What is PBS?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

PBS stands for Public Broadcasting Service, and refers to a group of television stations through the United States and through parts of Canada that are non-profit and privately owned. Unlike most standard stations, PBS is known for broadcasting shows without commercial interruption. In order to afford purchasing television shows, the stations gather member funding and funding from commercial sponsors, who may be able to run an ad prior to a show. Most of the funding comes from the federally funded Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

PBS broadcasts a number of programs that are intended to help educate children.
PBS broadcasts a number of programs that are intended to help educate children.

Beginning in 1970, PBS has aired on hundreds of local TV stations. The "network" doesn't work the same way that ABC or FOX does. A PBS station may not always air the same programs as other PBS stations, and they certainly don’t stick to the same broadcast schedule. While a viewer can find the programs of the FOX network on at the same time throughout the country, he or she might find a PBS show like Masterpiece airing on a different night and in a different time slot from station to station.

A few PBS stations do produce their own programming. WGBH in Boston produces several well known educational shows, like Nova and Frontline. Most stations do not produce much in the way of original programming, however, and therefore make no profit when shows are syndicated or released on DVDs. Instead, the station merely licenses the right to use the program a given number of times.

PBS has no central news or program department, so availability of certain programs on stations will vary. Certain programs seem to always be available on most stations, and include shows like children’s programs Sesame Street, and Arthur, and evening programs like Nature, and Masterpiece. Other programs may require both member and corporate sponsorship in order to fund the money needed to pay for licensing fees.

The stations have also been known for licensing British productions, which are often less expensive than their American counterparts. If a viewer wanted to find Monty Python’s Flying Circus on television, he or she looked for it on a local PBS station in the 1970s. Many Masterpiece productions were also initially produced by British television, usually through the British Broadcasting Company (BBC).

Membership in PBS is a principal means by which individual stations pay for programming. Initially, membership drives were conducted once yearly, although now many stations conduct drives three to four times a year. These drives are often considered a nuisance by viewers because they often pick the favorite shows for rebroadcast and then interrupt them frequently with pledge breaks. As annoying as pledge breaks may be, they’re considered a necessity.

When PBS first began airing shows, there was minimal television competition. In the 21st century, whole networks are devoted to documentaries, to news with liberal or conservative bents, to British television productions, and to children’s programming. Little of this existed when PBS first became popular and was only competing with three other main networks: ABC, CBS and NBC. With cable and satellite providing people with hundreds of channels, fewer people are watching PBS, and it is no longer the only place to find certain types of programming.

PBS has also been criticized as having a liberal bias — or a conservative one, depending on who is criticizing it. Many attempts have been made to cut funding to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Some viewers are also annoyed that PBS now airs commercials before and after programs, since one of the hallmarks of each station was its claim to not airing advertising. Many people also feel that programming has declined in value and interest, though others still feel the long-running children’s shows are definitely worth watching, and that the occasional evening show is unlike anything else on television.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments


No way! There's other PBS stations in Canada, a good example being WTVS in Detroit. Other stations include WNED and WQLN, among the many.


I enjoyed the information, however, I was interested in knowing the PBS relationship to Canada. KTCS Seattle says "serving the Pacific NW, B.C., and all of Canada." Is KCTS the only PBS station serving all of Canada and therefore the "Canadian PBS Service", so to speak?

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