Today is the birthday of PBS and also Teachers’ Day. For any reader that might not know, PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) is a non-profit American public broadcasting television network headquartered in Arlington, Virginia. It was founded on this date (5 October, 1970), 42 years ago, in 1970, after the termination of its predecessor, National Educational Television (NET).
Many Americans share fond memories of watching children’s programs like Sesame Street (which began on NET) and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (which debuted on CBC). If your parents weren’t unhealthily preoccupied with celebrity culture or car chases, you may’ve suffered as they turned commandeered the TV to watch PBS Newshour with it’s in-depth coverage of “hard news.”
ROMNEY LOVES BIG BIRD
Well, if you saw most recent presidential “debates” (really a joint press conference paid for by Anheuser-Busch, BBH New York, The Howard G. Buffet Foundation, Sheldon S. Cohen, Esq., EDS, and HP Company, International Bottled Water Association, The Kovler Fund, and YWCA USA – a group whose main goal is to exclude third party voices and therefore actual debate) and managed to stay awake through the 11-year-old level dialog, your ears might pricked up when you heard Romney express his love for Jim Lehrer and Big Bird before expressing his intention of ending the funding that keeps them (and their numerous co-workers) employed (how’s that for job creation?). Romney’s love (e.g. of dogs, employees, Latinos, &c) is often manifest in mysterious ways. If loving education TV means ending government support, what will happen if Romney declares his love of public education — an end of funding with everyone getting the best education their parents can afford?
Yet each man kills the thing he loves,
By each let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!
—Oscar Wilde in The Ballad of Reading Gaol
Ending government contributions for PBS (or Public Radio, for that matter) is nothing new for Republicans. The “small government” party candidate proposes increasing the military’s budget more than $2 trillion more — it already accounts for 59% of the budget. Meanwhile, the government’s funding of PBS is about .0012%. To me that seems a bit like eating out at fancy restaurants every meal and then trying to save money by cutting out tips… if you were in the habit of only tipping 3/2500 of the meals’ costs.
It’s also not a position expressed by the Conservatives. Gil Scott-Heron, in his song “Whitey on the Moon” targeted NASA‘s miniscule funding (~.5% of the budget) with his ire, suggesting that their existence was a contributor to societal ills. Anyway, Romney wished the Obamas a happy anniversary… it just seems like he could’ve also said, “Happy Birthday, PBS, I want to kill you…”
THE PRE-PUBLIC TV AMERICAN TELEVISIONSCAPE
In 1946, there were only three TV networks in the country: CBS, DuMont and NBC. Many cultural critics lamented the perceived quality of programming. While some hoped that the formation of a fourth network could provide an alternative to the daily drivel, others remained skeptical. As a writer for the Lowell Sun humorously put it,
“[O]ne wonders if a new network lacking the big money already being spread three ways will be able to come up with tripe that is equal. Certainly a new network is not going to stress quality programming when the ratings indicate that the American public prefer hillbillies, cowboys and spies. A new network will have to deliver an audience if it is to attract the big spenders from the ranks of sponsors.”
THE BEGINNINGS OF PUBLIC TV IN THE USA
A wealthy sponsor did come forward to provide an intelligent alternative — the Ford Foundation. In November, 1952, the Educational Television and Radio Center (ETRC) came into being with a grant from the foundation’s Fund for Adult Education. Though I’m fond of hillbillies, cowboys and spies, I imagine it was a refreshing alternative to the fare provided by the by-then four commercial TV networks (ABC, CBS, DuMont, and NBC). On 25 May, 1954 ETRC began broadcasting from its headquarters in Ann Arbor, Michigan. In 1958 it moved to New York City and was renamed National Educational Television and Radio Center (NETRC). After DuMont ceased broadcasting in 1956, NETRC fought aggressively to be viewed as the US’s true “fourth network” although some television historians still don’t view it as a true network at all.
In November 1963 the network renamed itself NET. While praised by many critics, the network took the attitude that racism and poverty were societal problems and often focused its programs on them. Way before Stephen Colbert observed that, “Reality has a well-known liberal bias,” Conservatives attacked the network for its perceived Leftist slant. In 1966, the Ford Foundation began reducing its funding of the network in the face of this criticism. The government responded by forming the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in 1967 to keep it afloat and non-commercial, and also with the intention of creating its own, less-controversial public network.
THE BIRTH OF PBS
PBS was founded in 1969. In 1970, when NET refused to stop airing controversial programming, the Ford Foundation and CPB both threatened to end funding unless they merged with Newark, New Jersey‘s public station, WNDT-TV. On 5 October, 1970, NET and WNDT-TV officially completed their merger and the PBS network began. Though NET was officially no more, shows that debuted there (e.g. Firing Line, The French Chef, Sesame Street, and Washington Week) continued on as PBS shows.
Although PBS stations rely heavily on local affiliate stations to create content, creating a sense of localism, from the outset they became well-known for rebroadcasting (and re-running) British programs, giving rise to the joke that PBS stands for “Primarily British Series.”
There are probably as many if not more Canadian shows on PBS too. However, most Americans are curiously deaf to Canadian (and non-southern American regional) accents. For some reason, the prevailing (wrong) view is that it’s just like American Standard albeit with addition of the pronunciation of “about” as “aboot” and a questioning “eh?” tacked onto the end of every sentence.
PBS IN THE 1970s
Some of PBS’s venerable warhorses were sired in the ’70s including Austin City Limits, Bill Moyers Journal, Masterpiece Theatre, This Old House, PBS NewsHour, and The Victory Garden. As a child, after graduating from Sesame Street I watched The Electric Company and ZOOM (and can still annoy you with my rendition of the latter’s theme song). Sneak Previews was was, from 1975-1982, the show where Siskel and Ebert reviewed newly released films and something I made a point of watching. It was watching Austin City Limits that I was turned on to Iris Dement. Nova continues to present some of the most interesting science programming on TV.
Other PBS series that debuted in the 1970s include A.M. Weather, Day At Night, Evening at Pops, Great Performances, Live from Lincoln Center, Meeting of Minds, Nightly Business Report, Soundstage, Tony Brown’s Journal, Vegetable Soup, Villa Alegre, Wall $treet Week, and The Woodwright’s Shop.
PBS IN THE 1980s
Maybe it’s because the 1980s was the decade of my childhood or maybe the decade really was PBS’s golden age but it gave birth to so many formative and fondly-remembered shows. I always hated the lessons of commercial children’s programming — obviously tacked on to counter arguments that they were primarily half hour advertisements designed to make kids nag their parents into buying them shoddily-made toys and junk food. PBS show rarely felt didactic, or were subtle enough that I didn’t mind that I was being educated.
One of the most beloved art instructionals in TV history (although I didn’t watch it) was Bob Ross‘s The Joy of Painting. A large number of American student that learned French during the decade no doubt remember French in Action. Nothing had more to do with my enjoyment of classic films, serials and cartoons than watching Matinee at the Bijou. I loved 3-2-1 Contact so much that I often procured issues of its sister magazine. Mystery! was a series I always made an effort to watch and introduced me to Edward Gorey. Voyage of the Mimi made me want to become a Cetacean Zoologist… and introduced me to Ben Affleck. I also have fond memories of Carl Sagan’s weird Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, Frontline, The McLaughlin Group, MotorWeek, Nature, and Reading Rainbow.
Other series that began in the 1980s include American Experience, American Masters, American Playhouse, Ciao Italia with Mary Ann Esposito, Ethics in America, Free to Choose, Hometime, Long Ago & Far Away, The Mechanical Universe, The New Yankee Workshop, Newton’s Apple, P.O.V., Powerhouse, Shining Time Station, Square One Television, and Storylords.
PBS IN THE 1990s
I’m not sure exactly what happened to PBS in the 1990s but much of the programming seemed to be marketed toward children. Some of this probably stems from the fact that increasingly Cable networks like Animal Planet, BBC America, The History Channel, and The National Geographic Channel all appeared in the decade, joining older stations like The Discovery Channel and TLC in offering well-made programming that likely lured away some of PBS’s base (although several of those stations now focus primarily on aliens, monsters, conspiracies and non-historical reality shows).
Despite being older than the target audience, Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? and Zoboomafoo were strangely fascinating — for Rockapella‘s startling sartorial sensibility and the Kratt Brothers‘ disturbing behavior and innuendos, respectively.
Other shows that debuted in the ’90s include Adventures from the Book of Virtues, Baking with Julia, Barney & Friends, Bill Nye the Science Guy, Charlie Horse Music Pizza, Charlie Rose, Connect With English, Fokus Deutsch, Ghostwriter, The Huggabug Club, Independent Lens, Julia & Jacques Cooking at Home, Kino’s Storytime, Kratts’ Creatures, Lamb Chop’s Play-Along, Magic School Bus, Mr. Conductor’s Thomas Tales, Panwapa, A Place of our Own, The Puzzle Place, Religion & Ethics Weekly, and The World of Chemistry.
PBS IN THE 21ST CENTURY
Although his on-the-beaten-path trips don’t interest me much, I’ve been known to watch Rick Steves’ Europe. Occasionally I’ve watched Secrets of the Dead and The Tavis Smiley Show but my favorite PBS discovery of the 21st Century is Huell Howser.
Though Howser’s show, California’s Gold, debuted in 1991, it wasn’t until I arrived in LA at the end of 1999 that I first discovered him and his empire which also includes California’s Golden Coast, California’s Golden Fairs, California’s Golden Parks, California’s Green, California’s Missions, California’s Water, Downtown, Our Neighborhoods, Palm Springs, Road Trip, The Bench, and Visiting… with Huell Howser. The shows were all produced by KCET which, until 2010, when split to become the nation’s largest, independent public television station. Howser continues to host shows on KCET.
PBS series that debuted in the 21st Century include America’s Ballroom Challenge, Ask This Old House, The Berenstain Bears, Betsy’s Kindergarten Adventures, Between the Lions, Burt Wolf: Travels & Traditions, Carrier, The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That!, Clifford the Big Red Dog, Clifford’s Puppy Days, Corduroy, Cyberchase, Curious George, Dinosaur Train, Everyday Food, History Detectives, In the Mix, It’s a Big Big World, Jakers! The Adventures of Piggley Winks, Liberty’s Kids, Lomax, The Hound of Music, Martha Speaks, Maya & Miguel, Nova ScienceNow, NOW, P. Allen Smith’s Gardens, Roadtrip Nation, SeeMore’s Playhouse, Sid the Science Kid, Signing Time!, Simple Living with Wanda Urbanska, Super Why!, Timothy Goes to School, Wide Angle, Wild Animal Baby Explorers, WIRED Science, Word Girl, WordWorld, and The Zula Patrol.
So, happy birthday to “America’s Largest Classroom” and Happy Teachers’ Day. Let’s hope that this current climate, where intelligence, learning, and science passes. And if Algeria, Angola, Argentina, Australia, Botswana, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Croatia, Cuba, Czech Republic, Denmark, East Timor, Ecuador, Egypt, Estonia, Fiji, Finland, France, Germany, Ghana, Iceland, India, Indonesia, Iran, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Jordan, Lebanon, Liberia, Libya, Malaysia, Montenegro, Morocco, Mozambique, Namibia, Nepal, New Zealand, Nigeria, Pakistan, Poland, Qatar, Samoa, Serbia, Singapore, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Syria, Taiwan, The Netherlands, The UK, Tonga, United Arab Emirates, Uruguay, and Venezuela can support public television stations, shouldn’t the country with the largest GDP (that would be the USA — more than 2 1/2 times the size of China‘s — the world second largest) be able to find a way to pay for educational programming. Maybe regulate Wall Street instead of Sesame Street. Maybe cut instead of increase military spending. Maybe watch a PBS show that focuses on basic math. If not, God help us and enjoy Sandwich Wars or Who Wants to Marry the World’s Greatest Steam Mop or whatever’s airing on commercial TV.
Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities — or salaried work. He is not interested in writing advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other 21st century variations of spam. Brightwell’s written work has appeared in Amoeblog, diaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His work has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art Museum, Form Follows Function, Los Angeles County Store, Skid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Los Angeles Magazine, LAist, Eastsider LA, Boing Boing, Los Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
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