The Best Episodes of PBS Specials
Last Updated: Jul 10, 2018
The Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) is an American non-profit public broadcasting television service with 354 member TV stations in the United States which hold collective ownership. However, its operations are largely funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Its headquarters are in Arlington, Virginia. PBS is the most prominent provider of programming to U.S. public television stations, distributing series such as PBS NewsHour, Masterpiece, and Frontline. Since the mid-2000s, Roper polls commissioned by PBS have consistently placed the service as America's most trusted national institution. However, PBS is not responsible for all programming carried on public TV stations; in fact, stations usually receive a large portion of their content (including most pledge drive specials) from third-party sources, such as American Public Television, NETA, and independent producers.
#1 - The Human Face of Big Data
Season 2016 - Episode 1
With the rapid emergence of digital devices, an unstoppable, invisible force is changing human lives in ways from the microscopic to the gargantuan: Big Data, a word that was barely used a few years ago but now governs the day for almost all of us. This award-winning film explores how the real time visualization of data streaming in from satellites, billions of sensors and GPS enabled cameras and smart phones is beginning to enable us, as individuals and collectively as a society, to sense, measure and understand aspects of our existence in ways never possible before. Together these devices are helping create a new kind of planetary nervous system. This massive gathering and analyzing of data in real time is also allowing us to address to some of humanity biggest challenges, including pollution, world hunger, and illness. But as Edward Snowden and the release of the NSA documents have shown, the accessibility of all this data comes at a steep price.
#2 - Split Rock, The Superior Light
Season 2013 - Episode 46
Split Rock, The Superior Light relates the saga of the most visited and most photographed lighthouse on the Great Lakes. From the challenges of construction to the isolated life of the early keepers, Split Rock's story fascinates and delights. With the construction of Highway 61 along the Minnesota North Shore of Lake Superior, the keepers' duties expanded from tending the light station to becoming tour guides for thousands of eager tourists. Today, forty-plus years after decommissioning by the Coast Guard, Split Rock has become one of the most-visited historic sites in Minnesota. 2010 marks the centennial celebration of this landmark on Lake Superior.
#3 - The Legend of Pancho Barnes and the Happy Bottom Riding Club
Season 2015 - Episode 6
The Legend of Pancho Barnes and the Happy Bottom Riding Club chronicles the thrilling life and extraordinary times of aviation pioneer Florence Lowe "Pancho" Barnes, one of the most colorful and accomplished women pilots of the earliest 20th Century, and an ill-behaved woman who made history.
#4 - Hockey: More Than a Game
Season 2011 - Episode 6
Hockey: More Than A Game is an hour-long documentary that explores hockey history and culture and offers an insightful, intimate look at the game described as “Canada’s gift to the world.” While capturing the timeless excitement of competition, the film relays the spirit of hockey among Canadians, its traditions, dramatic human stories and family commitment. Viewers also learn how hockey has evolved over nearly 200 years — from open-pond outdoor games to professional play in packed National Hockey League arenas.
#5 - Evolution: Darwin's Dangerous Idea
Season 2001 - Episode 9
Why does Charles Darwin's ''dangerous idea'' matter more today than ever, and how does it explain the past and predict the future of life on Earth? The first show interweaves the drama of Darwin's life with current documentary sequences, introducing key concepts of evolution.
#6 - Frederick Law Olmsted: Designing America
Season 2014 - Episode 10
American landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted helped design many well-known urban parks, including New York's Central Park, and designed the public parks and parkway systems in Buffalo, N.Y.
#7 - Dick Cavett’s Vietnam
Season 2015 - Episode 12
On the 40th anniversary of the official end of the Vietnam War, this program examines the war and its impact on America through the prism of interviews conducted on “The Dick Cavett Show,” which featured thoughtful conversation and debate from all sides of the political spectrum. The program combines interviews from Cavett’s shows with archival footage, network news broadcasts and A/V material.
#8 - The Making of Liberty
Season 1986 - Episode 2
The history of America's most famous symbol from its conception by her creator, August Bartholdi, through her construction in 1886 and the restoration for her re-dedication in New York harbor on the Fourth of July in 1986. The film documents an intimate view about the Statue of Liberty, from the dazzling heights of the tallest freestanding scaffold ever erected, to the gold leaf on her torch. It is the story of the building and rebuilding of a monument embodying the American experience, as seen through the eyes of artisans and laborers whose tasks are separated by a hundred years, but whose vision transcends time
#9 - The Committee
Season 2016 - Episode 13
Fifty years ago, Florida’s Legislative Investigative Committee, led by Senator Charley Johns sought to remove homosexuals from Florida's state universities. As a result of the “Johns Committee’s” efforts, more than 200 gay and lesbian students and teachers were expelled or fired. Featuring two of the victims and one interrogator, the film exposes the committee’s subversive activities and how its effects are still felt today. The film traces the committee's origins in the era of McCarthyism and anti-gay propaganda while detailing the personal stories of those intimately involved with its activities.
#10 - The Pursuit: 50 Years in the Fight for LGBT Rights
Season 2016 - Episode 18
The pursuit of happiness for the LGBT community continues 50 years after activists publicly protested discrimination against "homosexuals" with picket signs in front of Philadelphia's Independence Hall. LGBT elders - four surviving protestors and eleven activist peers - recall life in the 1960's, when "gays" were "hidden in plain sight," vulnerable to arrest, subjected to psychiatric treatment, fired from jobs and publicly shamed. Their poignant recollections introduce four pieces exploring the complexities of contemporary LGBT life. In Kids Today, four resilient, young LGBT adults share how they became homeless. Out at Work introduces viewers to LGBT cops and the changing face of the Philadelphia police department. In a Family Way presents two families that couldn't have existed 50 years ago: one that includes a mother who is transgender and another with two dads raising their biological children. And No Place Like Home features residents of the nation's first federally-funded housing project for low-income LGBT seniors. A thoughtful look back and an intimate look at the present, The Pursuit reminds us that while the past half-century has seen momentous changes, the fight for LGBT rights continues today.
#11 - The Bomb
Season 2015 - Episode 19
The story of nuclear weapons, from the earliest A-bomb tests to their impact on global politics. Included: remarks from historians Richard Rhodes, Martin Sherwin, Robert Norris and Sergei Khrushchev; former secretary of state George Shultz; and former defense secretary William Perry. It began innocently enough. In 1938, two German chemists accidentally discovered how to split the nucleus of the uranium atom: nuclear fission. Einstein’s E=mc² equation predicted that the amount of energy released from just one atom would be enormous. Physicists all over the world immediately realized that fission might make a bomb of extraordinary power - and that Nazi Germany might be capable of creating one. The fear of Adolph Hitler getting a nuclear weapon led to a race to deter him by developing such a bomb first. Thus began a chain of events that would lead inexorably to Hiroshima, the nuclear arms race, the hydrogen bomb, the Cuban Missile Crisis and some of the greatest fear and tension ever in world history. The Bomb explores how what started as simple scientific curiosity ultimately resulted in a weapon capable of ending civilization. The invention, says historian Richard Rhodes, “Was a millennial change in human history: for the first time, we were now capable of our own destruction, as a species.” The program recounts the bomb’s history, as well as the successes, failures and moral dilemmas of the personalities who created it. We learn how it was developed and how it quickly changed everything, from international relations to politics, culture, even sex. No less than the discovery of fire, the bomb marks a dividing line in human history between all that came before it, and everything that follows. For the first time, humans acquired the ability to destroy themselves, and we are still struggling to learn how to live with this awesome power. Decades after it first appeared, the bomb has receded in the public consciousness — but it continues to shape our lives. We hear from scientists, weapons designers, pilots who dropped nuclear bombs, former Secretaries of Defense and State who wrestled with the bomb’s impact on international diplomacy, witnesses to nuclear explosions, historians, and ordinary men and women who have lived and worked with the Bomb.
#12 - The White House: Inside Story
Season 2016 - Episode 19
The White House is one of America’s most iconic buildings; it is a symbol of shared national history and is home to the most powerful person on Earth. Here the president charts the course for the country, and the First Family lives in the spotlight. It's home, office and a museum. It's a bunker in times of war, a backdrop for command performances or state visits, and the heart of the American body politic. It takes a staff of more than 100 to maintain it, and its collection of antiques and paintings makes it a showplace for American art and design. In this two-hour special presentation The White House: Inside Story takes viewers behind the scenes to meet those who keep the house running smoothly, supporting the president and guarding the First Family’s privacy. We’ll see how the building has evolved over 200 years changing with the currents of history and the tastes of its occupants. At the epicenter of global politics, in the heart of the nation’s capital, the story of the White House is the story of America itself.
#13 - Stavig Letters
Season 2011 - Episode 21
Two Norwegian brothers exchange letters after one of them emigrates to America. Their letters chronicle their lives from the 1880s to the 1920s.
#14 - We Served Too: The Story of the Women's Airforce Service Pilots
Season 2015 - Episode 34
This is a story of a group of young, determined and courageous women during World War II who broke through barriers and shattered stereotypes...the Women's Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs).
#15 - Cave People of the Himalaya
Season 2012 - Episode 35
Cave People of the Himalaya is a documentary of and by scientists analyzing the anatomy and DNA of human remains, as well as researching evidence to better understand the mosaic of cultures connected through the region's trade routes.
#16 - Devil Clouds: Tornadoes Strike Nebraska
Season 2013 - Episode 39
Easter Sunday 1913 dawned as a spring-like day of celebration. It ended as a day of mourning. With little warning, seven tornados roared through eastern Nebraska, turning this into the deadliest natural disaster in Nebraska’s history. The most devastating tornado cut a seven mile swath through Ralston and Omaha, killing 100 people. All told, the tornado outbreak would be responsible for 168 deaths and nearly $10 million in damage (more than $200 million in today’s dollars). “Devil Clouds: Tornados Strike Nebraska” is a reporting project that tells more than a storm story. Developed in conjunction with the 100th anniversary of the event (which took place on March 23, 1913), it’s a story full of heroes and colorful characters; a story of tragedy, but also recovery and resolve; and the story of a city and state in transition, and the impact of a single devastating event on these places. It’s a story so well documented visually that it offers an intriguing glimpse into the disaster, and the lives of 1913 Nebraskans in places like Omaha, Ralston, Yutan and Otoe (called Berlin at the time). The documentary will be told through the use of high quality photographs, newspaper accounts, letters and books, and the perspective of historians and relatives of survivors.
#17 - Saving the Titanic
Season 2012 - Episode 11
Saving the Titanic tells the untold story of the self-sacrifice and bravery of the ship’s engineers, stokers and firemen in the face of impending death.
#18 - The Campaign
Season 2013 - Episode 40
The Campaign follows the people behind California’s historic “No on 8″ campaign to defend same-sex marriage, interwoven with the national history of same-sex relationship recognition since the 1950s. It focuses on five characters — Alison, Holli, Richard, Anne and Claudia — as they labor tirelessly to defeat Proposition 8, sacrificing time with the families they are fighting to protect. The film positions their efforts within the context of shifting legal and political landscapes, from Anita Bryant’s “Save our Children,” to the invention of the word “Domestic Partner” in San Francisco, to Pat Buchanan’s declaration of a “culture war,” and to the wave of marriage bans that swept 41 states across the nation. The shocking passage of Prop 8 in seemingly LGBT-friendly California changed the landscape forever, both for the LGBT equality movement, and for the individual activists who dropped what they were doing and threw themselves into the largest social issue campaign the country has ever seen. The Campaign emerges as an unprecedented installment of LGBT social history and a signature documentary on one of the most pressing civil rights issues of our times.
#19 - We Heard the Bells: The Influenza of 1918
Season 2010 - Episode 37
We meet individuals from marginalized communities who describe what it was like to live through the 1918 flu pandemic. Their experiences raise questions about the pandemic: why did it kill so many people? Why were so many of the dead young adults? Where did this lethal flu come from? How can we keep a pandemic like that from occurring again? The film follows the search for answers from an expedition to Alaska in 1951 to collect tissue from bodies buried in the permafrost, to the scientists and epidemiologists working on the same questions today. It explains the relevance of research into the 1918 pandemic to the threat of current and future flu pandemics.
#20 - Islamic Art: Mirror of the Invisible World
Season 2012 - Episode 32
Travel to nine countries and across 1,400 years of cultural history to explore the astonishing artistic and architectural riches of Islam. With the insights and commentary of leading art scholars from around the world, the film delves into the art of religious life in Islamic culture and into the secret world inside the palaces of the elite. From the extraordinary array of metalwork, textiles, paintings and architecture that illuminate the culture, filmmaker Rob Gardner sheds light on the shared histories of western and Islamic societies, revealing more continuity than division. Award-winning actress Susan Sarandon narrates.
#21 - The Heiress and Her Chateau: Carolands of California
Season 2014 - Episode 40
The Heiress and Her Chateau: Carolands of California is the 100-year saga of a 100-room mansion, a three-dimensional window into life among America’s elite. Chateau Carolands was built by one of the richest women in the world to be her ultimate dream home, but nothing went as planned. Once the most fabulous house west of the Mississippi, now a foundation, the story of the rise and fall and rise of Chateau Carolands s is a dramatic tale of wealth and ruin, love and loss, art and architecture – with a murder, a porno film, and a couple of earthquakes along the way. It all ends happily, with a multi-million dollar restoration of the Chateau, more grand and glorious now than it ever had been. See how this unique historic architectural masterpiece has come to be preserved for decades to come.
#22 - W.L Dow, Architect
Season 2013 - Episode 35
Wallace Dow has been referred to as the "Builder on the Prairie" and was considered the premier architect of South Dakota in the late 19th century. "W.L. Dow, Architect" is a documentary about the man who came to Dakota Territory in 1880 and built a number of iconic structures.
#23 - St. Helens: Out of the Ash
Season 2005 - Episode 13
It was the "perfect mountain", a shapely peak dubbed the Fuji of the West. 9,677 feet of snow-capped grandeur in the heart of the Cascade Range. On May 18, 1980 Mt. St. Helens captured the attention of the world with a volcanic display unequaled in modern times. This is the story of the cataclysmic events of that day, and the miraculous resiliency of Nature as life returns out of the ash.
#24 - Italy's Mystery Mountains
Season 2014 - Episode 13
Two teams of scientists explore the fascinating geologic story of Italy: the continuously erupting volcanoes, the violent earthquakes, the clash of mighty tectonic plates, and the rising of the mountains that produced Michelangelo's famous marble. If they can determine if the northern Apennines are still alive and growing, they might better understand where future earthquakes might strike this highly unstable land.
#25 - California Dreamin': The Songs of 'The Mamas & the Papas'
Season 2005 - Episode 11
California Dreamin': The Songs of the Mamas & the Papas is a one-hour documentary prepared for public television, to be shown during pledge drives to get those baby boomers to call in and contribute. As its title and the TV-G rating that pops up right at the beginning suggest, this look at the group is more interested in the music than in wallowing in the backstage scandals much loved by, for example, VH1 Behind the Music, which spent a very different hour chronicling the Mamas & the Papas' career a few years earlier.