Why We Turned to PBS: 50 Reasons Over 50 Years

We asked our writers to reflect on PBS’s lasting imprint on our culture, while Rachael Ray, Gary Clark Jr., Damon Lindelof, Kal Penn and others share first-person reminiscences about the television that changed their lives.

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

An American Family

2. When the mundane became must-see TV.

The French philosopher Jean Baudrillard called it “dissolution of TV in life, dissolution of life in TV”: “An American Family,” the 1973 documentary series revealing seven months in the home of Santa Barbara’s Loud family, presaged the coming of reality television by many years. In retrospect, the series is an appealingly loose portrait of mundane family life, captured before the tropes of reality TV calcified and the banal was repackaged as slickly sensational. But at the time it was controversial, dismissed by some as voyeuristic, fake-seeming or unfairly edited. The series represented a disruption both for television and the American family’s self-image: It chronicled Bill and Pat Loud’s divorce, and followed their eldest son, Lance, as he moved to New York and came out as gay. Lance became perhaps the first reality star, emerging from the show as a gay icon and epitomizing, as he put it himself, “the middle-class dream that you can become famous for being just who you are.” Amanda Hess

Monty Python’s Flying Circus

3. Because no one expects the Spanish Inquisition.

While now entrenched in the comedy pantheon, “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” was relatively unknown in America when it finished its run in England in 1974. Few, including its six members, thought its humor would translate. It was too highbrow, too weird, too British. That this was proved wrong by PBS, which is not known for anarchic humor, is an absurdity worthy of Python. Classic sketches about the Ministry of Silly Walks, dead parrots or the military’s weaponization of a joke so funny people die laughing became instant hits among public television audiences. When ABC aired edited episodes of the show, Monty Python sued, becoming the rare comedians to actually fight to stay off network television. Jason Zinoman

Julia Child and The French Chef

4. For Rachael Ray, a reason to ‘just keep going.’

When I was a kid my mom and I would watch PBS together, and Julia Child was just the most fascinating figure to me because she took herself — not seriously! At all. I just remember how funny and real she was — hitting the garlic and it would kick across the room and she’d just keep going, and she’d throw in fistfuls of salt, and she’d drink. My mom worked in restaurants for 60 years and I always wanted to be just like my mom, so I was constantly on her hip in the kitchen and trying to mimic her. Food is what brought us together, so if she liked something, I liked something.

When I first started, I would think of [Julia] often. If the pasta would hit the wall, or if something didn’t look just right, I would think to myself, “Well, Julia would just keep going.” I just love that about her, that sense of “I’ve put my heart and my soul into this and it’s going to be whatever it’s going to be and we’re going to do this together, and you’re going to see all of it, no matter what.” It wasn’t about being perfect or the best; it was about living life to its fullest. She took something that was considered complicated, or precious, or for a very elite few, and made it digestible for people and fun. She’s just so groundbreaking. Would Emeril have had a band and been Emeril and said “BAM” and thrown a party every night? There’s a Galloping Gourmet running all over the room and joking and telling you every little bit of his personal life. I think that she’s the one that did that for everyone.

Rachael Ray is the host of the syndicated “Rachael Ray Show” and “30 Minute Meals” on the Food Network. Interview by Julia Carmel.

Downton Abbey

5. Those rich Brits. We can’t seem to get enough.

Rich white people problems were never richer, whiter or more abundant than in the titular Yorkshire mansion of “Downton Abbey,” the sumptuous costume drama that premiered in 2011 to become the most watched series in the history of PBS’s “Masterpiece.” The entanglements of the aristocratic Crawley family and their below stairs staff flicked at earnest social commentary about the shifting mores of the early 20th century, but the plotlines were shamelessly popcorn: Mr. Carson and Anna’s many arrests; Lady Mary and Matthew’s doomed romance; Mrs. Patmore’s angst over the arrival of the electric mixer. Even in the aftermath of a global economic crisis — or perhaps because of it — audiences were keen for the diversion of an extravagant British period piece, especially one that offered a Kumbaya message (chamber music version) that people are not so different no matter their proximity to the stairs. Katrina Onstad

Upstairs Downstairs

6. Did we mention we can’t get enough?

Decades before “Downton Abbey,” other feet climbed the servants’ stairs of an elegant manse. In 1974, PBS debuted this British drama, set above and below stairs in the London home of the aristocratic Bellamy family. If less visually opulent than “Downton,” this show had greater scope and ambition, shifting time periods each season, eventually covering the years from 1903 to 1930. And the characters are, if anything, richer. When the final episode aired in the United States in 1977, Alistair Cooke, the host of “Masterpiece Theater,” said there should be a national day of mourning. In 2011, PBS and the BBC attempted to revive it, with a new upper crust family moving into 165 Bellamy Place, but the reboot only lasted two congenial if not especially inspired seasons. Alexis Soloski

The Civil War

7. History plus Ken Burns equals monumental.

Ken Burns’s 11-hour documentary series “The Civil War,” which aired on five consecutive nights in 1990, transformed American history into unexpected must-see TV. Not only did it smash PBS audience records, with close to 40 million people tuning in. It also turned the boyish, bowl-cut wearing filmmaker into perhaps the most influential historian in America. The signature aesthetic — mournful music, somber voice-over, slow pans across archival photographs — inspired plenty of parodies, including “Ken Burns’s Ken Burns” (in which the filmmaker played a trash-talking version of himself). The series has drawn plenty of criticism for offering a romanticized narrative of the war as a tragic misunderstanding between brothers. But it still stands as a monument to a cultural moment when a sizable chunk of the American population was willing to sit down in shared contemplation of our history, rather than just fighting about it. Jennifer Schuessler

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

Austin City Limits

9. Where Gary Clark Jr. fell in love — with the guitar.

I was 11, maybe 12 when I started watching it, right around the time I got my first guitar. I would watch downstairs in our little living room on a box TV and record it on VCR. I didn’t have a guitar teacher, so I would sit there on this fuzzy, green carpet with my black Ibanez RX20 and watch what the guitar players were doing. Jimmy Vaughn, Stevie Ray Vaughan, B.B. King, Buddy Guy. The tapes are warped in places because I would watch them over and over.

I had never really seen live music before. A neighbor used to have parties where a mariachi band would play, and I saw Michael Jackson when I was 5 years old, but that was really it. Seeing blues on “A.C.L.,” just down the highway from where we lived outside of Austin, my eyes opened up. It gave me a greater appreciation of where I was from, and it showed me something outside of school — pep rallies and football games, that whole thing.

One day, when I was about 21, I walked past [the executive producer] Terry Lickona in Austin. He said, “Hey, Gary! When are you going to play my show?” I was like, “Man, I’ve been waiting for you to ask me that question for a decade!” The first time I walked onstage [in 2007], I got emotional. There’s no feeling like it. The idea that there is this TV show where you can get a real, intimate, honest, raw performance — you just can’t really beat that. It captures a kind of energy exchange that makes you feel like you’re there. As a kid, I felt like I was there, and it changed my whole life.

Gary Clark Jr., a Grammy-winning singer, songwriter and guitarist, first played “Austin City Limits” in 2007. Interview by Reggie Ugwu.

The Three Tenors

10. When tuxedos and arias became an unlikely sensation.

The boyish star tenor José Carreras was just 40 and at the pinnacle of his career when he was diagnosed with leukemia in the mid-1980s. But he beat the odds and survived. To welcome him back to performance, make money for his cancer foundation and celebrate the 1990 World Cup finals, his colleagues Plácido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti sang an outdoor concert with him at the Baths of Caracalla in Rome. The three tuxedoed Mediterranean gentlemen, belting arias, pop hits and Neapolitan songs at the top of their lungs while dripping with sweat, were an unlikely sensation, and the combo spent the ’90s doing over 30 of the shows. The easy-listening pablum was eaten up on PBS telecasts and as best-selling records, and became the defining operatic (or pseudo-operatic) phenomenon of the past 30 years. Zachary Woolfe

The Power of Myth and Bill Moyers

11. A professor, a mantra and a galaxy far, far away.

“Follow your bliss”: This piece of wisdom was familiar to students who flocked to the classes of Joseph Campbell, a beloved literature professor at Sarah Lawrence College. “Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth,” Bill Moyers’s six-part series, which aired in 1988, turned it into a (sometimes misunderstood) cultural mantra. “The Hero With a Thousand Faces,” Campbell’s 1949 study of comparative mythology, already had fans among the counterculture, including George Lucas, who has cited it as a foundational text for “Star Wars.” But the show made the professor, who died before the show aired, into a mainstream hero and Moyers, who had returned to PBS after a 10-year run at CBS, into television’s leading explorer of the Big Questions. Jennifer Schuessler

Bob Ross

12. Come for the painting lesson. Stay for Bob.

In 1994, the talk show host Phil Donahue asked Bob Ross to “say out loud your work will never hang in a museum.” “Well, maybe it will,” Ross replied, though museums were not of course the point: On “The Joy of Painting” anyone could be an artist. The conceit was simple: Paint a picture in 26 minutes. The shows were taped in one sitting — a sunset, some clouds, a mighty mountain, and, in the last moment, a big pine. It made for mesmerizing television, then and now. The show ran for 11 seasons between 1983 and 1994, and in 2015 became a viral sensation on the streaming platform Twitch, where it met an entirely new audience, previously unfamiliar with the calming scrape of a palette knife or the comforts of Ross’s soothing voice. “There are no mistakes,” he assured viewers, “only happy accidents.” In March 2019, 24 years after his death, several of Ross’s paintings became part of the permanent collection of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Alicia DeSantis

Miss Marple

13. A smart British lady led Damon Lindelof on a hunt for clues.

My folks split up in 1984. This meant every other weekend was spent at my dad’s apartment and approximately 20 hours of television before he delivered me back to my mom’s, glassy-eyed and buzzing with narrative. The old man loved sci-fi and horror, but the thing he loved most was a good whodunit, and that is how an 11-year old boy became infatuated with Miss Marple. Miss Marple was smart. Miss Marple was British. She was also funny (“they call it ‘dry’ over there” my dad would say), tenacious and did not suffer fools. But most of all, in an era where almost every hero curated for an adolescent boy vibrated with unapologetic masculinity, Miss Marple was a lady. Unmarried, unattached and uninterested in anything other than tripping liars up in mistruths and a nice cup of tea, Miss Marple had no job that I recall, just a way of showing up wherever a well-dressed corpse did. As PBS presented these adventures sans commercial interruption (aside from the occasional pledge drive, and yes, we had a tote bag for every poisoned cadaver), my father and I had no breaks to gather clues so we had to shout at the television in real time — “There’s blood on the gardening shears!” “There’s the missing cuff link!” Yet we were almost never ahead of Miss Marple, who was almost certainly ahead of her time.

Damon Lindelof is a writer and producer whose credits include “Lost,” “The Leftovers” and “Watchmen.”

Tongues Untied

14. Representation with honesty and dignity.

A New York Times article in 1991, carrying the headline “TV Film About Gay Black Men Is Under Attack,” described “Tongues Untied” as “an experimental amalgam of rap music, street poetry, documentary film and dance.” Most coverage of the film focused not on the work itself, but on straight, white people’s reactions to it: the refusal of certain public television stations to air it, Pat Buchanan’s presidential ad campaign that likened the work to “pornography,” the congressional hearings with the aim of ensuring that The National Endowment for the Arts — from whom the filmmaker received a $5,000 grant to help fund the film — would never be used to fund works like this again. Missing were any perspectives from voices that should’ve mattered: Young gay Black boys like myself, in awe of seeing themselves represented on TV, with honesty and dignity, for the first time. Jamal Jordan


15. Investigative journalism at its finest.

The longest-running news documentary series on television at more than 700 episodes and counting, “Frontline” raised the standard for tough, long-form investigative journalism when it was created, by the filmmaker and producer David Fanning, at WGBH in Boston in 1983. The program was a throwback even then, owing more to the ambitious, Cold War-era documentaries of “CBS Reports” than to the ascendant, faster-paced style of news coverage that had been inaugurated three years earlier by the arrival of CNN. Today, when mistrust of news is the norm, fueled by powerful forces in government and on cable, the show’s unflashy commitment to in-depth reporting, standards of proof and, above all, public service has never been less trendy — or more essential. Reggie Ugwu

The Electric Company

16. Making grammar cool as only the ’70s could.

Faster than a rolling “O” and stronger than a silent “E,” this mostly live-action children’s television show debuted in 1971 as the cool cat big sister to “Sesame Street.” “We’re going to turn it on,” the theme song began — “it” meant literacy. The original cast included Morgan Freeman, Rita Moreno and Bill Cosby, plus Irene Cara as part of the in-house kids band, the Short Circus. Mel Brooks showed up to voice “The Blond-Haired Cartoon Man.” Each of the 780 half-hour episodes, produced by the Children’s Television Workshop, taught kids phonics with blinding ’70s visuals and short sketches that deployed parody, satire, surrealism and doo-wop. Canceled in 1977, it was in the words of Freeman’s D.J. character, Mel Mounds, “Righteous, delighteous and out-of-sighteous.” Alexis Soloski

Lilias, Yoga and You

17. Who knew we needed downward dog? She did.

Before we had hot yoga, trampoline yoga and goat yoga tutorials at our fingertips, there was Lilias. Lilias Folan wasn’t the first to popularize yoga. But she was perhaps the first to bring the exotic-seeming practice into middle-American living rooms, with her show “Lilias, Yoga and You,” which aired from 1970 to 1981. Time magazine once called her “the Julia Child of yoga.” A (male) journalist for The San Francisco Chronicle, writing in 1979, was a bit more effusive: “My yoga lady remains a mystery woman, a comely creature from a distant planet. She is demure and quite serious. By far her most intriguing aspect is that she never sweats.” A 2006 reboot, “Lilias! Yoga Gets Better With Age,” was shorter-lived. Her star may have faded, but for many, Lilias still flickers at the edge of childhood memory (and on YouTube), with her long dark braid and boldly colored unitards, leaning into a sun salutation. Jennifer Schuessler

Barney and Friends

18. When a purple dinosaur ruled the earth.

Their kids may have their own kids by now, but parents of a certain era still have “Barney is a dinosaur from our imagination,” the opening line of the “Barney and Friends” theme song, stuck in their heads. The show, whose purple star spread cheer and nonthreatening messages, began life as a D.I.Y. video project created by a woman in Texas. When the young daughter of a public television executive in Connecticut wouldn’t stop watching one of the videos, he smelled a preschool hit and acquired the rights. It was a golden instinct: “Barney” romped from 1992 to 2009 and spawned an avalanche of toys and other spinoffs. Parents, less tolerant of the cloying T. Rex than their offspring, no doubt stocked up on earplugs. Neil Genzlinger

Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?

19. When a geography lesson came with a side of crime.

This sticky-fingered filcher first emerged in a 1985 video game of the same name but was brought to life thanks to the game show that took kids around the world — and, later, through history. With her signature red trench coat and fedora, Carmen Sandiego led viewers on wild goose chases from Nashville to Norway while also working to remedy what the show’s creators saw as an alarming statistic: According to a National Geographic survey in 1991, the year the series debuted, one in four Americans could not locate the Pacific Ocean. The superthief is still pilfering away today, in a Netflix animated series and on Google Earth. Jennifer Harlan

Antiques Roadshow

20. Have you checked your attic lately? Go now.

“Antiques Roadshow,” the gentlest forebear of the reality TV boom, premiered in 1997 and never left. The premise of this BBC format is simple: People lay their bric-a-brac before appraisal specialists and discover whether these objects hold value beyond nostalgia. A mild tone of British restraint that survived the show’s American assimilation imbues each transaction. When a dusty basement bagatelle does render a hefty estimate (like the Diego Rivera painting valued near $1 million in a 2013 episode), the audience gets the thrill of the reveal, but the owners’ responses tend to the understated, typically ranging from speechlessness to “Gosh!” Never lingering on dashed hopes, “Antiques Roadshow” lacks the greedier edge of spawn like “Storage Wars” and “Pawn Stars.” Twenty-four seasons in, seen by up to eight million viewers a week, it has new relevance as the ultimate upcycler of the declutter age, where “stuff” isn’t shameful, but aspirational. Katrina Onstad

Sesame Street

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.

Cosmos: A Personal Voyage

22. Our guide to the galaxy, and so much more.

BILL-yunn. If there’s a word that sums up the science show “Cosmos,” it was that word, as spoken by the astronomer Carl Sagan. His way of pronouncing the word “billion” — and “million” and “trillion” and even “quadrillion,” for that matter — were the equivalent of a science earworm. Johnny Carson spoofed it, impersonating Sagan in a black wig and turtleneck. But the really big numbers underscored the vastness of what Sagan was talking about in this 13-part series from 1980: the universe. Everything. “The cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be,” he told us. “We are made of star-stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” No one could have asked for a better guide. John Schwartz

¿Qué pasa U.S.A?

23. A family comedy like no other.

As the first bilingual sitcom to air in the U.S., this family comedy made history when it premiered in 1977. It ran for just 39 episodes, following three generations of the Peña family as the Cuban immigrants made a life for themselves in Miami’s Little Havana. But the show resonated with viewers who saw themselves in the Spanish-speaking abuela and abuelo, Adela and Antonio; the Lucy-and-Ricky-reminiscent parents, Juana and Pepe; and their Americanized, Spanglish-speaking children, Carmen and Joe. The comedy illuminated the Peñas’ struggles to embrace both their heritage and their new home, whether planning Carmen’s quinceñera or helping Adela and Antonio study for their citizenship tests. And its influence can be seen today in bilingual sitcoms like “Fresh Off the Boat,” “One Day at a Time” and “Bob Hearts Abishola,” which use television to illuminate the breadth of the American immigrant experience. Jennifer Harlan

Dance in America

24. When Twyla Tharp twirled into our living rooms.

With theaters shuttered, we are right back to where “Dance in America” started: bringing dance into living rooms. This Emmy Award-winning series, part of “Great Performances,” made its debut on PBS in 1976 and was remarkable from the start, producing programs that placed spotlights on the work of monumental choreographers like George Balanchine, Merce Cunningham and Twyla Tharp. (And capturing dancers without cutting off their feet!) If you had never really experienced live dance, but felt a strange craving to learn more, “Dance in America” — a training ground for future dancers, choreographers and audience members — hooked you in. Where else could you discover what a group of avant-garde rebels were up to? “Beyond the Mainstream,” a 1980 look at postmodern dance, remains one of its greatest treasures. Gia Kourlas

Great Chefs

25. Before the glamour, there was the nitty-gritty.

Studio kitchens were made to get around all the nuisance of working kitchens — the noise, the heat, the poor lighting, the awkward layouts — and to hold the audience’s attention with a star chef who told stories while they cooked. “Great Chefs” was the antithesis, working around all those annoyances, shooting inside busy restaurants during off hours, with chefs who weren’t there to entertain so much as educate, and who rarely filled the space with jokes or chatter — some didn’t look at the camera at all.

Production values were low on its run on PBS in the 1980s, and on reruns I watched throughout the late ’90s, but the food was absurdly elaborate, with an unflappable narrator floating in and out of the scene, explaining how to stuff truffle slices under chicken skin or french bone a chop. Often, there was no talking at all. On the screen, there were only hands, expertly pressing the edges of pastry, or whisking butter into puréed potatoes. It wasn’t glamorous, but as celebrity chefs in studio kitchens took over food television that was exactly the appeal of “Great Chefs”: a behind-the-scenes look at the work that went into every plate. Tejal Rao

Reading Rainbow

26. Remember books? LeVar Burton reminded us.

In 1983, the soothing, literacy-driven show “Reading Rainbow” began broadcasting on public television. Each episode featured a celebrity reader (including Eartha Kitt and Whoopi Goldberg); a related adventure led by the host, LeVar Burton; and a final review of the book from his young co-stars. The result was a series showered in Emmys, critical acclaim and the eternal love of parents who hated watching shows with squeaky cartoon voices. As host for the 26 years it was on the air, Burton won over generations of teachers, parents and children while he slowly and patiently encouraged young readers to open their books and minds. Julia Carmel

The Shock of the New

27. Making the modernist revolution accessible.

There’s a moment late in this eight-part series from the early ’80s on the development of Western modern art when the critic Robert Hughes picks up a pistol, aims at the bull’s-eye — and the camera cuts to Jasper Johns’s painting “Target.” The upshot: The old expectations and meanings we assigned to images have come radically unstuck. In Paris or Philadelphia, looking at Bacon’s screaming popes or Rothko’s dusky abstractions, Hughes drew us into the modernist revolutions in art and architecture, and mapped them against changes in technology, commerce, colonialism (he calls Picasso’s breakthrough paintings of 1906-07 “essentially white art in blackface”), media and economics. So often TV presenters condescend to modern art, like it’s a shell game; Hughes, with nonchalant authority and an unmistakable accent we could call BBCified Australian, let viewers weigh up modernism for themselves. Jason Farago

Eyes on the Prize

28. An exceptional view of the civil rights movement.

When Henry Hampton began work in 1976 on his landmark 14-hour documentary about the civil rights movement, the definitive histories of the subject had not yet been published. But that isn’t to say that America didn’t already have an image of it. Hampton intended it as a corrective to existing films, mostly by whites, that showed African-Americans as “brutalized primitives,” as he later put it. His version would show that “it was the strength of Blacks that made the civil rights movement happen.” The first part, covering the years 1954 to 1965, aired in 1987, winning wide acclaim. The second part, taking the story to 1985, followed five years later. Hampton, who had marched in Selma, Ala., followed a number of guiding principles, including no talking-head hindsight, sparing use of the period’s music (too overpowering) and lots of American flags, especially when held by Black children in archival footage. As he would say, “It’s our flag too.” Jennifer Schuessler


29. A new, and very modern game is afoot at Baker Street.

Bringing something new to a character like Sherlock Holmes, who has been well known since the 1890s, is no small feat. But in this BBC series (which debuted on PBS in 2010), Benedict Cumberbatch managed to flourish as the famous “consulting detective” by throwing himself fully into the characters charms and flaws without regard for the more staid depictions that preceded his. Thanks to the nimble, and often irreverent, contemporary adaptations of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, he had all the room he needed to make the Baker Street sleuth his own and helped inspire legions of hard-core fans who proudly called themselves Cumberbitches. Peter Libbey

This Old House

30. For Chip Gaines, it turned a trade into a profession.

As far as I’m concerned, Bob [Vila] is America’s contractor. Bob inspired an entire generation of industry professionals — I was one of them — and he single-handedly shifted the narrative of an age-old trade in a way that highlighted a sense of professionalism and intelligence. He made things interesting. In a way, he legitimized the profession for me.

I used to think “professionals” were either lawyers or doctors or something like that, but it’s partly because of Bob that I started thinking, “Why not become a contractor or builder or carpenter? Why not?”

Chip Gaines was the co-star, with his wife, Joanna, of “Fixer Upper” on HGTV. Interview by Ronda Kaysen in 2019.


31. A rare conservative voice inviting spirited debate.

“Firing Line” is sometimes cited as the forerunner of today’s political talk shows. But unlike today’s partisan screamfests, Buckley ran his interruption-free hour like a civilized, if hardly gentle, debate club. Guests included politicians and policymakers, but also an eclectic range of cultural figures like Muhammad Ali, Germaine Greer, Jose Luis Borges, and Allen Ginsberg. Buckley, with his famously ornate vocabulary and eccentric upper-crusty vocal mannerisms, would have been an anomaly anywhere on television. But when the show moved to PBS in 1971 after five years of commercial syndication, he also became the rare conservative in what many on the right saw as enemy territory. “The challenge of conservatives in those years,” he once said, “was not to convert others to our point of view, but to convince them that conservative views weren’t held by savages.” Jennifer Schuessler

Inspector Morse

32. A charmingly irritable detective? We’re all in.

Before premium cable and streaming services demonstrated how even shows with simple premises could be elevated when lavished with talent and strong production values, “Inspector Morse” was helping redefine the television mystery — and PBS’s “Mystery!” It had strong casting, especially John Thaw as a charmingly irritable Oxford detective with a penchant for opera, crosswords and a pint or two. Its lovingly filmed shots of Oxford’s dreaming spires helped set the standard for the picturesque crime scenes of “Foyle’s War,” “Midsomer Murders” and “Shetland.” Now the torch has passed to a period prequel, “Endeavor,” where the young Morse of Shaun Evans slowly grows more Thaw-like (He’s got the Jaguar! He’s renovating the Morse home!) with each season. Now, as the 1960s of its first seasons give way to the ’70s, Morse fans can only hope that “Endeavor” will last into the ’80s, so the team can eventually remake all the originals. Infinite Morse! Michael Cooper


33. No better way to learn the classics.

Ah, the sassy joy of a Jack Russell terrier portraying Don Quixote. And Rip Van Winkle. And Prince Hal, Oliver Twist, Cyrano, Silas Marner, Quasimodo and dozens of others. “Wishbone” aired 50 darling episodes in the mid-90s, each one a combination of a modern-day story line and loosely connected work of classic literature, depicted in full fantasy sequences and starring an adorable little dog. The show’s condensed versions of great works are better than CliffsNotes and way more fun — not only because of Wishbone’s obligatory cheeky dog antics but also because of the show’s voice, sense of humor and thoughtfulness. A “Wishbone” movie is in the works, though without the show’s creative team, and while clips abound on YouTube, the original series isn’t streaming anywhere. Margaret Lyons


34. Middle-schoolers, mysteries and some cool cameos.

The premise of “Ghostwriter” — a ghost communicates with children by magically rearranging letters in diaries and grocery lists, with the help of some very rudimentary animation — belied a subtly sophisticated show that ushered in a new wave of smart-kid television programming when it debuted in 1992. Filmed in a pre-gentrified Fort Greene in Brooklyn, “Ghostwriter” featured multiepisode story arcs, cameos from the likes of Samuel L. Jackson and Spike Lee, and a diverse crew of middle-school amateur sleuths with complex and realistic home lives. Each mystery also offered kids new ways to engage with the written word, as a reader, rapper, poet or — memorably — as the cyberpunk school newspaper editor played by Julia Stiles. Amanda Hess

Judy Woodruff and The NewsHour

35. A measured media presence rising above the frenzy.

Judy Woodruff, the anchor of PBS NewsHour, is always seeking the middle road as she delivers the news without raised-eyebrow or smirk. She doesn’t aim for the pithy, pointed phrase that will go viral on Twitter. She may not attract as big an audience as her broadcast competitors, but her commanding, no-nonsense and fair-minded mien gives her a moral authority that few figures in today’s media can match, matching that of her predecessors, Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer. And it is one she carefully asserts. In March, as the reality of the coronavirus sent Americans into buying sprees of essential items like toilet paper and household cleaners, Woodruff ended her broadcast by urging viewers to refrain from hoarding and to think of the less fortunate. “This is the time for the lucky healthy ones to think of others,” she said. Katherine Rosman

Great Performances

36. Holland Taylor found the ‘magical intimacy’ of almost-live theater.

I lived in New York as a young actor. I was right in the middle of all of that culture. But I hardly had access to it. Far be it from me to be going to the opera and the ballet. I had limited resources. To be able to see these things on “Great Performances” was extraordinary.

When I was told that PBS wanted Ann [Taylor’s one-woman show about the Texas governor Ann Richards] for “Great Performances,” I thought I literally could not be more honored. It felt like the absolute apogee, the absolute pinnacle.

I can’t tell you quite what the effect is to hear that music and see the familiar logo and have it be your play. It was really quite thrilling. The director was very mindful to make it as intimate as possible without ever making the audience feel that it was anything other than a theater production. It still felt like theater. It gave the viewer the sense of being an audience member who has the best seat heaven could provide. It had a magical intimacy.

“Great Performances” is a real treasure. Nothing is like live theater, but that sure as hell comes close.

Holland Taylor is an actor and playwright whose credits include “Legally Blonde,” “The Practice,” and “Two and a Half Men.” Interview by Alexis Soloski.

The Title Sequences for Mystery!

37. The best way to get in the mood for murder.

It begins in a flash of lightning, followed by widows, detectives, tombstones, a mysterious invalid and a body sliding slowly into a lake. Before audiences could enjoy their polite murder of the week on “Mystery!” (later, “Masterpiece Mystery”), they could delight in this louche and spooky animated opening, courtesy of the deliriously macabre illustrator, Edward Gorey. (Gorey produced several versions; into one, he inserted a bearded be-furred self-portrait.) Later, tragically, the program shortened the sequence, but the originals, via YouTube, can still chill the spine and gladden the heart. Alexis Soloski


38. Follow the science, or the scientist.

“Nova,” the long-running science documentary series, came to PBS in 1974, and just months later, The New York Times was calling it one of public television’s “most glamorous shows.” Inspired by the British science series “Horizon,” “Nova” brought its science alive by showing scientists at work — as when they followed archaeologists trying, by experiment, to figure out how ancient builders moved the enormous stones to create Stonehenge. No wonder it’s still going, nearly five decades on. John Schwartz

Vietnam: A Television History

39. Confronting a controversial conflict.

“I died in Vietnam and didn’t even know it.” When PBS’s documentary series aired in 1983, enough time had passed for such vivid self-reflection, yet memories also remained lucid. An American Marine recalled mealtimes amid the smell of a battle in the city of Huế during the Tet Offensive: “It was almost like you were eating death.” There were 13 hour-long episodes and a 750-page book companion by the series’s chief correspondent, Stanley Karnow. The epic sweep of these projects captured public attention: Nearly 10 million tuned in a night, and the book, “Vietnam: A History,” stayed on the New York Times best-seller list for months. Yet in the documentary, American veterans said civilians had not acknowledged their sacrifices. The vet who said he’d unwittingly died in Vietnam, Paul Reutershan, was not exaggerating. Exposed to Agent Orange during the war, he died of cancer before the documentary aired. Alex Traub

The Kratt Brothers

40. Behaving like animals, and that’s a good thing.

“Kratts’ Creatures” premiered in June 1996, a few months before Steve Irwin made his debut on Animal Planet, and while Chris and Martin Kratt did not share the Crocodile Hunter’s accent, their enthusiasm for the world’s fauna was just as infectious. On the preschooler-aimed “Zoboomafoo,” the immersive “Be the Creature” and the animated “Wild Kratts,” the brothers have continued to share their expertise on the animal kingdom — often by doing their own leaping, strutting, bellowing, mud-wallowing impressions of the creatures themselves — with generations of young viewers. “For us,” Martin told The Times in 2000, “learning equals fun. There’s no difference between educational TV shows and entertaining TV shows. That’s a false construct.” Jennifer Harlan

The Magic School Bus

41. Far out field trips with Miss Frizzle.

Biology lab meets “Alice in Wonderland,” “The Magic School Bus” ran for just four seasons but left a lasting imprint on the brains of ’90s kids. It’s remembered for its Little Richard theme song, its trippy animation, and its grotesque plots, in which the bus drove a class of kids through sore throats, pulsing intestines and sewage systems. But mostly it was a star vehicle for the science teacher Miss Frizzle, known as the Frizz (and voiced by Lily Tomlin), whose topical shirt-dresses and shock of curly red hair cut a feminine figure in contrast to the male TV nerds of “Bill Nye the Science Guy” and “Beakman’s World.” The bus is still running, in the form of a Netflix reboot and a forthcoming film starring Elizabeth Banks. Amanda Hess

Live at Lincoln Center

42. When New York’s cultural hub stretched out to America.

Like PBS, Lincoln Center was still young in 1976, when it took a chance on a series that continues to bring world-class opera, orchestra, dance and theater to millions. From the first broadcast — André Previn leading the New York Philharmonic and Van Cliburn — the experience for the home viewer was that of peering at live performances by stars like Pavarotti, Baryshnikov and Perlman from the best seat in the house. This was the real deal, you were meant to feel — not a studio production. Ratings were rarely gangbusters, but the series persisted, including more pops and standards offerings as the years went by, and Lincoln Center was cemented in the American imagination as the country’s premier arts complex. Zachary Woolfe

Race to Save the Planet

43. If only we’d known. Oh wait.

They warned us! America circa 1990 enjoyed a surge in ecological awareness (think acid rain), and this TV event, running over 10 weeks and with few of the adorable animals of most nature specials, stands as a landmark for public seriousness about climate science. Roy Scheider narrated each episode of the impressively global series, introducing us to sailors at the oil-slicked port of Rotterdam and farmers on parched grasslands of Botswana, while our host, Meryl Streep, sitting crossed-legged outside her home in Connecticut, calmly lamented the smog and the deforestation. “In 10 years, the natural world as we know and cherish it will have changed unalterably,” Streep warned, when global carbon emissions totaled 22.5 billion tons. In 2020, global carbon emissions will be more than 50 percent higher. Jason Farago

Charlie Rose

44. Highbrow generalism with a low-key style.

There was already something archaic about “Charlie Rose” before PBS swiftly canceled the talk show in 2017, after eight women accused its host of sexual harassment. The chat around the oak table in the black box theater had a calm and discursiveness that recalled early TV, and that was its appeal: Here, titans of industry and stars of academe could speak freely, and Karl Lagerfeld might cross Madeleine Albright in the green room. Rose had an assurance that viewers could understand all topics if the tone was right, and a knack for getting scientists or artists to expatiate from the most vapid questions. (Were they open-ended by design, or just the ad libs of a Southern gentleman who didn’t do the reading?) With TV talk now mostly receded to the safe spaces of cable news, “Charlie Rose” appears now almost like a lost horizon, a last gasp of highbrow generalism. Jason Farago

Closed Captioning

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

Milton Friedman and Free to Choose

47. An economist makes his case for capitalism.

This 10-part defense of free-market capitalism was released on PBS the year that Ronald Reagan, a strong advocate of economic deregulation, defeated Jimmy Carter to become president of the United States. With the Cold War with the Soviet Union still on, Milton Friedman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, argued his case against centralized planning, welfare, government oversight and trade unions, respectfully discussing his views with both opponents and like-minded thinkers. Whether you agree or disagree with Friedman’s position, the program offered a clear defense of capitalism at a time when the debate was particularly robust. Peter Libbey

Parent-Friendly Cartoons for a New Generation

48. Cyberspace and a talking aardvark, what more do we need?

For those of us growing up without cable (or with parents who believed that commercial TV would rot our tiny brains), PBS’s after school lineup was neutral ground. Educational cartoons like “Cyberchase” entertained young viewers with the adventures of a science and technology-inclined trio, who chased an evil hacker through a digital world to save an omniscient being called Motherboard and unwittingly taught us about logic and mathematics in the process. Airing immediately after “Cyberchase” in the early 2000s was “Arthur,” the beloved problem-solving show that introduced us to anthropomorphic aardvarks, conniving little sisters and the wonders of having a library card. I suppose you won this round, mom and dad. Julia Carmel

Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood

49. Sincere imitation but with whiskers and a tail.

An animated successor of both “Mister Rogers” and “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” Daniel is the furriest protagonist in his red-sweater-wearing lineage. A simple, playful rascal who rarely wears pants, Daniel invites a new generation of kids to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, which is filled with plenty of simple jingles and toddler-size problems. As he explores alongside O the Owl (a tiny blue bird who exclaims “nifty galifty” whenever he learns something new), Katerina Kittycat (a friendly feline who loves ballet), Prince Wednesday (Daniel’s regal best friend) and Miss Elaina (a sort of homage to Mister Rogers’s Lady Elaine Fairchilde who calls everyone “toots”), the show, which began in 2012, reminds youngins that it’s always a beautiful day in the neighborhood. Julia Carmel

Viewers Like You

50. That’s right, we’re looking at you. Open your wallet.

Beyond offering educational programming and handy tote bags, public television makes us feel like we’re a part of something bigger. Since 1989, any program that’s been funded by PBS is tagged with a message about viewers like you. A decade later, “thank you” was tacked on to the end of it. It’s a familiar and comforting slogan that’s seeped into countless tweets, memes and even an episode of “The Simpsons,” where Betty White declared during a pledge drive that “if you watch even one second of PBS and don’t contribute, you’re a thief. A common thief!” After all, these programs wouldn’t be possible without contributions to your PBS stations without viewers like you. Thank you! Julia Carmel

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