How U.S. Public Broadcasting Works

Public Broadcasting System (PBS)
Richard Johnston, musical instruments appraiser for 'Antiques Roadshow' holds a 1955 Les Paul guitar brought for appraisal by Dan Sillaman (white shirt in background). Sillaman and his guitar were selected to be filmed for a later airing of the show. Tracy A Woodward/The Washington Post via Getty Images

From "Sesame Street" and "Nova," to "Antiques Roadshow," PBS is known for its educational and entertaining programming. Many of its shows have been on the air for decades. Some 200 million folks tune into PBS annually, representing 82 percent of all U.S. television households [source: PBS ].

PBS was designed as a replacement for National Educational Television (NET), an entity developed and principally funded by a grant from the Ford Foundation in 1952. NET did not take government funds, and sometimes ran documentaries critical of U.S. foreign policy.

Many members of Congress and other government employees were not happy about these criticisms, which is one reason President Lyndon B. Johnson created the publicly funded CPB in 1967. Public broadcasting that was partially funded by the federal government would, he hoped, not be critical of it. NET folded not too long after PBS debuted [source: Burrus].

Much like NPR, PBS and its nearly 350 member stations (e.g., Colorado Public Television and Wisconsin Public Television) offer viewers a wide variety of programming, some national and some locally produced. The stations serve all 50 states plus American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Funding comes mainly from member stations, but also from corporations, foundations and, as they always say at the beginning of each show, "viewers like you." About 7 percent of PBS' funding comes from CPB [source: Ingram].

In PBS' early years, it offered such legendary shows as "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," "Evening at Pops" and "Masterpiece Theatre." Other notables followed: "The MacNeil/Lehrer Report," "This Old House," "The Frugal Gourmet." PBS also airs numerous documentaries, including several by the legendary Ken Burns, plus many British TV shows. PBS introduced Americans to "Monty Python's Flying Circus" in the 1970s and "Are You Being Served?" seems to have been rerunning on the station since the 1980s. "Downton Abbey" was another enormous hit in the 2010s.

These programs, and especially its stellar children's programming (like "Sesame Street" and "Curious George"), created a lot of trust in PBS among viewers. In January 2017, for the 14th consecutive year, a national poll commissioned by PBS found the company was the most trustworthy among a group of nationally known institutions, including the federal government, newspaper publications and courts of law. PBS KIDS was ranked the top educational media brand for kids in the same survey [source: PBS].