“Without the Products There’s Nothing”: The Life and Death of Educational Public Television

By Michael Grasso / January 23, 2017

The TV set is a package and it’s full of products. Inside are detergents, automobiles, cameras, breakfast cereal, other television sets. Programs are not interrupted by commercials; exactly the reverse is true. A television set is an electronic form of packaging. It’s as simple as that. Without the products there’s nothing. Educational television’s a joke. Who in America would want to watch TV without commercials?

—Don DeLillo, Americana (1971)

For people of a certain age, the synthesized tones of the ident above and the animation of the “P-head” logo of the Public Broadcasting Service is indelibly marked in our memories of childhood. We can recall the educational programming that PBS brought into our homes: stalwart institutions like Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, shorter-lived series like The Electric Company, Zoom, and 3-2-1 Contact, or perhaps lower-budget, locally-produced micro-programming like Inside/OutTrade-Offs, Thinkabout, or Read All About It. In the evenings, after we came home from school, we could watch shows imported from the BBC like Doctor Who, Blake’s 7, and Monty Python’s Flying Circus. In an age before the internet, PBS offered a diverse range of entertainment. More important, it was the primary source of educational programming for the school-age television viewer.

The education of America’s young people is, in fact, central to the service’s mission since it was founded in 1970. PBS was a unique achievement in the annals of publicly-minded and publicly-oriented broadcasting in the United States. For a very short window of time in the 1970s and early 1980s, PBS held a unique position as a content aggregator and broadcaster for an explosion of independently produced educational media, and it was the culmination of a long-seething debate in America about the place of television and mass media in the lives of the young, about whether or not television’s omnipresence and reach could be harnessed as a social good. The American electromagnetic airwaves have been, since very early in radio broadcast history, a commercially-minded medium. Unlike in Europe, where there were strong orientations towards public use of new communications technology (telegraph and telephone utilities often fell under the aegis of the post office), American radio and eventually television frequencies were overwhelmingly allocated to private, for-profit broadcasters. While there were early instances of community-based radio, run by immigrant groups and universities, there was no national radio network dedicated to the public interest.

A concerted public broadcasting network didn’t emerge until the 1960s, and it was heralded by critics of the rapid dominance of television. President Kennedy’s FCC Chairman Newton Minow’s famous 1961 speech, “Television and the Public Interest,” coined the phrase “vast wasteland” to describe TV’s landscape. The speech is arguably most remembered for this phrase, but Minow didn’t just bemoan what he saw as a cultural void on television; he posited the need for a muscular, activist role for the FCC in Kennedy’s “New Frontier”:

One editorialist in the trade press wrote that ‘the FCC of the New Frontier is going to be one of the toughest FCC’s in the history of broadcast regulation.’ If he meant that we intend to enforce the law in the public interest, let me make it perfectly clear that he is right: We do. If he meant that we intend to muzzle or censor broadcasting, he is dead wrong. It wouldn’t surprise me if some of you had expected me to come here today and say to you in effect, ‘Clean up your own house or the government will do it for you.’ Well, in a limited sense, you would be right, because I’ve just said it.


Newton Minow, early 1960s. Photo: PBS

Minow’s deep sense of public responsibility is clear: he repeatedly states that the airwaves belong to the public and that private broadcasters and the corporations that sponsor programs share an obligation to use those airwaves responsibly. Minow also states that broadcasts lack a concerted educational option: “There are still not enough educational stations, and major centers of the country still lack usable educational channels.” At this point in American television history, Minow’s statement was undeniably true. Children’s television programming exploded in the 1950s with cartoon shows, puppet shows like Howdy Doody (debuted in 1947) and Kukla, Fran and Ollie (also debuted in 1947), and even “franchised” nationwide kids’ clubhouse programs like Romper Room (debuted in 1953) and Bozo the Clown (debuted in 1949, franchised in 1959) that featured local hosts. But these were all entertainment programs, not purely (or in some cases, at all) educational. Even programs that were praised for trying to integrate a little bit of social or academic instruction into their cartoons and entertainment, like Bob Keeshan’s Captain Kangaroo (debuted in 1955) had, for example, segments expressly designed to sell Schwinn brand bicycles to the children watching at home. Commercialism and corporate sponsorship breached every aspect of children’s television.

Throughout the 1960s, efforts by Minow, by Democrats, and by civic groups to form a national public broadcast network continued to bubble under the surface. Individual independent and non-commercial educational television stations in major markets, like WGBH in Boston (first broadcast 1955), WTTW in Chicago, where Newton Minow got his start (first broadcast also 1955), WETA in Washington, D.C. (first broadcast 1961), and WNDT (later WNET) in New York (first broadcast 1962), were born through the efforts of private donors, foundations, think tanks, and consortiums that raised funds to launch educational programming in earnest. Many of these early public television stations broadcast out of college campuses, high schools, and even closets. The loosely organized network National Educational Television (NET) helped these stations acquire foreign broadcasts, documentary films, and other non-locally produced programming.


Geography professor Ric Johnson used only a desktop globe to explore The Big Wide World on WHA-TV in 1958. Photo: Wisconsin Public Television

Also in the mid-‘60s, as grassroots efforts at public educational broadcasting continued to expand across the nation, the Carnegie Corporation in New York began a blue-ribbon study on the feasibility and necessity of a national public educational broadcaster. The Carnegie Commission on Educational Television (1965-1967) spent almost two years investigating the question, and, at the end, came out with Public Television: A Program for Action, a report that called for (1) the patchwork family of public television stations to join with a yet-to-be-created nonprofit Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), (2) the federal government to help fund and support this new CPB through direct means like excise taxes and indirect means like access to satellites, and (3) the CPB to produce television programs and films, as well as establish centers for television production that would grant facilities to those stations broadcasting out of high schools and closets.

Public Television: A Program for Action was released in late January 1967, and it caused a sensation. Tens of thousands of copies of the report were purchased by concerned citizens, and it immediately got attention at the highest levels of government. President Lyndon Johnson, in the midst of his Great Society and War on Poverty programs, was ushering in an age of liberal, activist government to help alleviate inequality both material and educational. The growing presence and importance of the television in American homes at all income levels seemed like a positive opportunity, and President Johnson took the Carnegie Corporation’s recommendations seriously. The Public Broadcasting Act was introduced to Congress in March, passed the Senate in May, passed the House in September, and was signed into law on November 7, 1967: from Carnegie report to law in just 10 months. In his speech, President Johnson echoed Minow’s earlier sentiments on the idea of a public trust:

[This Act] announces to the world that our Nation wants more than just material wealth; our Nation wants more than a ‘chicken in every pot.’ We in America have an appetite for excellence, too…

I believe the time has come to stake another claim in the name of all the people, stake a claim based upon the combined resources of communications. I believe the time has come to enlist the computer and the satellite, as well as television and radio, and to enlist them in the cause of education.


President Johnson signing the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967. Photo: Yoichi Okamoto, LBJ Library

With the funding and support of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, children’s education programming blossomed. In Pittsburgh, a young Presbyterian minister and puppeteer named Fred Rogers, after a stint at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) doing The Children’s Corner, started Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, which debuted on Pittsburgh’s KQED in 1968 and was distributed to affiliate stations starting in 1970. Another puppeteer, Jim Henson, who had worked in local TV and local advertising in the Baltimore and Washington, D.C. markets, was tapped by WNDT producer Joan Ganz Cooney and the Carnegie Foundation’s Lloyd Morrisett for their experiment in early childhood education, Sesame Street, which debuted in 1969.

In the three years leading up to Sesame Street’s debut, the nascent Children’s Television Workshop (CTW) traveled, researched, and developed what they considered to be a curriculum that would both properly educate the next generation of young people and take advantage of television’s peculiar advantages as a medium. Morrisett had observed his daughter Sarah absorb and repeat commercial jingles after watching television ads, and Cooney put the idea—utilizing television’s ability to reach a child’s pliable mind to instill useful knowledge instead of meaningless commercial propaganda—in her report to the Carnegie Foundation in 1966:

If we accept the premise that commercials are effective teachers, it is important to be aware of their characteristics, the most obvious being frequent repetition, clever visual presentation, brevity, and clarity. Probably, then, their success is not due to any magic formula. Instead, television commercials appear to have adopted what have always been effective teaching techniques; unfortunately for our children, many teachers may have forgotten what Madison Avenue, with consummate skill, has cribbed from them.

This foundational ethic of Cooney’s and Morrisett’s Children’s Television Workshop—to use the methods that the televisual medium and the ad industry had taken from pedagogy and to divert this power, to steal it back for purposes of education and social outreach—was truly revolutionary. It recalls nothing less than the contemporary late-1960s appeal of Situationism to perform détournement (“hijacking”) on commercial mass media. The CTW would plan its flagship program around the television generation’s attention span. The teaching segments would present like commercials, but each episode would not be brought to the young viewer by corporate sponsors like Schwinn Bikes or Ovaltine. Instead, “the number 2” or “the letter J” would make appearances, in a clever double subversion of commercial television’s now-familiar aesthetic characteristics and dependence on advertising dollars.


Joan Ganz Cooney, far left, looks on to the cast of the first season of Sesame Street, 1969. Jim Henson and Frank Oz can be seen with Ernie and Bert. Photo: Muppet Wiki

Over the course of one momentous week in 1969, two signature achievements of American public television occurred: the Corporation for Public Broadcasting founded the Public Broadcasting Service, or PBS, on November 3, 1969, and Sesame Street made its long-awaited debut on November 10. PBS would not commence operations until the next year, but its establishment by CPB marked the first time there was a single national producer and syndicator of public broadcasting content. Previous ad hoc networks had worked with small affiliate public television stations in the ‘50s and ‘60s: National Educational Television (NET) had been around since the early ‘50s and had been an early supporter of Fred Rogers, and the Eastern Educational Television Network (EETN), founded in 1961, had been syndicating programs like Julia Child’s groundbreaking cooking program The French Chef. But PBS had the backing of the CPB, and thus, by extension, the federal government and the movers and shakers in both New York and Washington. PBS would not operate like one of the “Big Three” commercial broadcast networks. It would be closer to its public broadcasting predecessors: a clearinghouse for original programming produced by member stations. But it would have definitive federal support along with funding from private foundations.

Sesame Street’s impact on PBS airwaves cannot be understated. The program was something entirely new in children’s programming: a children’s TV show that educated and entertained simultaneously, using the methods that Madison Avenue had perfected over corporate television’s first quarter-century. Most importantly, Sesame Street was designed expressly to reach young people who were underserved by traditional educational outlets. The fictional neighborhood was designed to look like a working-class New York borough, with brownstones, a mom and pop grocery store, and a more honest and realistic setting than any of the myriad playhouses and puppet theaters that had come before. Not for nothing was one of Sesame Street’s breakout characters an orange Muppet monster called Oscar the Grouch who lived in a trash can. The casting of the non-Muppet characters was also sensitive to and actively solicitous of racial and gender diversity. The initial cast featured two main characters who were black (Gordon and Susan, played by Matt Robinson and Loretta Long), and an elderly shop owner in Mr. Hooper (Will Lee). Later seasons would increase and widen the diversity of the cast with Latinx regulars, disabled characters, and notable musical guests of color like Stevie Wonder, Buffy Sainte-Marie, and José Feliciano.

With few exceptions (the show was banned in Mississippi for its interracial cast, while on the other end of the political spectrum, some TV critics found its approach too facile and indebted to the television era’s shortened attention spans), Sesame Street was immediately beloved. It assured PBS’s initial success and ushered in a golden age of educational television programming.

PBS followed up with shows aimed at slightly older audiences: The Electric Company (debuted in 1971) took the street hipness and rapid-fire pace of Sesame Street and tweaked it for an audience learning to read, and ZOOM (debuted in 1972) was a program hosted by kids and for kids, looking at the issues of the day and the talents that made kids special. Outside of the new series produced by individual PBS affiliates, there were a number of independent and other public broadcasting series that were distributed by an organization called the Agency for Instructional Television (AIT). AIT began in 1962 as the National Instructional Television Library, a subsidiary of NET. When NET was subsumed by PBS in 1970, AIT took the lead in collecting educational programming throughout the U.S. and Canada (Ontario’s provincial public television network, TVOntario, was a particularly rich source of material for AIT) for broadcast through PBS member stations during the school day.

The idea was that educators could check their local listings and schedule their lessons around specific program episodes. Television would also be used in the classroom. Teachers had been using audio-visual lessons for a long time, of course, but methods were costly and usually included difficult-to-use films and filmstrips. Here, a teacher could simply switch on a TV and tune in to the local PBS affiliate. The programs contained a wide variety of content aimed at primary school to junior high students, from All About You (debuted 1972), which taught biology and nutrition to 6-to-8-year-olds, to Thinkabout (1979), which encouraged critical thinking skills for older kids as applied to real-life problems.

Considering how vital it was in plotting these new approaches, it’s no surprise that AIT ended up changing the “T” in their name to “Technology” in 1984, as the VHS revolution began to sweep through America. Throughout this era of public broadcasting, the promise of new technology was essential to PBS’s value to its member stations and to the nation. Recall that Minow and President Johnson both cited the importance of satellite technology to aid in nationwide public television educational programming. In the early 1960s, the broadcast television satellite was in its infancy, but it wasn’t out of hand to expect the technology to eventually become so cheap and omnipresent that it could be used to reach school districts across America. It wasn’t just the hope of technology-aided learning that tied public television to technological advances; PBS itself pioneered some of those advances. PBS member WETA-TV in Washington, D.C. worked with famed school for the Deaf Gallaudet University (then Gallaudet College) to aid hearing-impaired viewers with the first closed captioning tests in 1973. On the long-hoped satellite technology front, PBS became, in 1978, the first non-cable broadcaster to distribute their programs to affiliates via satellite.

Even in the midst of this successful bumper crop of programs and content producers, and this bounty of educational technology, there were already signs of discontent. The Nixon administration, while openly complimentary of the impact of programs like Sesame Street, was nonetheless a Republican administration. As early as 1969, the newly-elected Nixon was expressing dismay at the political slant of a possible public broadcaster. Nixon believed the power of a public television network, especially when backed by “Eastern liberal establishment” groups like the Carnegie Corporation and the Ford Foundation, could be used against him and the Republican party (at least in his paranoid “Enemies list”-laden mind). Fred Rogers, then a respected figure in public broadcasting, went before Congress in 1969 to preserve and protect funding for the about-to-open-for-business PBS.


Fred Rogers, 1970s. Photo: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

While it was political and overtly journalistic programming that Nixon feared, it was clear that in the right ideological hands the multicultural, progressively-oriented pedagogical choices of a program like Sesame Street could be positioned as a threat to cultural conservatives as well. In 1972, Nixon vetoed a funding bill for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, fearful that a future administration would further centralize PBS and use it for overtly (liberal) political purposes. Over the last two years of Nixon’s presidency, block-grant-type funding options were proposed that would return federal funds directly to local public television stations. A three-way fight soon emerged in the latter half of the 1970s: conservatives opposed to public broadcasting on principle, the original CPB group looking to preserve the status quo, and a bolder, more radical group that wished to find a way to decouple public broadcasting from possible changes in the political wind. In a second Carnegie Corporation Report on public broadcasting, titled A Public Trust (1979), the authors praised PBS’s and CPB’s successes but warned that enemies of public broadcasting in the corridors of power could put a stranglehold on public television funding:

Nonetheless, we find public broadcasting’s financial, organizational and creative structure fundamentally flawed. In retrospect, what public broadcasting tried to invent was a truly radical idea: an instrument of mass communication that simultaneously respects the artistry of the individuals who create programs, the needs of the public that form the audience, and the forces of political power that supply the resources.

Sadly, we conclude that the invention did not work, or at least not very well. Institutional pressures became unbalanced in a dramatically short time. They remain today — despite the best efforts of the thousands within the industry and the millions who support it — out of kilter and badly in need of repair.

CPB’s central organization had established the kind of infrastructure necessary to create and deliver the content that American children needed and wanted. But it was vulnerable to the kind of quick chop that might come with the arrival of a dedicated opponent of public broadcasting. For Nixon, this distaste was at least partly personal. For the team who captured the White House in 1980, it was purely ideological.

It would be simplistic to lay the responsibility of PBS’s decline and underfunding entirely at the feet of Ronald Wilson Reagan. But, in the aftermath of his explicitly ideological campaign, it was clear that any and all areas of federal funding were on the chopping block. The Reagan administration fought their ideological and culture war on all levels. Reagan’s FCC chief, Mark S. Fowler, came into office with the explicit goal of loosening restrictions on broadcasting ownership and fairness. Fowler once memorably said that television could be regulated just like any other consumer product; to him and his deregulation crew at the FCC, it was nothing more than a “toaster with pictures.” Technological advances led to an exponential expansion in cable and satellite channels in the 1980s, but, on the regulatory side, more and more large umbrella corporations were gobbling up smaller radio and television outlets. Fowler’s FCC led to the media landscape we see today, where a handful of giant corporations control all major media.


The cast of ZOOM, 1974

Back on the public broadcasting front, Reagan followed Nixon’s lead with another veto of CPB funding increases in 1984. The administration also wanted to encourage the increase in private support of PBS, and it was around this time that more and more corporations appeared as sponsors of individual PBS programs. PBS pledge drives—which began in the late ’70s during federal funding uncertainties—also became more commonplace in the 1980s in response to budget shortfalls. Public opinion prevented Reagan from completely eliminating federal funding of PBS, but, once rung, the bells of pledge drives, auctions, and corporate groveling can’t be unrung.

It wasn’t until the 1990s that the specter of a full “zero-out” of CPB’s budget manifested itself. The Republican Congressional wave in 1994 made Newt Gingrich Speaker of the House and brought his so-called “Contract With America,” which included his long-stated goal to get government out of broadcasting, to the fore. The same litany of public hearings, with advocates led by Shari Lewis, went before Congress to beg for public broadcasting. Once again, the bad publicity involved in taking early childhood television away from poor kids was enough to prevent a total budgetary wipeout.

By this point, the decades of controversies had been enough to critically weaken PBS. The top franchises and intellectual properties in the PBS stable were being asked to shoulder more of the financial burden through merchandising and profit-seeking. Republican California Congressman Dana Rohrabacher memorably said during the Contract With America period that Republicans didn’t want to kill Big Bird and Barney the Dinosaur;  they “just want to transform them from government bureaucrats to free-market entrepreneurs.” Rohrabacher got his wish, as new and more marketable characters like Elmo allowed PBS to tap into the very same commercial impulses that the service was founded in order to avoid. Children’s Television Workshop “rebranded” as Sesame Workshop in 2000 to more closely manage the Sesame Street family of characters—and an increasing arsenal of products.

In the summer of 2015, Sesame Street left the open airwaves of PBS to become an HBO series. The very idea of Sesame Street on pay TV beggars belief; it’s a complete betrayal of every precept the program was founded upon. And although HBO currently makes the new episodes available to PBS, free of charge, it’s only after a nine-month delay, and the product itself differs vastly from the program that today’s parents grew up with. “Over the past decade, both the way in which children are consuming video and the economics of the children’s television production business have changed dramatically,” co-creator Joan Ganz Cooney said. “In order to fund our nonprofit mission with a sustainable business model, Sesame Workshop must recognize these changes and adapt to the times.” In short, the safe, welcoming neighborhood that was opened to all by the federal government in 1967—with a focus on inner city kids who didn’t have the money for private schools, tutors, or expensive educational toys—was closed forever, locked behind pay-per-view gates and consigned to commercial pressures. Public broadcasting had died, a murder arranged by right-wing ideologues in the name of the so-called “free” market.

Grasso AvatarMichael Grasso is a Senior Editor at We Are the Mutants. He is a Bostonian, a museum professional, and a podcaster. Follow him on Twitter at @MutantsMichael.

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