Ford and Carnegie Create Public Broadcasting

  • Arts & Culture
  • 1951

The Ford Foundation inaugurated public broadcasting with a 1951 grant that developed programming to air in a few cities the next year, as National Education Television. Over the following decade and a half, Ford paid for the development of additional new styles of TV, and for the gradual weaving together of nonprofit stations from different regions into a nascent system.

In 1964, the president of the Carnegie Corporation, John Gardner, was pitched on the idea of turning these emerging educational television efforts into a publicly funded network. His foundation earmarked $500,000 to create the Carnegie Commission on Educational Television the next year. It studied how Americans used their televisions, and made recommendations on how the technology could spread learning. The commission included prominent figures like author Ralph Ellison, pianist Rudolph Serkin, and a number of businessmen and academics.

The Carnegie Commission’s report, published in 1967, called for the establishment of a corporation to guide public television, with a mix of public and private funding. It made headlines, sold 50,000 copies within a few days, and was mentioned by President Lyndon Johnson in his State of the Union address. In November of 1967, Carnegie’s central suggestion became reality with the passage of the Public Broadcasting Act.

During the formative years from 1968 to 1972, while the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and PBS were just finding their way, it was primarily the Ford Foundation that kept educational television developing toward something practical. Ford shoveled more than $90 million into public TV in those few years alone. Over its 50 years as godparent, the Ford Foundation provided more than $435 million to raise public broadcasting to maturity—underwriting new arts programming like adaptations of classic literature, filmed live performances, music, and children’s shows. The Carnegie Corporation was also a steady supporter.