For more than 50 years, public television has been part of the lineup of programs available to American viewers. But it’s worth pausing for a moment to ask what makes public television different.

Anyone can see that public television programs run without commercials. But in these days when subscription streaming services also offer content without breaks, that distinction has become blurry. However, for several decades it was more obvious. Still, the presence or absence of commercial advertising isn’t the whole story.

Public television can also be defined by its aim to express a diversity of perspectives without regard for profit. The Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) describes itself as “treating audiences as citizens, not simply consumers.”

How Much Does It Cost to Do Your Best?

Foundations took an interest in the new medium of television from its start in the 1940s. But television broadcasting was expensive — much more costly than radio. Making room for shows that didn’t earn a profit just didn’t make sense to the commercial networks. No matter how much they were pressured by educators, community groups, and even the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), that did not change.

Programming that aimed to sell products also tried to appeal to those with purchasing power. It did not attend to the needs of other groups. That meant the poor, ethnic and cultural minorities, and children rarely saw people like them on the air.

As Fred Friendly, president of CBS News until 1966 and broadcast consultant to the Ford Foundation from 1966-1980, put it, “television makes so much money doing its worst that it can’t afford to do its best.”Remarks by Fred Friendly on Public Television Station WTTW, Chicago, January 15, 1970. Ford Foundation Records, Catalogued Reports FA739C, Report #01889, RAC.

Building a Non-Profit Network

For more than two decades, most non-commercial television funding came from the Ford Foundation.

Ford Foundation money helped set up public stations, create a distribution network, provide technical training, and underwrite specific programs. By the late 1960s, it also set an agenda of diversity, experimentation, and social questioning. When Ford concluded its public television grantmaking in 1973, it had spent $268 million on public broadcasting. In 2020 dollars, that would be roughly $1.6 billion.

What began as a project to explore the educational potential of the new medium grew into a larger campaign. By the late 1960s, public television sought to serve the common good. And Ford staff defined this as including a more representative portrait of American diversity.

A Revolution in Representation

Public television as we know it was born in an era of unrest and social change. It emerged against the backdrop of the civil rights struggle and the War on Poverty. Grassroots causes like the anti-Vietnam war protests, the youth movement, and the women’s movement influenced it as well.

Public television producers’ vision was a fair, balanced picture of racial, ethnic, and cultural experiences. Their programs aimed to serve diverse communities and to narrow America’s social and economic divides.

These traits have come to seem inherent to the nature of public television. But in fact, they evolved over the course of more than two decades. And they were shaped and nurtured by philanthropic funders — in particular the Ford Foundation.

Gallery: Selected TV Shows Developed with Foundation Support


Director of Research and Education, Rockefeller Archive Center