PBS Showed TV the Future. But What Does Its Own Look Like?

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When PBS arrived a half century ago, television was essentially a three-network game, and PBS thrived by championing programming and audiences ignored by NBC, CBS and ABC. But that distinctiveness has faded in today’s world of hundreds of cable channels and seemingly unlimited streaming services, many built after rivals saw the commercial value in PBS’s embrace of food lovers, costume drama obsessives, home improvement tinkerers and other niches. PBS may still execute many of its programs better than its rivals, and its content remains free and over-the-air, crucial for reaching those with lesser means and those without broadband. But in a country where the vast majority gets their TV through a paid service, that distinction rarely registers. This cornucopia of programming viewers can enjoy across the television landscape only intensifies the political pressures facing PBS. Why should the federal government subsidize public broadcasting, conservative politicians and others ask, when the commercial marketplace appears to be doing just fine delivering those types of programs?

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