Why We Turned to PBS: WGBH Programs and Captioning

Reading Time: 9 minutes

Excerpts from The New York Times

We asked our writers to reflect on PBS’s lasting imprint on our culture, while Rachael Ray, Gary Clark Jr., Damon Lindelof, Kal Penn and others share first-person reminiscences about the television that changed their lives.

Julia Child and the French Chef

For Rachael Ray, a reason to ‘just keep going.’

When I was a kid my mom and I would watch PBS together, and Julia Child was just the most fascinating figure to me because she took herself — not seriously! At all. I just remember how funny and real she was — hitting the garlic and it would kick across the room and she’d just keep going, and she’d throw in fistfuls of salt, and she’d drink.

My mom worked in restaurants for 60 years and I always wanted to be just like my mom, so I was constantly on her hip in the kitchen and trying to mimic her. Food is what brought us together, so if she liked something, I liked something.

When I first started, I would think of [Julia] often. If the pasta would hit the wall, or if something didn’t look just right, I would think to myself, “Well, Julia would just keep going.” I just love that about her, that sense of “I’ve put my heart and my soul into this and it’s going to be whatever it’s going to be and we’re going to do this together, and you’re going to see all of it, no matter what.” It wasn’t about being perfect or the best; it was about living life to its fullest.

She took something that was considered complicated, or precious, or for a very elite few, and made it digestible for people and fun. She’s just so groundbreaking. Would Emeril have had a band and been Emeril and said “BAM” and thrown a party every night? There’s a Galloping Gourmet running all over the room and joking and telling you every little bit of his personal life. I think that she’s the one that did that for everyone.

Rachael Ray is the host of the syndicated “Rachael Ray Show” and “30 Minute Meals” on the Food Network. Interview by Julia Carmel.

Downton Abbey

Those rich Brits. We can’t seem to get enough.

Rich white people problems were never richer, whiter or more abundant than in the titular Yorkshire mansion of “Downton Abbey,” the sumptuous costume drama that premiered in 2011 to become the most watched series in the history of PBS’s “Masterpiece.”

The entanglements of the aristocratic Crawley family and their below stairs staff flicked at earnest social commentary about the shifting mores of the early 20th century, but the plotlines were shamelessly popcorn: Mr. Bates and Anna’s many arrests; Lady Mary and Matthew’s doomed romance; Mrs. Patmore’s angst over the arrival of the electric mixer.

Even in the aftermath of a global economic crisis — or perhaps because of it — audiences were keen for the diversion of an extravagant British period piece, especially one that offered a Kumbaya message (chamber music version) that people are not so different no matter their proximity to the stairs. Katrina Onstad

Upstairs Downstairs

Did we mention we can’t get enough?

Decades before “Downton Abbey,” other feet climbed the servants’ stairs of an elegant manse.

In 1974, PBS debuted this British drama, set above and below stairs in the London home of the aristocratic Bellamy family. If less visually opulent than “Downton,” this show had greater scope and ambition, shifting time periods each season, eventually covering the years from 1903 to 1930. And the characters are, if anything, richer.

When the final episode aired in the United States in 1977, Alistair Cooke, the host of “Masterpiece Theater,” said there should be a national day of mourning. In 2011, PBS and the BBC attempted to revive it, with a new upper crust family moving into 165 Bellamy Place, but the reboot only lasted two congenial if not especially inspired seasons. Alexis Soloski

The Civil War

History plus Ken Burns equals monumental.

Ken Burns’s 11-hour documentary series “The Civil War,” which aired on five consecutive nights in 1990, transformed American history into unexpected must-see TV.

Not only did it smash PBS audience records, with close to 40 million people tuning in. It also turned the boyish, bowl-cut wearing filmmaker into perhaps the most influential historian in America.

The signature aesthetic — mournful music, somber voice-over, slow pans across archival photographs — inspired plenty of parodies, including “Ken Burns’s Ken Burns” (in which the filmmaker played a trash-talking version of himself).

The series has drawn plenty of criticism for offering a romanticized narrative of the war as a tragic misunderstanding between brothers. But it still stands as a monument to a cultural moment when a sizable chunk of the American population was willing to sit down in shared contemplation of our history, rather than just fighting about it. Jennifer Schuessler

Miss Marple

A smart British lady led Damon Lindelof on a hunt for clues.

My folks split up in 1984. This meant every other weekend was spent at my dad’s apartment and approximately 20 hours of television before he delivered me back to my mom’s, glassy-eyed and buzzing with narrative.

The old man loved sci-fi and horror, but the thing he loved most was a good whodunit, and that is how an 11-year old boy became infatuated with Miss Marple. Miss Marple was smart. Miss Marple was British. She was also funny (“they call it ‘dry’ over there” my dad would say), tenacious and did not suffer fools.

But most of all, in an era where almost every hero curated for an adolescent boy vibrated with unapologetic masculinity, Miss Marple was a lady. Unmarried, unattached and uninterested in anything other than tripping liars up in mistruths and a nice cup of tea, Miss Marple had no job that I recall, just a way of showing up wherever a well-dressed corpse did.

As PBS presented these adventures sans commercial interruption (aside from the occasional pledge drive, and yes, we had a tote bag for every poisoned cadaver), my father and I had no breaks to gather clues so we had to shout at the television in real time — “There’s blood on the gardening shears!” “There’s the missing cuff link!”

Yet we were almost never ahead of Miss Marple, who was almost certainly ahead of her time.

Damon Lindelof is a writer and producer whose credits include “Lost,” “The Leftovers” and “Watchmen.”


Investigative journalism at its finest.

The longest-running news documentary series on television at more than 700 episodes and counting, “Frontline” raised the standard for tough, long-form investigative journalism when it was created, by the filmmaker and producer David Fanning, at WGBH in Boston in 1983.

The program was a throwback even then, owing more to the ambitious, Cold War-era documentaries of “CBS Reports” than to the ascendant, faster-paced style of news coverage that had been inaugurated three years earlier by the arrival of CNN.

Today, when mistrust of news is the norm, fueled by powerful forces in government and on cable, the show’s unflashy commitment to in-depth reporting, standards of proof and, above all, public service has never been less fashionable — or more essential. Reggie Ugwu

Antiques Roadshow

Have you checked your attic lately? Go now.

“Antiques Roadshow,” the gentlest forebear of the reality TV boom, premiered in 1997 and never left. The premise of this BBC format is simple: People lay their bric-a-brac before appraisal specialists and discover whether these objects hold value beyond nostalgia.

A mild tone of British restraint that survived the show’s American assimilation imbues each transaction. When a dusty basement bagatelle does render a hefty estimate (like the Diego Rivera painting valued near $1 million in a 2013 episode), the audience gets the thrill of the reveal, but the owners’ responses tend to the understated, typically ranging from speechlessness to “Gosh!”

Never lingering on dashed hopes, “Antiques Roadshow” lacks the greedier edge of spawn like “Storage Wars” and “Pawn Stars.”

Twenty-four seasons in, seen by up to eight million viewers a week, it has new relevance as the ultimate upcycler of the declutter age, where “stuff” isn’t shameful, but aspirational. Katrina Onstad


A new, and very modern game is afoot at Baker Street.

Bringing something new to a character like Sherlock Holmes, who has been well known since the 1890s, is no small feat. But in this BBC series (which debuted on PBS in 2010), Benedict Cumberbatch managed to flourish as the famous “consulting detective” by throwing himself fully into the character’s charms and flaws without regard for the more staid depictions that preceded his.

Thanks to the nimble, and often irreverent, contemporary adaptations of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, he had all the room he needed to make the Baker Street sleuth his own and helped inspire legions of hard-core fans who proudly called themselves Cumberbitches. Peter Libbey

This Old House

For Chip Gaines, it turned a trade into a profession.

As far as I’m concerned, Bob [Vila] is America’s contractor. Bob inspired an entire generation of industry professionals — I was one of them — and he single-handedly shifted the narrative of an age-old trade in a way that highlighted a sense of professionalism and intelligence. He made things interesting. In a way, he legitimized the profession for me.

I used to think “professionals” were either lawyers or doctors or something like that, but it’s partly because of Bob that I started thinking, “Why not become a contractor or builder or carpenter? Why not?”

Chip Gaines was the co-star, with his wife, Joanna, of “Fixer Upper” on HGTV. Interview by Ronda Kaysen in 2019.

Inspector Morse

A charmingly irritable detective? We’re all in.

Before premium cable and streaming services demonstrated how even shows with simple premises could be elevated when lavished with talent and strong production values, “Inspector Morse” was helping redefine the television mystery — and PBS’s “Mystery!”

It had strong casting, especially John Thaw as a charmingly irritable Oxford detective with a penchant for opera, crosswords and a pint or two. Its lovingly filmed shots of Oxford’s dreaming spires helped set the standard for the picturesque crime scenes of “Foyle’s War,” “Midsomer Murders” and “Shetland.”

Now the torch has passed to a period prequel, “Endeavor,” where the young Morse of Shaun Evans slowly grows more Thaw-like (He’s got the Jaguar! He’s renovating the Morse home!) with each season.

Now, as the 1960s of its first seasons give way to the ’70s, Morse fans can only hope that “Endeavor” will last into the ’80s, so the team can eventually remake all the originals. Infinite Morse! Michael Cooper

The Title Sequences for Mystery!

The best way to get in the mood for murder.

It begins in a flash of lightning, followed by widows, detectives, tombstones, a mysterious invalid and a body sliding slowly into a lake.

Before audiences could enjoy their polite murder of the week on “Mystery!” (later, “Masterpiece Mystery”), they could delight in this louche and spooky animated opening, courtesy of the deliriously macabre illustrator, Edward Gorey. (Gorey produced several versions; into one, he inserted a bearded be-furred self-portrait.)

Later, tragically, the program shortened the sequence, but the originals, via YouTube, can still chill the spine and gladden the heart. Alexis Soloski


Follow the science, or the scientist.

“Nova,” the long-running science documentary series, came to PBS in 1974, and just months later, The New York Times was calling it one of public television’s “most glamorous shows.”

Inspired by the British science series “Horizon,” “Nova” brought its science alive by showing scientists at work — as when they followed archaeologists trying, by experiment, to figure out how ancient builders moved the enormous stones to create Stonehenge.

No wonder it’s still going, nearly five decades on. John Schwartz

Vietnam: A Television History

Confronting a controversial conflict.

“I died in Vietnam and didn’t even know it.”

When PBS’s documentary series aired in 1983, enough time had passed for such vivid self-reflection, yet memories also remained lucid. An American Marine recalled mealtimes amid the smell of a battle in the city of Huế during the Tet Offensive: “It was almost like you were eating death.”

There were 13 hour-long episodes and a 750-page book companion by the series’s chief correspondent, Stanley Karnow.

The epic sweep of these projects captured public attention: Nearly 10 million tuned in a night, and the book, “Vietnam: A History,” stayed on the New York Times best-seller list for months.

Yet in the documentary, American veterans said civilians had not acknowledged their sacrifices. The vet who said he’d unwittingly died in Vietnam, Paul Reutershan, was not exaggerating. Exposed to Agent Orange during the war, he died of cancer before the documentary aired. Alex Traub

Race to Save the Planet

If only we’d known. Oh wait.

They warned us! America circa 1990 enjoyed a surge in ecological awareness (think acid rain), and this TV event, running over 10 weeks and with few of the adorable animals of most nature specials, stands as a landmark for public seriousness about climate science. Roy Scheider narrated each episode of the impressively global series, introducing us to sailors at the oil-slicked port of Rotterdam and farmers on parched grasslands of Botswana, while our host, Meryl Streep, sitting crossed-legged outside her home in Connecticut, calmly lamented the smog and the deforestation. “In 10 years, the natural world as we know and cherish it will have changed unalterably,” Streep warned, when global carbon emissions totaled 22.5 billion tons. In 2020, global carbon emissions will be more than 50 percent higher. Jason Farago

Closed Captioning

An accessibility breakthrough.

“The French Chef” not only revolutionized cooking shows, it also made history on a more technical front when, in 1972, it became the first television show to feature open captioning — captions that are always onscreen — making it accessible to deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers.

The following year, as ABC began rebroadcasting its national news program on PBS just five hours after it originally aired, it became the first timely and accessible news program. As smaller tests of the closed captioning system (which allows viewers to toggle captions on or off) proved successful, PBS engineers worked to create caption editing consoles, encoding equipment and prototype decoder boxes.

And on a Sunday evening in March 1980, closed captioning went mainstream. Deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers got their chance to enjoy some of the most popular programming on television, getting to choose among “The ABC Sunday Night Movie,” “Disney’s Wonderful World” on NBC and “Masterpiece Theater.” Julia Carmel


  1. John Angier on October 17, 2020 at 5:29 pm

    You missed one, number 43 in the Times list — Race to Save the Planet, produced by the WGBH Science Unit.

    • Jay Collier on October 17, 2020 at 5:36 pm

      Oh, yes! Thank you, John. I’ll add it right away.

  2. John Rogers on October 17, 2020 at 4:33 pm

    Captioning, especially closed captioning, has become so commonplace the we forget what a monumental achievement it was.

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