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

While anyone can see that public television shows run without commercials, in these days of subscription streaming services, that distinction is blurry. But for several decades it was more obvious. Still, that isn’t the whole story. Public television can also be defined by its stated commitment to expressing a diversity of perspectives. 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 interest in the new medium of television from the start in the 1940s. But television broadcasting was expensive — much more expensive 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).

Programming that aimed to sell products also aimed to appeal to those with purchasing power. It neglected the experiences and needs of other groups –the economically disadvantaged, ethnic and cultural minorities, and children.

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 — the equivalent of roughly $1.6 billion in 2020 dollars.

What had begun as a project for foundations to explore the educational potential of the new medium grew into a larger campaign by the late 1960s to serve the common good, which foundation staff defined as including a more representative view of American diversity.

A Revolution in Representation

Public television as we know it was born in an era of unrest and social change. Its mission emerged against the backdrop of the civil rights struggle, the War on Poverty, and grassroots causes like the anti-Vietnam war protests, the youth movement, and the women’s movement. Its vision included fair representation of racial, ethnic, and cultural experiences. It aimed to serve diverse communities and to narrow America’s social and economic divides.

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

Gallery: Selected TV Shows Developed with Foundation Support


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Director of Research and Education, Rockefeller Archive Center