vigorously prosecuted these multimillion-dollar counter-suits.
The six plaintiffs included PBS, WGBH, WNET, the Ken Burns-owned American Documentaries and Radio Pioneers Film Project and the Children's Television Workshop. They sought approximately $5 million in disputed royalties, advances, guarantees and license fees for programs and the use of the PBS logo from the defendants Pacific Arts and Nesmith.
Due to the cost of the litigation, Pacific Arts was forced to cease distribution operations and suspended the use of the PBS logo on the Pacific Arts videos. Though Pacific Arts distribution system had ceased operating, the various plaintiffs were counting on capturing a personal financial guarantee Nesmith had made to PBS in the original PBS deal in 1990.
The cases went to jury trial in Federal Court in Los Angeles in February 1999. After three days of deliberation, the jury unanimously sided with Nesmith. The court awarded Pacific Arts $14,625,000 for loss of its rights library, plus $29,250,000 in punitive damages. The jury awarded $3 million to Nesmith personally, including $2 million in punitive damages for a total award to Nesmith and Pacific Arts of $48,875,000. The jury resolved the outstanding license fee issues by ordering Pacific Arts and Nesmith to pay approximately $1.2 million to American Documentaries for The Civil War, about $230,000 to WGBH, and $150,000 to WNET.
Following the ruling, Nesmith expressed his personal disappointment with PBS and was quoted by BBC News as stating "It's like finding your grandmother stealing your stereo. You're happy to get your stereo back, but it's sad to find out your grandmother is a thief."
The decision never went to an appeals court and the final amount paid to Pacific Arts and Nesmith was an undisclosed sum agreed to in an out-of-court settlement.
PBS provides an alternate path for WEA alerts to wireless carriers. The alerts are transmitted through the PBS satellite network on the AMC-21 satellite to PBS stations who broadcast the messages over their transmitters for reception by wireless carriers at their cell sites.
The network is funded by a grant through National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA).