A national collective of small public television broadcasters that reject commercials and hold phone drives for donations absolutely should not be able to compete with giant corporate networks that have production budgets to rival Hollywood movie studios. And yet since its founding over 50 years ago, PBS has not only competed but has produced some of the best, most iconic, most lasting television programming in the history of the medium.

Mr Rogers and Officer Clemmons - Adsum
Mr. Rogers and Officer Clemmons

Created in 1969 by television veterans Hartford Gunn, Jr., John Macy, James Day, and Kenneth Christiansen, the Public Broadcasting Service was devised as a central service to provide consistent and quality programming to the vast collection of small local public broadcasters throughout the country. While traditional networks take a slice of their local affiliates’ advertising revenues in order for the affiliates to carry the national network’s programming, PBS affiliates pay a small fee to run the PBS programs. Those costs are then ultimately covered mostly by donations from private grants and local viewers. So instead of programming being most influenced by the largest advertisers, PBS programming is more pure and democratic, with individual viewers collectively deciding what they want to see.

Bert and Ernie - Adsum
Bert and Ernie

Over its history, PBS and its viewers consistently produced some of the best, most unique, and most human programming on television. When Sesame Street debuted in 1969, the idea of a show that would teach kids to read and count while also celebrating diversity, and also employing the iconic Jim Henson, made it as ambitious a show as there has been in the history of television and its success made it a masterpiece of American culture. Mister Rogers Neighborhood somehow equalled its ability to treat kids as serious individuals, and reinforced values of kindness and empathy.

Soccer Made in Germany PBS - Adsum
Made in Germany was broadcasted to over 250 PBS Stations

While not typically known for sports, in the 1970s PBS became one of the first American broadcasters of European soccer with Soccer Made In Germany, a show dedicated to Bundesliga and UEFA tournament coverage and was influential in expanding the popularity of the sport. In the 1980s, PBS began airing a deeply religious Air Force veteran with a striking perm, a calming voice, and a love for painting landscapes. The Joy of Painting with Bob Ross became a lasting hit, running for over a decade until Ross’s death, and continuing to be a staple on reruns. Even in its current lineup, This Old House has inspired DIY home improvement for 40 years and Frontline remains the gold standard for investigative journalism on television.

Bob Vila and Tim Allen - Adsum
Bob Vila and Tim Allen on This Old House

As PBS heads into its 52nd year on the air, its enduring success is a testament that giant corporate budgets are not the most important thing in producing quality work. Those budgets can maybe create more immediately spectacular work, but the PBS model of empowering the audience and trusting their intelligence can produce work that is more organic, more human, and ultimately more lasting.