The Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) is a non-profit public broadcasting television service in the United States, with some member stations available by cable in Canada. While the term broadcast also covers radio, PBS only covers television; for radio the United States has National Public Radio (NPR), American Public Media, and Public Radio International. The goal of PBS is to make educational and informative programming available to the public. PBS does not accept advertising and is paid for through special congressional funding to assure the independence of the content, as well as station pledge drives. The role of public broadcasting has been questioned as has the execution of its broadcasts. Questions of bias and slanted coverage have been raised and remain to be addressed by policymakers and public alike. Nonetheless, PBS has offered a viable alternative to commercial television, as evidenced by public support both financially and in terms of viewing audiences. The continuation of this role depends on the ability of PBS to keep abreast both with external developments in technology and with changes in values and ethics that reflect the internal dimension of human society.
Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) was founded in 1969, at which time it took over many of the functions of its predecessor, National Educational Television (NET). It commenced broadcasting itself on October 5, 1970. In 1973, it merged with Educational Television Stations. Since its founding in 1969, PBS has grown to include 354 stations which cover all 50 states of the United States. The unique method of having each station pay for programming has facilitated organic and easy growth around the country.
The purpose of public broadcasting is to provide universal access to high quality programming. This programming is to enlighten, inform and entertain the viewing audience. Specifically, this programming often addresses topics that would go unnoticed in commercial markets.
The Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 required a "strict adherence to objectivity and balance in all programs or series of programs of a controversial nature." It also prohibited the federal government from interfering or controlling what is broadcast. This set up an obvious tension where the government that created the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) would not be able to do anything about a perceived failure to meet its obligation for objectivity and balance without interfering in some way. At a more basic and problematic level is how and who should determine what constitutes objectivity and balance when there are massive disagreements over what that would be. There seems to be no consensus or even attempts at forming a consensus to resolve this dilemma.
PBS is a non-profit, private corporation with headquarters in Arlington, Virginia. It is owned collectively by its member stations. This relationship means that PBS member stations have greater latitude in local scheduling than their commercial counterparts. Scheduling of PBS-distributed series may vary greatly from market to market. This can be a source of tension as stations seek to preserve their local identity and PBS strives to market a consistent national lineup. However, PBS has a policy of "common carriage" requiring most stations to clear the national prime time programs on a common schedule, so that they can be more effectively marketed on a national basis.
Unlike its radio counterpart, National Public Radio, PBS has no central program production arm or news department. All of the programming carried by PBS, whether news, documentary, or entertainment, is created by (or in most cases produced under contract with) individual member stations. WGBH in Boston is one of the largest producers of educational programming; news programs are produced by WETA-TV in Washington, D.C. and WPBT in Miami, and the Charlie Rose interview show and Nature come from WNET in New York City. Once a program is distributed to PBS, the network (and not the member station that supplied it) retains all rights for rebroadcasts; the suppliers do maintain the right to sell the program in non-broadcast media such as DVDs, books, and licensed merchandise.
PBS stations are commonly operated by non-profit organizations or universities in their community of license. In some states, PBS stations throughout the entire state may be organized into a single regional "subnetwork" (for example, Alabama Public Television). Unlike Canada's CBC Television, PBS does not own any of the stations that broadcast its programming. This is partly due to the origins of the PBS stations themselves, and partly due to historical license issues.
In the modern broadcast marketplace, this organizational structure has been considered outmoded by media critics. A restructuring proposal is to reorganize the network so that each state would have one PBS affiliate which broadcast state-wide. However, this proposal is controversial, as it would reduce local community input into PBS programming, especially considering PBS stations are particularly more community-oriented than their commercial counterparts.
PBS operations are largely funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), a separate entity funded by the U.S. federal government. In 2005, Congress gave CPB $464 million. This money is split among various public broadcasting initiatives including PBS and National Public Radio. Individual Americans also contributed $650 million to public broadcasting in general (the total is divided among those same initiatives).
Some conservatives perceive PBS to have a liberal bias and criticize its tax-based revenue and have periodically but unsuccessfully attempted to discontinue funding of CPB. Although state and federal sources account for a minority percentage of public television funding, the system remains vulnerable to political pressure.
PBS has been subject to repeated attempts to reduce federal funding. On June 8, 2006, the Los Angeles Times reported that a key House committee had "approved a $115 million reduction in the budget for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting that could force the elimination of some popular PBS and NPR programs." This would reduce the Corporation's budget by 23 percent, to $380 million, for 2007. A similar budget cut was attempted in 2005, but was defeated by intense lobbying from the PBS stations and opposition from the Democratic Party.
Unlike the commercial television broadcast model of American networks such as NBC, CBS, ABC and Fox, in which affiliates give up portions of their local advertising airtime in exchange for network programming, PBS member stations pay substantial fees for the shows acquired and distributed by the national organization.
Most stations solicit individual donations by methods including pledge drives or telethons which can disrupt regularly scheduled programming. Although many viewers find it useful to raise funds, others think this is a source of annoyance since they replace the normal programs with specials aimed at a wider audience, while some find the commercial stations' advertisements even more annoying.
The PBS evening schedule emphasizes fine arts (Great Performances), drama (Mystery! and Masterpiece Theatre), science (Nova]] and Scientific American Frontiers), history (American Experience), public affairs (Frontline, The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer) and independent films (P.O.V. and Independent Lens).
PBS (as PBS Kids) has distributed a number of highly regarded children's shows such as Sesame Street, The Electric Company, Villa Alegre, Zoom! 3-2-1 Contact, Barney & Friends, Shining Time Station, Thomas & Friends, Ghostwriter, Reading Rainbow, Kratts' Creatures, and Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. Popular animated series have included Clifford the Big Red Dog, Arthur, Liberty's Kids, and The Magic School Bus. The service has also imported British children's series including Teletubbies and Boohbah. Some of these programs have since migrated to commercial television, including Ghostwriter and The Magic School Bus.
However, PBS is not the only distributor of public television programming to the member stations. Other distributors have emerged from the roots of the old companies that had loosely held regional public television stations in the 1960s. Boston-based American Public Television (former names include Eastern Educational Network and American Program Service) is second only to PBS for distributing programs to U.S. non-commercial stations. Another distributor is NETA (formerly SECA), whose properties have included The Shapies and Jerry Yarnell School of Fine Art. In addition, the member stations themselves also produce a variety of local shows, some of which subsequently receive national distribution through PBS or the other distributors.
PBS stations are known for rebroadcasting British television costume dramas and comedies (acquired from the BBC and other sources)—these shows are generally seen on Saturday evenings, regarded as the least-watched evening of the week due to viewers doing outside activities such as going to a movie, a concert, or other functions; so much of the exposure (or lack thereof) of American audiences to British television (particularly comedies) comes through PBS. It has been joked that PBS means "Primarily British Series." However, a significant amount of sharing takes place. The BBC and other media outlets in the region such as Channel 4 often cooperate with PBS stations, producing material that is shown on both sides of the Atlantic. Also, though less frequently, Canadian and Australian, among other international, programming appears on PBS stations (such as The Red Green Show, currently distributed by syndicator Executive Program Services); the public-broadcasting syndicators are more likely to offer this programming to the U.S. public stations.
PBS has also spun off a number of TV networks, often in partnership with other media companies: PBS YOU (ended January 2006, and largely succeeded by American Public Television's Create network), PBS KIDS (ended October 1, 2005), PBS KIDS Sprout, and PBS DT2 (a feed of HDTV and letterboxed programming for digitally equipped member stations), along with packages of PBS programs that are similar to local stations' programming, the PBS-X feeds.
Some of the controversies in which PBS has been involved are over funding, out of date technology, fundraising methods, corporate influence, and political biases.
PBS was founded to provide diversity in programming at a time when all television was broadcast (as opposed to today's cable or satellite transmission methods) and most communities received only three or four signals. Today many households subscribe to cable TV or have satellite dishes that receive tens or hundreds of signals, including varied educational and children's programs. Public television proponents maintain that the service should provide universal access, particularly to poor and rural viewers. They also say that many cable and satellite productions are of lower quality, including their children's programs.
Claims of being purely non-commercial and commercial-free outlet for quality programming appear to be proven false as of the 1980s and 1990s, as minute-long advertisements for corporate and private sponsors have been broadcast before and after (and oftentimes in between longer) shows.
Liberal critics dislike PBS affiliates' dependence on corporate sponsorships and some are uncomfortable with shows such as (the now defunct) Wall $treet Week, which they saw as promoting a corporate outlook without any corresponding series featuring opposing views from labor unions. For example, one of PBS' documentaries, Commanding Heights, strongly supports globalization while painting labor unions as socialist organizations.
Controversy exists over the exact role of public broadcasting. There are two competing schools of thought. The first school is that public broadcasting should democratically mirror the composition of the society it serves. This would provide programming to reach all constituencies, which could be formed on the basis of race, age, intelligence, educational background, social class, interests, and so forth. Those critical of this point of view have pointed out that such democratic, market-oriented programming can be found on any niche channel.
The opposing view holds that public broadcasting should be focused on high-minded programming that viewers are unlikely to encounter on other broadcasts. This programming would include focus on the arts, literature, history, and philosophy, which are deemed important yet underrepresented. Controversy exists about what exactly constitutes meriting inclusion on such a high-minded broadcast, with many claiming there is too much potential for white, middle class bias.
Whatever conclusions critics and supporters may draw, PBS has offered a viable alternative to commercial, network television, maintaining a consistent viewing public who have provided part of the funding to support the operation. As technology advances, and human society changes, PBS and all public broadcasting must also adapt and change in order to continue to fulfill a valuable, and thus financially supported, role.
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