Opinion | In 50 years of PBS programming, content for Americans of all classes and political views

Polling shows the resilience of the reputation PBS has built over the past five decades. Some 68 percent of respondents told YouGov between August 2019 and August 2020 that they have a positive opinion of PBS, making the service more popular than awards-dominating HBO and putting it on the heels of streaming giant Netflix. A Pew Research Center study on polarization and the American media published in January found that PBS is one of just three outlets — from among 30 choices — trusted by Americans of both parties more than they distrust it.

Paula Kerger, the president and chief executive of PBS, says that trust starts close to home. Even if viewers are skeptical of the media writ large, she argues, they trust journalists who are a part of their own community.

Small rural stations are helped by shared branding and programming, while the service’s urban behemoths benefit from the member stations’ insights and roots.

PBS also does more than take kids to the Land of Make Believe and their parents to English country houses. “American Portrait,” for instance, uses audience submissions to power on-air programming and events. This structure relies on two core assumptions: that the lives of ordinary Americans are newsworthy; and that people are interesting to each other, and not simply as objects of partisan contempt or scorn.

Some of PBS’s most popular programming also speaks to fundamental questions that can get steamrolled on more frenetic news networks, or marginalized by channels eager to make “prestige TV” and profits.

In a time of “patriotic education” programs and falling monuments, PBS attempts to navigate a more personal approach to what Kerger calls “a hunger for us to understand where we came from.” The long-running hit “Antiques Roadshow” is about more than the excitement of potentially striking gold in one’s attic. Part of the appeal is discovering a material connection to the past — individual and collective.

PBS is making space for ambiguity and discomfort with social issues, as well as for nostalgia. Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s “Finding Your Roots” does this with his famous guests’ family trees. The show engages uncomfortable parts of the American story. White guests may grapple with finding out that they’re descended from enslavers. Black guests may learn of an ancestor’s accomplishments, previously obscured by a whitewashed historical record.

Kerger points to the way director Ken Burns and co-director Lynn Novick brought together veterans, protesters and Vietnamese immigrants around their series “The Vietnam War” as events that enabled people to have “conversations that you could never have” under ordinary circumstances.

Other examples abound: “Nature” and “NOVA” speak to audiences’ desire to understand humanity’s place in the natural order and how that order functions. You can guess Americans’ ages by whether their first fictional home away from home was “Sesame Street,” “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” or “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.” The British import “Downton Abbey” was the rare prime-time destination that was genuinely appropriate for and interesting to multigenerational families.

One could dismiss these programs and their objectives as inadequate to resolving larger social disputes, or as too vague to be meaningful. But PBS’s first 50 years have been a rebuke to that sort of cynicism. The service’s endurance is itself an argument that there continues to be an audience for the reaffirmation of good values that Fred Rogers practiced for 33 years; for an approach that prioritizes shedding “light rather than heat” on the news; for looking back to move forward when both past and present seem painful and uncertain.

In short: for actually talking and listening to each other.

Kerger saw PBS’s uniting power up close on a visit to Morning Fill Up, a regular gathering in Rapid City, S.D. She expected the 7 a.m. conclave, at a former car-repair shop, to be a bust. Instead, 200 people turned out.

“People want to be engaged. They want to be part of something that is important,” Kerger says. When she considers projects, she thinks not only of whether it could be “great television” but also whether it would resonate with the crowd in Rapid City “to really create the kind of conversation that some people are hungering to have.”

PBS has made it to 50 by giving Americans a lot to talk about and teaching them how to do it. Celebrating the milestone should start with listening to those lessons — and to each other.

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