History Rhymes: A Timeline

Welcome to the History Rhymes Timeline.

It’s the Viewers Like Us team’s effort to illustrate milestones and trends in the decades-long battle to diversify public television, the system’s resistance to change, and its overreliance on one filmmaker as “America’s Storyteller.” We encourage you to explore the following entries, and to share your proposed additions and comments at hello@viewerslikeus.com or through the Engage page on our website.

*Source: Timeline: The History of Public Broadcasting in the U.S., via Current


May 1962

President Kennedy signs the Educational Television Facilities Act to fund construction of television broadcasting facilities for educational purposes; it’s the first major federal aid to public broadcasting

*November 1966

The children’s program “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” debuts on Pittsburgh’s WQED; its 895-episode run continues until 2001

November 1967

President Johnson signs the Public Broadcasting Act, authorizing federal aid to stations through a new agency, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB)

February 1968

The Kerner Commission, created by President Johnson, issues its report on institutional racism in the U.S., noting how the overwhelmingly white news and entertainment media have failed to adequately address matters of race

September 1968

Soul!”, a weekly, Black-themed variety program, premieres on New York City public station WNET; it continues, with national distribution, until 1973

June 1968

Black Journal,” the first nationally televised public affairs program produced for, about, and (eventually) by African-Americans debuts on National Educational Television

August 1968

Following a strike by Black staff, African-American documentary filmmaker William Greaves replaces the white host of “Black Journal” — many public stations still carry its successor program, American Black Journal

November 1969

The Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) incorporates

November 1969

Sesame Street” debuts with a multicultural cast and a goal to educate preschoolers and spread tolerance, love and mutual respect

October 1971

PBS debuts “The Electric Company,” a fast-paced and funny educational program with a cast including Rita Moreno, Morgan Freeman, Irene Cara and Bill Cosby; its original 780-episode run ends in April 1977

August 1972

WGBH Boston pioneers on-screen captioning technology and uses it for the first time on its popular cooking show with Julia Child, “The French Chef”; in fiscal 2020, captioning and related services add more than $21 million to the station’s revenues

June 1974

A CPB-commissioned panel finds “the interests and needs of minorities have been neglected in public broadcasting”; it recommends that the CPB board reflect the “racial and ethnic pluralism of the American society”

August 1974

Several witnesses testify before a Congressional subcommittee about racism in public broadcasting, calling for stations to provide diversity employment data to Congress and the public “in order to evaluate the public broadcasting performance” 

*February 1976

The Native American Public Broadcasting Consortium (now Vision Maker Media) forms to develop and increase Native programming for public broadcasting

May 1977

“¿Qué Pasa, U.S.A.?” produced by WPBT Miami and billed as the first bilingual situation comedy, debuts on PBS and runs for 39 episodes over four seasons


“Black Journal” transitions to commercial television under the name “Tony Brown’s Journal” after many PBS stations refused to carry it; the series returns to public television in 1982 under the new name, where it airs until 2008

November 1978

CPB releases “A Formula for Change: The Report of the Task Force on Minorities in Public Broadcasting,” critiquing public broadcasting’s lack of racial diversity

*July 1980

The National Asian American Telecommunications Association (now the Center for Asian American Media) forms to increase Asian American programming on public television

*September 1980

Astrophysicist Carl Sagan’s 13-episode series “Cosmos” debuts; it becomes public television’s most popular program until Ken Burns’ “The Civil War” a decade later

May 1982

PBS airs Ken Burns’ documentary “Brooklyn Bridge”; it cost $180,000 to make

*January 1983

WGBH and a consortium of public TV stations launch the investigative documentary program “Frontline

June 1983

Reading Rainbow,” a childrens’ storytime program hosted by LeVar Burton, begins its 22-year run on PBS

October 1983

PBS’ “American Experience” premieres the 13-part documentary “Vietnam: A Television History


“The State of Black America,” a co-production of the National Black Programming Consortium and the National Urban League, airs on PBS


Hugh B. Price is named director of national programming for WNET/New York, producer of “Nature,” “Great Performances” and “ American Masters”; a decade later, he becomes president of the National Urban League 

December 1984

Solomon Northup’s Odyssey,” a film by Gordon Parks based on the memoir “12 Years A Slave,” premieres on PBS’ “American Playhouse”

August 1985

PBS airs Ken Burns’ documentary “The Shakers”

October 1985

PBS airs Ken Burns’ documentary “The Statue of Liberty”

May 1986

Frontline” runs “The Bloods of ‘Nam,” about Black soldiers who suffered some of the highest casualty rates during the U.S. conflict in Southeast Asia

*July 1986

WGBH introduces a Descriptive Video Service, a subsidiary that provides audio description for audiences who are blind or sight-impaired

October 1986

Documentary series “The Africans: A Triple Heritage,” a BBC and WETA co-production hosted by scholar Ali Mazrui, debuts on PBS

October 1986

PBS airs Ken Burns’ documentary “Huey Long”

November 1986

CPB defunds the National Black Programming Consortium amid federal budget cuts; restores funding four years later

*January 1987

PBS premieres Blackside Productions’ “Eyes on the Prize”, a landmark six-part documentary series about the U.S. civil rights movement in the 1950s and ’60s

October 1987

The Oklahoma Educational Television Authority airs public TV’s first music special, based on the Lawrence Welk Show, a big-band program that ran from 1955 to 1982 on commercial network and syndicated television; in 2021, weekly episodes are on the schedules of 279 PBS affiliates throughout the United States

February 1988

 “Eyes on the Prize” is nominated for a Best Documentary Feature Oscar

October 1988

Congress passes the Public Telecommunications Act of 1988, affirming that it is in the public interest for CPB “to develop programming that addresses the needs of unserved and underserved audiences, especially children and minorities.”

*November 1988
March 1989

PBS airs Ken Burns’ documentary film “The Congress”

*September 1989

ITVS — The Independent Television Service — a program service to aid independent producers, is incorporated

November 1989

PBS airs Ken Burns’ documentary film “Thomas Hart Benton”

September 1990

Ken Burns’ nine-episode documentary “The Civil War” airs; it breaks PBS audience records

*October 1991
November 1991

The National Black Programming Consortium (now Black Public Media) forms to produce, fund, and distribute media content about the African American and global Black experience

*July 1991

PBS airs “Tongues Untied,” a critically-acclaimed documentary about Black gay identity directed by Marlon T. Riggs. Many PBS stations refuse to run it; some cultural gatekeepers vilify the film and use it to rebuke federal arts funding


The National Minority Consortium (NMC) is created to develop and support diverse programming for public television

January 1992

PBS airs Ken Burns’ “Empire of the Air: The Men Who Made Radio” and rebroadcasts “Brooklyn Bridge”

February 1992

Eyes on the Prize” Season Two debuts on PBS; the eight-episode documentary series continues the civil rights story into the 1980s

*August 1992

President George H.W. Bush signs CPB reauthorization that includes a requirement for monitoring “objectivity and balance” in programming

September 1994

PBS airs Ken Burns’ four-episode documentary series “Baseball”

March 1996

Loni Ding’s three-part “Ancestors in the Americas,” the first in-depth documentary about Asian Americans, premieres at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival and later on PBS

April 1996

The four-part documentary series “Chicano! debuts on PBS; episodes address key moments in Mexican American political and cultural movements between 1965-1975, including the 1970 Chicano Moratorium March against the Vietnam War, the efforts of Hispanic New Mexicans to claim land granted to them in the Treaty of Hidalgo and the formation of the United Farm Workers. (Entry added with thanks to Mylène Moreno.) 

September 1996

PBS airs Ken Burns’ nine-episode series “The West”

February 1997

PBS airs Ken Burns two-episode documentary “Thomas Jefferson”

November 1997

PBS airs Ken Burns’ two-part documentary “Lewis & Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery”

January 1998

PBS airs Ken Burns’ two-episode documentary “Frank Lloyd Wright”

October 1998

“Africans in America: America’s Journey Through Slavery,” a four-part documentary, runs on PBS

October 1999

Veteran journalist Gwen Ifill becomes moderator of “Washington Week,” the first African American woman to host a national public affairs TV program; in 2013 she forms the first all-female national nightly anchor team with Judy Woodruff at the “PBS NewsHour”

November 1999

PBS airs Ken Burns’ two-episode documentary “Not for Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony”

September 2002

PBS launches “Ken Burns’ American Stories,” a weekly series featuring Ken Burns’ filmography to date, remastered and underwritten by General Motors

*February 2004

In its first Roper Poll, PBS finds that Americans rank the organization among the most trustworthy institutions

January 2005

PBS runs Ken Burns’ two-part documentary “Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson”

February 2005

Slavery and the Making of America,” a four-episode series produced by WNET, debuts on PBS


National Association of Latino Independent Producers (NALIP) asks PBS for diversity data regarding staffing and content themes from signature prime-time series

*June 2005

CPB elects Pat Harrison, former co-chair of the Republican National Committee, as its president

*January 2006

PBS hires Paula Kerger, an executive at New York public television station WNET, as president and CEO

February 2006

PBS airs “African American LIves,” a four-part series hosted by Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr.

November 2006

At an advance screening of Burns’ 14-hour documentary “The War,” a producer acknowledges that Latinos were one of several minority groups not represented in the film

February 2007

Leaders of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists send a letter to PBS CEO Paula Kerger criticizing the absence of Latinos in “The War”

February 2007

PBS and WETA announce an unprecedented initiative in which CPB pays stations in all 50 states to produce local programming and do educational outreach around Burns’ film “The War”  


*March 2007

Vme, a Spanish-language multicast channel, launches on public TV stations in 16 markets; PBS and the channel part ways a decade later

March 2007

Kerger defends Burns, saying “we do not agree that going back into production to revise a completed series that represents one filmmaker’s vision is the appropriate solution”

March 2007

The chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus asks Kerger to withdraw “The War” “until the omission [of Latinos] is corrected”

April 2007

PBS and Burns agree to add one half-hour of footage on Hispanic and American Indian veterans to “The War,” before the final credits

May 2007

The Hispanic Association on Corporate Responsibility asks representatives of General Motors and Anheuser-Busch to disavow their sponsorship and remove their corporate logos from “The War”

July 2007

Kerger says making changes to “The War” was “the right choice” that represents the kind of responsiveness PBS owes to the public

August 2007

Latino organizations call on Burns, his production company Florentine Pictures, Kerger, and CEO and president Sharon Percy Rockefeller of WETA-TV in Washington, D.C., to explain how they will ensure such a gross exclusion of the Latino community does not occur again

September 2007

“The War” begins airing on PBS during Hispanic Heritage Month

November 2008

PBS completes a yearlong study, prompted by turmoil over “The War,” but refuses to release it publicly

March 2009

NALIP calls out PBS for the lack of verifiable diversity data in the PBS Diversity Initiative on Content report — data it has sought from PBS since 2005

March 2009

General Motors withdraws as a major sponsor of Burns’ films, ending its 22-year relationship as primary underwriter

September 2009

PBS airs Burns’ six-episode series “National Parks: America’s Best Idea”

April 2009

WGBH-produced series American Experience airs “We Shall Remain,” a five-episode documentary on Native Americans

May 2010

The National Federation of Community Broadcasters asks the Federal Communications Commission to collect race and gender data about public broadcasting governing boards to facilitate policies that promote diversity

September 2010

PBS airs Burns’ two-part documentary “The Tenth Inning,” an update to his 1994 series “Baseball”

December 2010

The Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy calls on public media to make increasing diversity a priority

October 2011

PBS airs Burns’ three-part documentary series “Prohibition”

*February 2012

The British drama series “Downton Abbey” becomes the highest rated PBS prime-time program since the September 2009 airing of Ken Burns’ documentary, “National Parks”

March 2012

PBS premieres “Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.,” a multi-season series about the genealogy and genetics of famous Americans

November 2012

PBS airs Burns’ two-part documentary “The Dust Bowl”

April 2013

PBS runs the documentary “The Central Park Five”; Ken Burns, his daughter Sarah Burns and her husband David McMahon are credited as its writers and producers

June 2013

CPB reduces funding for the National Minority Media Consortium, citing shifting priorities and reductions to its congressional appropriation

October 2013

PBS runs the six-hour documentary “Latino Americans” with a website in Spanish and English

April 2014

PBS airs Burns’ documentary “The Address,” about a Vermont school that encourages students to rehearse, memorize, and recite the Gettysburg Address

September 2014

PBS premieres Burns’ seven-episode documentary series “The Roosevelts”

December 2014

Tensions over diversity in programming erupt when WNET announces it is going to move programs that often feature National Minority Consortium-funded films from its main channel and replace them with reruns of PBS arts programming


A CPB-funded report highlights the need for more diversity in public television

*August 2015

Sesame Workshop, producer of the popular children’s program Sesame Street, strikes a deal to produce and premiere new episodes on HBO nine months before they run on PBS

July 2016

The public media trade publication Current produces a multimedia package on the state of diversity in public media showing that its track record had barely budged in the previous decade 

February 2016

PBS premieres “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution” directed by Stanley Nelson

April 2016

PBS airs Burns’ two-episode documentary “Jackie Robinson”

September 2016

PBS carries Burns’ documentary “Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War”

August 2017

CPB promotes its support of Ken Burns’ upcoming documentary on the Vietnam War, including grants to 74 public media stations to partner with local libraries, theaters, veterans’ service organizations, schools and others to explore the war’s repercussions

September 2017

PBS premieres Burns’ 10-episode documentary series “The Vietnam War”

September 2018

PBS runs Burns’ documentary “The Mayo Clinic”

July 2019

CPB announces it will grant $366,200 to 37 public radio and television stations to engage communities in the upcoming Ken Burns documentary series “Country Music”

September 2019

PBS airs Burns’ eight-episode documentary series “Country Music”

May 2020

PBS premieresAsian Americans,” a five-episode documentary series about 150 years of Asian Americans’ influence and contributions to American history

June 2020

The executive director of the public media trade publication Current, Julie Drizin, calls for diversity data to be made public in a searchable database

October 2020

Filmmaker Grace Lee writes an essay calling out PBS for its over-reliance on Ken Burns as “America’s Storyteller” at the expense of opportunities for filmmakers of color

February 2021

CPB announces that it will increase annual grants to five public media organizations that fund and distribute TV content created by nonwhite filmmakers by $500,000 — the first such funding increase in more than 10 years

February 2021

Kerger “respectfully disagrees” with Lee’s argument that PBS has cultivated its relationship with Burns at the expense of diversity

February 2021

PBS airs “The Black Church,” a four-hour documentary hosted by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

March 2021

The Beyond Inclusion collective calls on Kerger and PBS to release 10 years of data around staff diversity, hours of non-fiction programming directed or produced by BIPOC filmmakers, and how much funding has gone to them versus white filmmakers 

April 2021

Public Media for All, a BIPOC-led coalition of public media workers, highlights persistent gaps in public media diversity and calls on CPB to be more transparent about its efforts to expand diversity

April 2021

Ken Burns says PBS can “do better” on racial diversity

April 2021

On live television, WGBH Boston program host Emily Rooney criticizes Lee and Beyond Inclusion for asserting that PBS allows Burns more primetime broadcast hours, promotion and other support than it does for filmmakers of color

April 2021

PBS runs Burns’ three-part, six-hour documentary series “Hemingway”

July 2021

Streaming service HBO Max announces it’s acquired rights to the first six episodes of  documentary series “Eyes on the Prize,” and its commitment to create additional content that advances the civil rights story to the present

August 2021

PBS hires a senior vice president (SVP) for diversity, equity and inclusion, earmarks more money for diversity initiatives, and announces new diversity criteria for producers

August 2021

Boston-based GBH, the biggest producer of public television programs in the U.S., releases diversity statistics showing its workforce is 80% white and its executive team is 89% white

September 2021

PBS debuts Burns’ four-episode documentary series “Ali”

September 2021

Viewers Like Us, an independent podcast series hosted by Grace Lee and Akintunde Ahmad, premieres; it investigates systemic inequities at PBS, and documents the growing disconnect between PBS’s founding mission and the increasingly diverse public it was created to serve

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