Why We Turned to PBS: 50 Reasons Over 50 Years


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

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

“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

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


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