Public Broadcast Laboratory
The Public Broadcast Laboratory (PBL) collection consists of almost 55 episodes, over 30 of which are available online, from a weekly live, experimental, and controversial television magazine program broadcast over National Educational Television (NET) from 1967 to 1969. The programs explore a wide range of social, cultural, and political topics, including school desegregation, environmental issues, avant-garde theater, police-minority relations, poverty, elections, student protests, civil unrest, the meat industry, the defense establishment, bias in TV news, and the Vietnam War. Created and funded by the Ford Foundation, and hosted by seasoned network radio broadcaster Edward P. Morgan with assistance from correspondents Tom Pettit and Robert MacNeil, the first season featured two-hour episodes with multiple segments, while the second season shifted to 90-minute episodes, each focused on a single topic. Some programs demonstrated the possibilities of live interconnection between stations. Others presented cinema vérité, or observational documentaries by Frederick Wiseman, Richard Leacock, Arthur Barron and Gene Marner, Richard Pearce, Fred Wardenburg and Don Lenzer, a “psycho-docu-drama” by French journalist Danielle Hunebelle, an investigative report from London correspondent Revel Guest, and a documentary chronicling the final months in the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. PBL profiled Ingmar Bergman, Johnny Cash, Louise Day Hicks, Ronald Reagan, Sir John Gielgud, and Buckminster Fuller. The series featured performances by Glenn Gould, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Janis Ian, Cecil Taylor, and Tom Lehrer, the satirical comedy troupes Beyond the Fringe and The Committee, theater pieces by Harold Pinter, Douglas Turner Ward and the Negro Ensemble Company, and Jerzy Grotowski’s Polish Laboratory Theater, and films by Gordon Parks and Jonas Mekas. Critical response to the series was mixed with some episodes deemed more successful than others.
PBL began as an experimental effort funded by the Ford Foundation to liven up and elevate the quality of educational television and to experiment with broadcasting simultaneously on stations across the nation. Organizationally, PBL operated distinct from NET. Many accomplished producers and reporters participated in PBL. State networks in South Carolina, Alabama, and Georgia declined to carry PBL due to the provocative nature of some topics, and PBL dissolved at the end of its second season, shortly before NET’s absorption into New York public television station WNET. This special collection was curated in 2022 by Sonia Prasad, a graduate of Williams College, as part of the Library of Congress Archives, History, and Heritage Advanced Internship (AHHA) program.