Exactly 50 years ago today, President Johnson signed the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 into law. It established the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which led to the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), and National Public Radio.
It’s hard for a lot of people to imagine a time when there were just three major TV networks and a few independent stations. Early attempts to set aside time for educational or cultural programming quickly faded as the commercial stations learned that they could make more money with lowbrow entertainment.
Johnson said at the signing, “It 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. While we work every day to produce new goods and to create new wealth, we want most of all to enrich man’s spirit.”
The act came near the end of Johnson’s Great Society push to reduce poverty and injustice. It was also a natural extension of the idea that the public owns the airwaves, so all stations’ first duty should be public service. Those were the days!
If you think of the millions of lives that were improved by watching PBS’s educational programs as children (or adults), you’ll have to agree that this modest investment has paid off. Our society hasn’t achieved greatness yet, but it’s better than it could have been.