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.
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