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“Sesame Street.” “Arthur.” “Downton Abbey.” “Antiques Roadshow.” Cookie Monster. Barney. Daniel Tiger. Dora the Explorer. Nature shows. Documentaries and more.
Which is your favorite PBS show or character?
The Public Broadcasting Service was begun 50 years ago this month with the mission to “educate, inspire, entertain and express a diversity of perspectives.” How did PBS help to shape your childhood? What did you learn from its shows?
In “Why We Turned to PBS: 50 Reasons Over 50 Years,” The New York Times asked its writers and several guests to reflect on PBS’s lasting imprint on our culture. Here are five of the reminiscences:
MISTER ROGERS’ NEIGHBORHOOD
1. Empathy and honesty wrapped in a cardigan.
Death, war, divorce: None of these seem like auspicious subjects for a children’s television program. But for more than 30 years, beginning in 1968 on National Educational Television (the precursor to PBS), Fred Rogers covered all of these topics and more, with empathy and honesty. The soft-spoken, cardigan-wearing, former Presbyterian minister was concerned with not just the academic but the emotional education of children. As he told members of the Senate who were debating whether to defund public television in 1969, “I feel that if we in public television can only make it clear that feelings are mentionable and manageable, we will have done a great service.” With the help of Daniel Tiger, King Friday XIII, Officer Clemmons and the rest of the residents of his neighborhood, Mr. Rogers taught viewers of all ages to not be afraid of their feelings, to always look for the helpers and to like themselves just the way they are. Jennifer Harlan
FINDING YOUR ROOTS
8. A reveal party with an edge.
“Finding Your Roots” is a kind of genealogical mystery show, wherein the Harvard intellectual Henry Louis Gates Jr. uncovers the ancestral lines of famous Americans. It’s also a platform for nudging white people to reckon with the legacy of slavery, with revealing results. In the show’s second season, Gates informed the CNN anchor Anderson Cooper that his fourth great-grandfather was murdered by a enslaved person who rebelled — “Your ancestor was beaten to death with a farm hoe,” was how he put it — to which Cooper replied, “He had 12 slaves, I don’t feel bad for him.” Cooper added: “It’s shameful and I feel such a sense of shame over it; at the same time, it’s the history of this country.” Later it was revealed that another second-season guest had a different approach for dealing with his own shame: Ben Affleck had convinced Gates to erase from the program any mention of a slave-owning ancestor. Amanda Hess
21. A lesson about humor that Kal Penn won’t forget.
One of my earliest memories of watching TV was “Sesame Street.” The way that show embraces imagination was very, very cool to me. Just the idea that all things are possible, and that when you have a combination of humans and Muppets and animation — all of the educational pieces of it — to me it was boundary-less.
As the son of immigrant Americans it was one of the few, if not the only, inclusive pieces of television for a very long time. I think that probably played some role in feeling that the characters and the creativity were boundless. Just being able to see ourselves in children’s television in a way that lets you know that where your parents are from is OK, and your family structure is OK, and all of the things that you’re otherwise “othered” about in the world.
“Sesame Street” makes you feel like you’re part of a wonderful group of friends. The humor is rarely based on making fun of anybody. I think as adults the easy joke is always to make fun of somebody and the thing that I love about humor — like the “Harold & Kumar” movies, even — is when the jokes are rarely, if ever, at the expense of somebody else. That’s not just a thing for kids, there’s that inner-“Sesame Street” that we should all remember.
Kal Penn is the host and creator of “Kal Penn Approves This Message” on Freeform. Interview by Julia Carmel.
45. An accessibility breakthrough.
“The French Chef” not only revolutionized cooking shows, it also made history on a more technical front when, in 1972, it became the first television show to feature open captioning — captions that are always onscreen — making it accessible to deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers. The following year, as ABC began rebroadcasting its national news program on PBS just five hours after it originally aired, it became the first timely and accessible news program. As smaller tests of the closed captioning system (which allows viewers to toggle captions on or off) proved successful, PBS engineers worked to create caption editing consoles, encoding equipment and prototype decoder boxes. And on a Sunday evening in March 1980, closed captioning went mainstream. Deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers got their chance to enjoy some of the most popular programming on television, getting to choose among “The ABC Sunday Night Movie,” “Disney’s Wonderful World” on NBC and “Masterpiece Theater.” Julia Carmel
BILL NYE THE SCIENCE GUY
46. A science class you will never nod off in.
Bill Nye was the science teacher every kid wanted: hyper, goofy and so darned smart. The show was, too: Nye made ideas come alive, and made his young viewers laugh while they learned. “The Science Guy” came to PBS in 1994 by way of Disney. Nye, who studied mechanical engineering at Cornell, raced through 100 episodes in a lab coat and a bow tie, and the show snatched up 19 Daytime Emmy Awards along the way. The science was real, and largely funded by the National Science Foundation. That investment appears to have paid off; when Nye speaks at college campuses these days to enthusiastic audiences, many of the students cheering for him are studying science and engineering, and claim their early inspiration as that skinny guy in the bow tie. John Schwartz
Students, read at least three or more writer reminiscences, then tell us:
What is your favorite memory of PBS? Write a short reminiscence on an episode, series or character that made an impact on your life, using the reflections in the article as a model. How did it affect your childhood? What life lessons, if any, did you learn?
Was PBS a regular part of your TV watching when you were young? How about now? Do you still enjoy its offerings?
Jennifer Harlan argues that “Mr. Rogers taught viewers of all ages to not be afraid of their feelings” and Kal Penn, the son of immigrants, writes that the power of “Sesame Street” for him was “just being able to see ourselves in children’s television in a way that lets you know that where your parents are from is OK, and your family structure is OK, and all of the things that you’re otherwise ‘othered’ about in the world.” Does either of these reflections resonate with you? Which other reminiscences featured in the article capture your feelings and experiences of PBS?
What do you think children could learn from PBS? Do you think it is still relevant? Do you think television can be an effective way to educate young people? Why or why not?
While PBS helped to create the blueprint for what TV has become, it continues to struggle to survive. In “PBS Showed TV the Future. But What Does Its Own Look Like?” Elizabeth Jensen writes:
When PBS arrived a half century ago, television was essentially a three-network game, and PBS thrived by championing programming and audiences ignored by NBC, CBS and ABC. But that distinctiveness has faded in today’s world of hundreds of cable channels and seemingly unlimited streaming services, many built after rivals saw the commercial value in PBS’s embrace of food lovers, costume drama obsessives, home improvement tinkerers and other niches. PBS may still execute many of its programs better than its rivals, and its content remains free and over-the-air, crucial for reaching those with lesser means and those without broadband. But in a country where the vast majority gets their TV through a paid service, that distinction rarely registers.
This cornucopia of programming viewers can enjoy across the television landscape only intensifies the political pressures facing PBS. Why should the federal government subsidize public broadcasting, conservative politicians and others ask, when the commercial marketplace appears to be doing just fine delivering those types of programs?
Do you think a public television station is still needed in 2020? Should the federal government continue to subsidize PBS? Why or why not?