PBS Turns 50: A Look Back at ‘Sesame Street,’ ‘Downton Abbey’ & More Defining Series

The Everett Collection

Happy Birthday, PBS!

To celebrate five decades of the groundbreaking broadcast network that transported us everywhere from Sesame Street to Downton Abbey, we look back at some of the greatest hits from it’s storied history.

Julia Child


OCTOBER 4, 1970

The Public Broadcasting Service launches with The French Chef, already a phenomenon thanks to its butter-worshiping host, Julia Child. Washington Week, TV’s longest-running primetime news and public-affairs show, is also there at the start.

JANUARY 11, 1973

Reality TV starts here! An American Family charts the lives of California’s Pat and Bill Loud and their five kids. Stunning moment: She asks for a divorce.

JANUARY 6, 1974

Set at 165 Eaton Place in London, Upstairs, Downstairs traffics in aristocrats and their servants (long before Downton Abbey). The miniseries puts PBS on the map. 

MARCH 3, 1974

Science gets a weekly platform with NOVA.

I, Claudius (Credit: Courtesy of the Everett Collection)

 NOVEMBER 6, 1977

Six years into Masterpiece Theatre‘s run, I, Claudius — sort of a Days of Our Ancient Roman Lives, full of sex and violence and starring Derek Jacobi — hooks viewers.

SEPTEMBER 28, 1980

Astronomer Carl Sagan brings science to the masses with Cosmos, PBS’s highest-rated series until The Civil War.

Brideshead Revisited (Credit: 1981. ©Granada Television/courtesy Everett Collection)

JANUARY 18, 1982

The New York Times later called it “the biggest British invasion since the Beatles.” Anthony Andrews, Diana Quick and Jeremy Irons star in Brideshead Revisited, adapting Evelyn Waugh’s novel of dreams and disillusionment.

OCTOBER 10, 1982

Nature soars onto the screen with Flight of the Condor.

DECEMBER 16, 1984

New obsession: The Jewel in the Crown (starring Art Malik), a rich saga of Great Britain’s last days ruling India in the 1940s.

The Jewel in the Crown (Credit: Art Malik, 1984, © PBS / Courtesy: Everett Collection)

JUNE 23, 1986

American Masters profiles its first titan of the arts, playwright Arthur Miller.

SEPTEMBER 23, 1990

Nearly 39 million viewers tune in to at least one episode of Ken Burns’ The Civil War, a staggering, sepia-toned history lesson. Almost just as many cry at Union soldier Sullivan Ballou’s “My love for you is deathless” letter to his wife.

(Credit: Courtesy of PBS)

JANUARY 23, 1992

All hail Helen Mirren! On Prime Suspect, we meet one of TV’s all-time great female characters: flawed, fallible London police detective Jane Tennison. 

APRIL 6, 1992

The title T. rex of chipper kiddie show Barney & Friends is worshiped by preschoolers — and vilified by many adults.

OCTOBER 20, 1995

After 20 years coanchoring with Jim Lehrer, Robert “Robin” MacNeil exits The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour. The two first joined forces in 1973 with their gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Watergate hearings.

Reckless (Credit: 1997, © PBS/courtesy Everett Collection)

JANUARY 18, 1998

Hot stuff! The older-woman, younger-man romance Reckless, pairing Francesca Annis with Robson Green, steams up the screen. 

SEPTEMBER 21, 1998

Investigative journalism powerhouse Frontline, on air since 1983, outdoes itself with The Farmer’s Wife. The unsparing catalog of the trials facing a couple in rural Nebraska — from lost crops to marital discord — generates 60,000 emails.

Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (Credit: The Everett Collection)

AUGUST 31, 2001

After telling viewers, “It’s such a good feeling to know you’re alive,” Fred Rogers hangs up his cardigan for the last time as the 33-year-old Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood signs off.

JANUARY 3, 2005

Insurance salesmen are standing by…. A 1914 Patek Philippe pocket watch is valued at $250,000 on Antiques Roadshow. Two re-appraisals later, it’s the show’s top find, worth $2 to $3 million!

Bleak House (Credit: BBC / Courtesy: Everett Collection)

JANUARY 22, 2006

Bleak House by Masterpiece mainstay Charles Dickens presents an unforgettable Gillian Anderson as the icy Lady Dedlock. 

SEPTEMBER 23, 2007

Ken Burns goes to battle again and pulls in nearly 38 million unique viewers with his and Lynn Novick’s Greatest Generation chronicle The War.

JANUARY 9, 2011

The aristocratic Crawleys (and their servants) become family to us with the premiere of Downton Abbey. The period drama’s six seasons win 15 Emmys, the title No. 1 PBS drama of all time — and three TV Guide Magazine covers!

Sherlock (Credit: BBC / Courtesy: Everett Collection)

MAY 20, 2012

Sherlock shocker! Benedict Cumberbatch‘s modern-era Holmes hurls himself from a rooftop, landing with a sickening crunch. A coda reveals the detective to be alive — but two years elapse before Masterpiece delivers the ingenious (naturally) backstory.

Sesame Street (Credit: Everettt Collection)

NOVEMBER 17, 2019

Sesame Street‘s 50th Anniversary Celebration honors the children’s classic that made household names of many a Muppet, including Kermit, Bert and Ernie, Big Bird and Elmo.

FEBRUARY 23, 2020

Masterpiece‘s Sanditon gets people talking — and begging for a second season — when the ending assigned to Jane Austen’s unfinished novel is not so happy.