During the past five decades, PBS has been the primary distributor of educational content on American television, airing programs that have had an enormous impact on education, science, cultural literacy, and entertainment. As this week also marks the 40th anniversary of the debut of one of the network’s most important programs, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, here’s a look back at the most important PBS programs of all time.
Bonus British Entry: Doctor Who
PBS has a substantial history of importing British fare from providers like the BBC, ITV, and more (more on that in a bit). One particular series that’s had a significant impact on the American cultural landscape is Doctor Who. Doctor Who is about the mysterious regenerating alien known as The Doctor and his (or currently, her) adventures. It came to the States via PBS in 1970, and that run lasted 20 years, building a solid American fanbase that greeted the rebooted series with open arms in the 2000s. (In fact, it’s the long-running science fiction series on television.)
Since 1983, Frontline has been one of PBS’s standard bearers for journalism. Each episode is essentially a documentary about a different topic; more than 711 have been produced over the life of the series, which is still ongoing. The show has won every major award in television, including 75 Emmys and 18 Peabodys. One of the most-discussed episodes of the past decade was “League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis,” which won a Peabody in 2013. Since 1988, the series has produced a special episode devoted to each presidential election; called “The Choice,” the episode does a deep dive into each candidate. The “Choice” installment dedicated to the 2020 election ran on September 22. Alasdair Wilkins of A.V. Club called Frontline “the hardest hitting show on television” in 2015, a mere 32 years after it started.
9. Antiques Roadshow
Though the British version of this show pioneered the format in 1979, an original American take on the idea didn’t happen until 1997. However, it clicked immediately and has been running ever since. The main draw is certainly the idea that some old piece of memorabilia (or, let’s face it, junk) that is collecting dust in your house might suddenly turn out to be valuable. The series remains very popular and has regularly been nominated for Emmys (notably in the Structured Reality Program category). While a good portion of the pieces appraised on the show turn out to be just regular items, things like a painting by our old friend Norman Rockwell (The Little Model from 1919) have been discovered; it was appraised at $500,000.
8. PBS NewsHour
PBS’s version of the daily evening news launched in 1975 as The Robert MacNeil Report. MacNeil had been the moderator of another important PBS program, Washington Week in Review, and had covered the Watergate hearings alongside Jim Lehrer. The duo won an Emmy for that work, and the Report began soon after. The following year, Lehrer was brought in as co-anchor, and the show was renamed The MacNeil/Lehrer Report, then The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, which stuck until 1995, when MacNeil retired. Lehrer remained, and the show transitioned into PBS NewsHour in 2009 in preparation for Lehrer’s eventual 2011 retirement. Today, the show is anchored on weekdays by Judy Woodruff and runs all seven evenings in a week; from 2013 to 2016, Woodruff and co-anchor Gwen Ifill were the first all-female anchor team for a daily broadcast news show in America. Unlike other nightly news programs, NewsHour, as the title suggests, is a full hour, allowing for more depth in covering various national and international stories.
7. Austin City Limits
Recorded live in Austin, Texas, which proclaims itself the “Live Music Capital of the World,” Austin City Limits has been running live performances by acts from a variety of genres since 1976. It’s the only TV show to be awarded the National Medal of Arts. Legends that have appeared the show include Willie Nelson (who was in the pilot episode), Ray Charles, Roy Orbison, and Loretta Lynn; recent episodes have included younger acts like St. Vincent, Kacey Musgraves, Billie Eilish, and Run the Jewels.
6. Reading Rainbow
Winning over 200 awards in its 21-season run, Reading Rainbow was aimed squarely at fostering a love of books in children. It’s certainly one of the most fondly remembered shows in the online community as memes and other references circulate frequently. The series was hosted by LeVar Burton, otherwise best known for Star Trek: The Next Generation and Roots. Rainbow has the distinction of being the third-longest-running children’s series on PBS (behind only, spoiler alert, the #1 and #2 on this list). It’s also one of the few shows of any type that regularly recommended books that you should get from your local library. Though the show ended in 2006 (with reruns airing until 2009), it has found a second life through other outlets, like a popular iTunes app that launched in 2012.
5. Cosmos: A Personal Voyage
Hosted and co-written by astronomer and astrophysicist Carl Sagan, 1980’s Cosmos took on space, time, intelligence, memory, and the origins of life. Each of its 13 episodes deployed special effects that were cutting edge at the time, realizing planets and nebulae on the screen in a way that hadn’t been seen before, particularly in the context of teaching the audience about science. Wildly popular, the show was the most-watched series on PBS in history (and would remain so until our #4 debuted). It remains among the most-watched series on the planet. Sagan wrote a companion book for the series, which spent 70 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list; Sagan wrote a “sequel,” Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space in 1994. In 2014, a new companion series, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, debuted, with a second sequel, Cosmos: Possible Worlds, arriving earlier this year.
4. The Civil War
Documentarian Ken Burns debuted his nine-part The Civil War on PBS 30 years ago, and it became the most-watched series in the history of the network. The show’s distinguishing trademark feature was how Burns directed it; the series employed more than 16,000 still photographs which Burns brought to life with pans and zooms, while also blending in narrators, commentators, and music. The lively and visually interesting approach made it accessible to broad audiences. Its popularity made Burns one of the few instantly recognizable documentary makers in America and opened the way for his other well-received documentary series, like Baseball, The Vietnam War, and Country Music. Although the series did win over 40 awards and is still regarded as a high-water mark in documentary filmmaking, it has received its share of criticism over time. Notably, it has been faulted for not diving deeply enough into slavery as a cause of the war, and for unintentionally perpetuating the “Lost Cause” myth.
A series that’s been with PBS almost from the beginning, Masterpiece Theatre, now simply called Masterpiece, debuted in January of 1971. The show is both an anthology and a brand that produces and licenses prestige content, with many acquisitions coming from British outlets like the BBC, ITV, and Channel 4. The series was popular enough to generate the anthology spin-off Mystery!, but today that series and the sub-heads Classic and Contemporary all exist under the broader Masterpiece branding. Among the shows that the brand has brought to American viewers are I,Claudius, Prime Suspect, Sherlock, Touching Evil, The Jewel in the Crown, Upstairs/Downstairs, and more. One particular acquisition, Downton Abbey, became its own cultural phenom in 2011. The costume drama about a well-to-do family and their servants in the 19teens and ’20s captured popular attention and became a water-cooler sensation for its entire run, eventually leading to a 2019 theatrical film that did well enough in both box office and awards to merit ongoing talk of a sequel.
2. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood
Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood has an origin story that runs back to the 1950s. In 1954, Fred Rogers and Josie Carey started the program The Children’s Corner on Pittsburgh’s WQED; Rogers created a number of his famous puppet characters on that show, including Daniel Tiger. Rogers began a follow-up to the program on the Canadian CBC called Misterogers in 1962. In 1966, Rogers came back to the States and continued the show as MisteRogers’ Neighborhood; it started running nationally on National Education Television in 1968 and continued when NET was essentially rolled in PBS in 1970. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood would run for another 31 years, wrapping up in 2001. It’s nearly impossible to articulate the impact of the series, which entertained and educated through puppetry, short films, arts, and human interaction. Fred Rogers tried to teach children kindness and understanding with a gentle demeanor. Rogers also dealt heavily with the fact that children are people, too, and that they, like adults, also had emotions that they needed to learn about and understand. The show’s theme, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”, has been absorbed in broader culture, as have many of Rogers’ bits, catchphrases (“It’s you I like”), and mannerisms. Rogers also gave starts and career boosts to talents like Michael Keaton (who was a production assistant in addition to appearing on-screen) and George Romero (who filmed the segment where Rogers received a tonsillectomy prior to directing Night of the Living Dead).
1. Sesame Street
Premiering in November of 1969 and airing on PBS since the beginning, Sesame Street has served as, in many ways, one of the flagships for public television. It’s certainly one of the first things that people think of when they hear the phrase “educational TV,” and it’s little wonder; the show has accumulated almost 200 Emmys and has been subject to more than 1000 research studies that highlight its effectiveness. With its mix of human cast members,memorable Muppets created by Jim Henson and company, and celebrity guests, audiences are guided through lessons in letters, numbers, reading, vocabulary, emotional intelligence, and more. Its characters are staples of American culture, and it’s exceedingly rare to find anyone who doesn’t know who Big Bird, Bert, Ernie, Cookie Monster, or Oscar the Grouch are. However, Sesame Street is also the perfect model of the funding difficulties that even wildly successful PBS shows can face. In 2015, after years of funding battles and criticisms over deals that were made to keep the expensive show going, the show’s producers made a deal to air first-run episodes on HBO; new shows continue to run PBS several months after the initial HBO airing. The show’s extensive library is also now parked at HBO, with entire seasons available on apps like HBO Max.
In the broader history of television, the importance of PBS cannot be underestimated. Its nonprofit status and educational mission make it different than virtually every other network.Corporate donations are vetted to make sure that programs aren’t made to promote or favorite those companies in an unethical way. Polls undertaken by Roper Opinion Research have placed PBS as the most-trusted institution in America for more than 15 years. And for every show on this list, there’s a Great Performances or a Nova or an Electric Company or dozens to hundreds like them that have helped shaped the culture. PBS continues to inform and educate while it entertains. As it passes 50 years on the air, the audience should remember what it has achieved, and what it can still achieve in the future.
Featured image: VIAVAL TOURS / Shutterstock
In our baseball special collector’s edition, we interviewed Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Ken Burns whose 1994 TV documentary Baseball covered the history of the game and a look back on the ground-breaking career of Jackie Robinson. Shortly after the 1994 documentary debuted, Rachel Robinson, wife of Jackie Robinson, asked Burns if he’d be interested in filming a documentary based on the life of her husband. Burns agreed, noting that he’s “been eager to make a stand-alone film about the life of this courageous American. There was so much more to say not only about Robinson’s barrier-breaking moment in 1947, but about how his upbringing shaped his intolerance for any form of discrimination and how after his baseball career he spoke out tirelessly against racial injustice, even after his star had begun to dim.”
Below, co-directors Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon, discuss their new film Jackie Robinson.
The first part of the four-hour documentary premieres tonight, April 11, on PBS.
In 2009, documentary filmmaker Ken Burns produced a six-episode tribute, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, with Dayton Duncan. Despite being filmed at some of nature’s most spectacular locales — from Acadia to Yosemite, Yellowstone to the Grand Canyon, the Everglades of Florida to the Gates of the Arctic in Alaska — it is primarily a story of people: those who devoted themselves to saving a precious portion of the land they loved. At its heart, says Burns, the project is a story about the meaning of democracy.
We had the opportunity to interview Burns at the time of the film’s release. Following is a selection of Burns’ comments from that conversation:
The night before: “I didn’t sleep well the night before we started filming, and as I lay awake, I remembered a moment when I was 6 years old and my mother was dying of cancer. My father was absent in every sense of the word. But there was this day he took me to his house after school. He woke me up in the middle of the night and we drove to Shenandoah National Park at the top of Skyline Drive in the Blue Ridge mountains. That was the first and only road trip I ever took with him, and that was my first visit to a national park. Dad died while we were filming for this series in Yosemite.”
Land for all to share: “For the first time in all of human history, land was set aside for everyone; not for kings or noblemen or the rich but for everyone. This is a story of how people from every conceivable background — rich and poor; famous and unknown; soldiers and scientists; natives and newcomers; idealists, artists, and entrepreneurs — struggled against those forces of development, those inquisitive and extractive forces that are always with us, that want to dam a river, that want to cut down a stand of trees, that want to mine a canyon. The national parks are the fruit of that desire to save some glimpse, some portion of the primeval existence, so that we would be able to remind ourselves how lucky we were to fall upon this beautiful Garden of Eden of a continent.”
A good problem: “The parks today get 275-million-plus visitations. After The Civil War [Burns’ acclaimed 1990 series] aired, visits increased dramatically at Gettysburg. The superintendent and I were walking toward the visitors’ center and he stooped down, picked up a candy wrapper, waved it in my face and said, ‘It’s all your fault.’ I hope that every park superintendent will be angry at us for drawing new visitors, even if there are traffic jams in Yellowstone, Yosemite, and the Grand Canyon. That’s a good problem to have. The worst thing is when nobody is coming. When nobody cares. The parks need every generation coming back and remembering how wonderful they are.”
Unspoiled places: “I’ll always remember the unexpected emotion I felt seeing our country at its best in unspoiled places. Looking at a river and not seeing a dam, walking through a stand of timber and not thinking about board feet, standing in a canyon and not caring about how much mineral wealth could be extracted. But there’s another part of that feeling. When you’re standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon looking down and seeing the Colorado River flow through rock that’s 1.7 billion years old, it matters very much who is holding your hand. Who you’ve made that trip with just as I did to Shenandoah National Park so many years ago. Could there be a better reason for saving these beautiful places?”
Ken Burns first gained national attention and acclaim with his 1981 PBS special on the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge — a show that earned him an Oscar nomination. Since then, Burns has turned his eye to numerous aspects of American history from the Civil War to baseball and prohibition. His latest project, The Address, focuses on a school that helps learning-disabled kids by challenging them to memorize and deliver the Gettysburg Address.
Jeanne Wolf: What got you interested in history?
Ken Burns: My mother died of cancer when I was 11. That is a crucible that still affects me. I think about her every day. I wouldn’t be doing what I do if had I not had to go through the pain of anticipating of her death and, then, all the years of trying to not deal with it. So, what do I do for a living? I wake the dead. I make films that make Abraham Lincoln and Jackie Robinson come alive. Who else do you think I’m trying to wake up?
JW: Why do your films always seem to go beyond the bare facts?
KB: We live in a rational world in which one plus one equals two. But if we examine our hearts or our art, we find that we really want one plus one to equal three. The combination of two things — a man and a woman in love, brush strokes on a canvas, the emotion of a song — we want it to add up to something more. I’m always reaching for those moments in life and in film.
JW: There’s a lot of cynicism about world leaders and politicians past and present. Do they deserve it?
KB: We think that our heroes should be perfect, but if you go back to the Greeks you discover that heroes aren’t perfect. They have very obvious strengths and maybe not so obvious weaknesses, and it’s the negotiation between those two that defines heroism — whether it’s Abraham Lincoln or the Roosevelts or, for a more current example, Chris Christie. But studying the past arms you with a kind of optimism, because when people say, “It’s so bad right now with this economic meltdown that it’s like the Depression,” I can answer, “No, it’s not. During the Great Depression, in some cities, the animals in the zoo were shot and the meat distributed to the poor. Is that happening now?”
The world is chaotic and we’re trying to figure out some order. The painter puts a frame around it; the playwright puts a proscenium arch above it; a documentarian puts it on a screen. We invent stories, we tell them to each other. We achieve a kind of immortality with the stories that we tell and that’s the way we abolish the wolf at the door that’s gonna come knocking eventually.