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The ABC’s of PBS: PBS Decoded

Donald Thoms, pbs' vp, program management, is on a mission to do a little 'labyrinth clearing.' The open, democratic structure of pbs leads to misunderstandings sometimes. 'The system looks confusing because there are so many places to go,' explains Thoms, 'which...
February 1, 1998

Donald Thoms, pbs’ vp, program management, is on a mission to do a little ‘labyrinth clearing.’ The open, democratic structure of pbs leads to misunderstandings sometimes. ‘The system looks confusing because there are so many places to go,’ explains Thoms, ‘which can be good or bad depending on how you see it.’ He recalls meeting a producer who was annoyed that his program had been rejected by pbs, when, in fact, only wnet New York had passed.

pbs is not a network per se, but a confederation of 349 member stations spread throughout the u.s. Funding comes primarily (55%) from these stations, with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, various foundations and educational institutions paying the balance.

Public broadcasting’s origins go back to the 1967 Carnegie Commission on Educational Television, which led to the cpb’s creation. pbs was established two years later by cpb, the member stations and the Ford Foundation, with a mandate to give a voice to under-represented communities in America.

The most important thing to understand about pbs is that it does not produce programming. pbs is a funding and distribution service for its member stations. Member stations are also the largest source of pbs programming, producing about 70% of what goes to air, with wgbh in Boston and wnet in New York accounting for the lion’s share. The stations fill most of their schedules from National Programming Service, a pbs satellite feed. For a subscription fee, stations can also pick from PBS Select and PBS Plus, alternative feeds offering different selections, much of which is not produced by member stations but for which pbs has distribution rights.

Stations are not required to take pbs programming, and can fill schedules with whatever appeals to their viewers. ‘To be quite honest,’ says Thoms, ‘anyone can offer a program directly to the stations. If a station thinks the program will fit their market, or is specific to their audience, they can take it and find a good place for it.’

Another area prone to misconception is the common carriage system. Common carriage is essentially a primetime feed – Frontline and Nova are designated as such – which pbs encourages stations to run. Last year, 350 hours of programming were offered, which 90% of the stations used.

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.

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