Public Broadcasting Service Airs Its First Program Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Public Broadcasting Service was launched after the nonprofit Carnegie Commission on Public Television released a report in 1967 proposing the establishment of a federally funded public television network that would broadcast news and public affairs programs as well as educational programming in the arts, sciences, and history. The network airs quality programming free of the restrictions and demands of the commercial television market.

Summary of Event

The official launch of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) in 1970 was a significant milestone in the evolution of American public educational television, which began shortly after the end of World War II. Although a significant number of early commercial television programs were educational in nature, many educators and lawmakers began to push for the creation of services devoted strictly to educational television programming. In October of 1950, the National Association of Educational Broadcasters National Association of Educational Broadcasters collaborated with prominent educators to form the Joint Committee on Educational Television Joint Committee on Educational Television , which sought to promote the production and broadcast of nonprofit educational television. Television;educational programs Television;public broadcasting Public Broadcasting Service [kw]Public Broadcasting Service Airs Its First Program (Oct. 5, 1970) [kw]Program, Public Broadcasting Service Airs Its First (Oct. 5, 1970) [kw]Broadcasting Service Airs Its First Program, Public (Oct. 5, 1970) Television;public broadcasting Public Broadcasting Service [g]North America;Oct. 5, 1970: Public Broadcasting Service Airs Its First Program[10930] [g]United States;Oct. 5, 1970: Public Broadcasting Service Airs Its First Program[10930] [c]Radio and television;Oct. 5, 1970: Public Broadcasting Service Airs Its First Program[10930] [c]Communications and media;Oct. 5, 1970: Public Broadcasting Service Airs Its First Program[10930] [c]Education;Oct. 5, 1970: Public Broadcasting Service Airs Its First Program[10930] Gunn, Hartford N., Jr. White, John F. Johnson, Lyndon B. [p]Johnson, Lyndon B.;public broadcasting Carey, Macdonald

Educational television began receiving private support in 1952, the year the Ford Foundation, a nonprofit philanthropy established by automobile magnate Henry Ford, provided funding for the development of the Educational Television and Radio Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The center was earmarked to produce and distribute educational programs. Without nonprofit stations or networks, however, the center was forced to distribute its programming to commercial networks. Following the establishment in 1953 of the first noncommercial television station, KUHT in Houston, Texas, dozens of other public stations began broadcasting, providing the center with a noncommercial medium for the broadcast of its programming. In 1959 the center changed its name to National Educational Television National Educational Television (NET).

NET was not a network. Instead, it served as a distribution service for programming produced at public television stations such as WGBH in Boston and WETA in Washington, D.C. Services such as NET distributed programming to member networks with film reels and through primitive networking methods such as the broadcasting of signals from aircraft. Federal legislation provided funding for educational television. Also, a Federal Communications Commission Federal Communications Commission (FCC) directive permitting the transmission of programming to member stations by microwave signals made educational programming distribution more feasible. Furthermore, experiments with the transmission of programming to member stations through telephone lines had proven promising, but a nationwide network for the distribution of such innovative NET programming as The French Chef and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (television program) still did not exist in the late 1960’s.

Prospects for a national educational television network improved in 1967, the year the nonprofit Carnegie Commission on Public Television Carnegie Commission on Public Television released a report that recommended the establishment of a federally funded public television network that would broadcast educational programming and news. The report echoed the sentiments of NET officials, who for years had sought to create a network capable of competing with the three commercial networks for viewers. The report also appealed to lawmakers and government officials who, after being prompted by complaints from some affiliates and viewers about the content of NET programming, desired tighter control over public television.

In the early 1960’s, the Ford Foundation Ford Foundation had dramatically increased its funding to NET. Under the leadership of network president John F. White, NET utilized this additional funding to produce and broadcast innovative but relatively noncontroversial programming such as NET Playhouse and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood as well as news programs and documentaries exploring such controversial topics as poverty, racism, and U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Some of this NET programming drew criticism from affiliates and viewers who objected to what was believed to be a liberal editorial slant. The Ford Foundation itself had objected to the content of some NET programming and reduced its funding as a consequence, forcing NET and its affiliates to seek additional government funding. The U.S. Congress passed legislation inspired by the Carnegie report in late 1967, and on November 7, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Public Broadcasting Act Public Broadcasting Act (1967) of 1967, which established the Corporation for Public Broadcasting Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). CPB, which is not a federal agency, functions as a clearinghouse for distributing federal funding through grants to local stations and producers.

CPB initially directed the bulk of its funding to NET, which retained its status as the primary outlet for educational programming in the United States. Yet the controversy over NET programming content continued, as did calls for increased federal control over public television. In 1969, the year that NET began the regular distribution of programming through an interconnected telephone network, CPB incorporated PBS as a means to distribute public programming nationally; Hartford N. Gunn, Jr., was the first president of the network. As general manager of WGBH in Boston, a major producer of NET programming, Gunn had sought to maintain an emphasis on educational programming while improving technological standards. He also had spearheaded the development of the first interconnected regional educational television network.

The creation of PBS signaled the end of NET as a national public television service. PBS would not officially begin broadcast until October 5, 1970, however. A simple textual logo accompanied by the voice of announcer Macdonald Carey identified the network as “PBS: the Public Broadcasting Service” and informed the public of the change. Much of the programming originating with NET, including the new but popular children’s program Sesame Street, Sesame Street (television program) remained on PBS, however.

Educational programming aimed at young audiences such as Sesame Street, The Electric Company, Electric Company, The (television program) and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood would prove instrumental in transforming public television into a popular medium appealing to a diverse range of Americans. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, originating from WGBH in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was first aired on NET in 1968. Sesame Street, a production of the independent Children’s Television Workshop Children’s Television Workshop[Childrens Television Workshop] (CTW) and first aired on NET in 1969, incorporated basic language and mathematics instruction into a traditional “nursery school” format emphasizing social and recreational skills. The show was set in a fictitious neighborhood populated with multiracial and multiethnic characters, and it often presented lessons in both English and Spanish. The Electric Company, another CTW production, also featured diverse characters and employed popular music and cultural iconography to appeal to a preteen audience. The juxtaposition of educational content with culture and entertainment secured PBS a prominent role in the American cultural landscape.

From its inception, PBS demonstrated that it had not abandoned the social concerns or controversial programming of NET. One of the first programs to air on PBS was a documentary titled Banks and the Poor, Banks and the Poor (television program) first broadcast four days after the network’s debut, which criticized the financial industry for its policies toward low-income Americans. These programs continued to draw criticism from conservative politicians and precipitated clashes between the fledgling network and the Nixon administration, but the network survived and grew in popularity throughout the 1970’s. PBS continues into the twenty-first century, and so does the controversy over its programming.


The Public Broadcasting Service permanently altered the landscape of American broadcast television in the 1970’s by providing a means for producing and distributing high-quality programming free of the restrictions and demands of the commercial television market. Programs lacking sufficient financial viability or mass appeal for broadcast on commercial outlets often appeared on PBS, expanding the variety of programming available to American television viewers in the 1970’s, a decade before cable television.

Children’s programming featured on the network attracted large audiences by presenting educational material in an entertaining manner, producing measurable increases in academic proficiency among young viewers of various ages and skill levels. The network’s reliance on a combination of public and private funding to produce and distribute these programs provided a model for other public-private ventures in U.S. government and society.

PBS also served a vital function as a laboratory for new broadcast technology in the 1970’s and beyond. The network had begun broadcasting in October, 1970, with 128 member stations, and used the same telephone distribution system that NET had pioneered. By the end of the decade, however, PBS had pioneered such practices as closed captioning and the nationwide distribution of programming via satellite. PBS had more than 350 member stations by the end of the twentieth century. Television;public broadcasting Public Broadcasting Service

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jarvik, Laurence A. PBS: Behind the Screen. Rocklin, Calif.: Forum, 1998. A conservative critique of PBS. Also provides a detailed account of the network’s early history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ledbetter, James. Made Possible By: The Death of Public Broadcasting in the United States. New York: Verso, 1998. This history of American public broadcasting argues that reductions in government funding and a corresponding increase in corporate influence has led to a decline in the quality and objectivity of PBS programming.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ouellette, Laurie. Viewers Like You? New York: Columbia University Press, 2002. An analysis of the political and social issues surrounding public television from its developmental stages to the end of the twentieth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stewart, David A. The PBS Companion: A History of Public Television. New York: TV Books, 1999. This collection of essays focuses on specific programs and personalities that contributed to the development of public television in the United States.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stone, David M. Nixon and the Politics of Public Television. New York: Taylor & Francis, 1985. Discusses policy battles between the Nixon administration and PBS during the network’s early years.

Kukla, Fran, and Ollie Pioneers Children’s Television Programming

Family Comedies on Television Rise in Popularity

Hasbro Advertises Toys on Television

ABC Makes a Landmark Deal with Disney

Captain Kangaroo Expands Children’s Television

The Flintstones Popularizes Prime-Time Cartoons

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory Is Published

Categories: History