Founded by Hartford N. Gunn Jr., PBS began operations on October 5, 1970, taking over many of the functions of its predecessor, National Educational Television (NET), which later merged with Newark, New Jersey station WNDT to form WNET. In 1973, it merged with Educational Television Stations.
Unlike the five major commercial broadcast television networks in the United States, ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and The CW – which compensate their affiliate stations to carry their programs – PBS is not a network but a program distributor that provides television content and related services to its member stations. Each station is charged with the responsibility of programming local content (often news, interview, cultural and public affairs programs) for their individual market or state that supplements content provided by PBS and other public television distributors.
In a television network structure, affiliates give up portions of their local advertising airtime in exchange for carrying network programming, and the network pays its affiliates a share of the revenue it earns from advertising (although this structure has been reversed in recent years, with the network compensated by the stations). By contrast, PBS member stations pay fees for the shows acquired and distributed by the national organization. Under this relationship, PBS member stations have greater latitude in local scheduling than their commercial broadcasting counterparts. Scheduling of PBS-distributed series may vary greatly depending on the market. This can be a source of tension as stations seek to preserve their localism, and PBS strives to market a consistent national lineup. However, PBS has a policy of "common carriage," which requires most stations to clear the national prime time programs on a common programming schedule to market them nationally more effectively. Management at former Los Angeles member KCET cited unresolvable financial and programming disputes among its major reasons for leaving PBS after over 40 years in January 2011.
Although PBS has a set schedule of programming (particularly in regard to its prime time schedule, while many members carry a feed of night-time programming from the PBS Satellite Service), member stations reserve the right to schedule PBS-distributed programming in other time slots or not clear it at all if they choose to do so; few of the service's members carry all its programming. Most PBS stations timeshift some distributed programs. Once PBS accepts a program offered for distribution, PBS, rather than the originating member station, retains exclusive rebroadcasting rights during an agreed period. Suppliers retain the right to sell the program in non-broadcast media such as DVDs, books, and sometimes PBS licensed merchandise (but sometimes grant such ancillary rights as well to PBS).
In 1991, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting resumed production for most PBS shows that debuted prior to 1977, with the exceptions of Washington Week in Review and Wall Street Week (CPB resumed production of Washington Week in 1997).
In 1994, The Chronicle of Philanthropy released the results of the largest study on the popularity and credibility of charitable and non-profit organizations. PBS ranked as the 11th "most popular charity/non-profit in America" from over 100 charities researched in the study conducted by the industry publication, with 38.2% of Americans over the age of 12 choosing "love" and "like a lot" for PBS.
In December 2009, PBS signed up for the Nielsen ratings audience measurement reports, and began to be included in its primetime and daily "Television Index" reports, alongside the major commercial broadcast networks. In May 2011, PBS announced that it would incorporate breaks containing underwriter spots for corporate and foundation sponsors, program promotions and identification spots within four breaks placed within episodes of Nature and NOVA, airing episodes broken up into segments of up to 15 minutes, rather than airing them as straight 50- to 55-minute episodes. The strategy began that fall, with the intent to expand the in-program breaks to the remainder of the schedule if successful.
In 2011, PBS released apps for iOS and Android to allow viewing of full-length videos on mobile devices. An update in 2015 added Chromecast support.
On February 28, 2012, PBS partnered with AOL to launch MAKERS, a digital documentary series focusing on high-achieving women in male-dominated industries such as war, comedy, space, business, Hollywood and politics.
PBS initially struggled to compete with online media such as YouTube for market share. In a 2012 speech to 850 top executives from PBS stations, Senior Vice President of Digital Jason Seiken warned that PBS was in danger of being disrupted by YouTube studios such as Maker Studios. In the speech, later described as a “seminal moment” for public television, he laid out his vision for a new style of PBS digital video production. Station leadership rallied around his vision and Seiken formed PBS Digital Studios, which began producing educational but edgy videos, something Seiken called “PBS-quality with a YouTube sensibility.” The studio’s first hit, an auto-tuned version of the theme from one of their most famous television programs, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, was one of YouTube’s 10 most viral videos of 2012. By 2013, monthly video views on PBS.org had risen from 2 million to a quarter-billion, PBS.org traffic had surpassed that of the CBS, NBC, and ABC web sites, PBSKids.org had become the dominant U.S. children’s site for video, and PBS had won more 2013 Webby Awards than any other media company in the world.
On May 8, 2013, full-length episodes of PBS' prime time, news and children's programs were made available through the Roku streaming player; programming is available on Roku as separate streaming channels for PBS and PBS Kids content.