PBS Special Report: Understanding the public broadcasting system

PBS is an entity unlike any other. The private, nonprofit, noncommercial network pulls together several hundred independent stations into one unique interconnected system. The following report takes a look at PBS, its kids programming and the stations that belong to it....
November 1, 1997

PBS is an entity unlike any other. The private, nonprofit, noncommercial network pulls together several hundred independent stations into one unique interconnected system. The following report takes a look at PBS, its kids programming and the stations that belong to it.

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It’s been almost three decades since the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) entered the American broadcast universe, offering U.S. audiences a distinct choice in the emerging collection of commercial, advertiser-supported broadcast networks and cable services.

A comparison between a TV listings chart from 1969 and today’s multichannel spreadsheet shows just how dramatically the market has changed over the years. Yet, for all that change, one thing remains the same: PBS continues to provide a unique broadcast option. Still commercial-free, PBS is clearly differentiated from other broadcast alternatives. Even structurally, PBS is a unique organization, operating more as a confederation of relatively autonomous local stations, rather than as a homogeneous broadcast network.

The public television system that helped bring American viewers such classic shows as Sesame Street in the 1970s is home today to a stable of immensely popular and successful educational children’s shows, including Kratts’ Creatures and Wishbone, not to mention a diverse offering of community outreach programs.

A unique network takes shape

Chartered in 1969 to operate an ‘interconnection system’ to improve program distribution among the approximately 75 independent public television stations in the U.S., PBS is a private, nonprofit corporation, owned and operated today by its 349-member noncommercial television stations serving the entire U.S., Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam and American Samoa.

The formation of this interconnected system was one of several recommendations of the 1967 Carnegie Commission on Educational Television, which acted as a blueprint for the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967. Out of this legislation came the creation of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), the ‘steward of federal funds supporting public television and radio stations and program production.’ It was established to act as a buffer between the government and the broadcaster. In the late `60s, talks among CPB, the Ford Foundation (a longtime supporter of educational television) and the stations led to the recommendation that PBS be formed.

Funding for PBS comes primarily from its member stations (55 percent for fiscal year 1997), educational institutions, interest income and other sources (33 percent), and the CPB (12 percent).

PBS is not a producer

PBS does not produce programming. PBS funds the creation and/or acquisition of programs from independent producers, public television stations, co-productions between public television stations and independent producers, and sources from around the world. Member stations can pick and choose programs from the satellite feeds, either airing them as they are fed or recording them for broadcast at another time on individual schedules.

A kids program could find its way onto the schedule of a local public television station in a number of ways. A local station can pick up a show from the daily kids programming strip on PBS’s National Program Service (NPS), which provides a daily satellite feed of programming in a set schedule. Alternatively, the local station could pick up a show from PBS Plus, a service that member stations pay to subscribe to, and that feeds only programs that PBS has not invested in, but has a license agreement to distribute.

Another source of programming for member stations is non-PBS public television distributors, such as the American Program Service (APS), the Central Educational Network (CEN) and the National Educational Telecommunications Association (NETA).

APS is the second-largest American public television distributor after PBS, and acquires finished programs and develops and/or produces original programming concepts. Included in its kids lineup are such shows as The Adventures of Dudley the Dragon and Big Comfy Couch, which have received strong carriage by public television stations. CEN`s kids programming tends to be mainly one-time programs or specials, and NETA, a newly organized national entity, replaces the regional Southern Educational Communications Association (SECA).

Member stations: partners in programming

Public television stations are PBS’s largest source of programming. On their own and in co-production with independent producers, they accounted for about two- thirds of the 1,936 hours of original programming distributed by PBS in the 1996 fiscal year.

Notable examples of public television station co-productions for kids include Arthur (by WGBH Boston and Cinar Films), Reading Rainbow (Great Plains National/Nebraska ETV Network, WNED Buffalo and Lancit Media Entertainment) and Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego? (produced by WQED Pittsburgh and WGBH Boston).

Given that each PBS station is free to determine its own schedule and has a vast array of programming available to it-far more than it could ever run-marketing and promotion to member stations becomes a critical success factor for any show picked up by PBS.

Still forging ahead

In July of this year, PBS and local stations KCET Los Angeles, WETA Washington, D.C., WGBH Boston and WNET New York formed the PBS Sponsorship Group. It was created in order to increase national sponsorship income and better serve prospective sponsors.

The Sponsorship Group is the national sales group for most PBS programs. Headquartered in PBS’s New York office, the new organization brings together the sponsor marketing teams of KCET, WETA, WGBH and WNET-which together produce or present two-thirds of the programs in the PBS schedule-in an effort to streamline and simplify the sponsorship process. Previously, a potential sponsor interested in PBS had to visit various local stations to find out what inventory was available.

The Sponsorship Group is an equal partnership between PBS and the four independent public television stations.

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