PBS Specials

The WORST episodes of PBS Specials

Every episode ever - ranked by fan votes!

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.

Last Updated: 6/5/2022Network: PBS
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400 Years of the Telescope
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#1 - 400 Years of the Telescope

Season 2009 - Episode 1 - Aired 10/14/2009

A Journey of Science, Technology and Thought. This visually stunning program chronicles a sweeping journey, from 1609 when Galileo revealed mankind's place in the galaxy to 2009, the International Year of Astronomy. Narrated by NOVA's Neil deGrasse Tyson, the compelling program takes viewers on an adventure through the heavens and around the globe, visiting the world's leading astronomers, cosmologists and observatories. The Interstellar Studios production team traveled the globe to interview leading astronomers and cosmologists from the world's renowned universities and observatories. The producers sought the most acute minds at great astronomical centers including the European Southern Observatory, Institute for Astronomy, SETI Institute, Space Telescope Science Institute, Anglo-Australian Observatory, and Harvard University. They journeyed across five continents to visually write the story of the past and the future of telescopes, astronomy, and our ever-changing perception of the cosmos. Compelling interviews throughout the film leave no stone unturned. A carefully chosen array of today's leading astronomers explain concepts ranging from Galileo's act of revealing the telescopic cosmos to humanity and challenging religious teachings of the day, to the latest discoveries in space, including startling new ideas about life on other planets and dark energy – a mysterious vacuum energy that is accelerating the expansion of the universe. On the horizon, viewers learn of emergent telescopes the size of stadiums. With unprecedented resolution and light gathering, these enormous new instruments will look back to the initial moments of the Big Bang and – like Galileo's first telescopic observations – will reshape our model of the universe.

Directors: Kris Koenig
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Jillian Michaels Master Your Metabolism
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#2 - Jillian Michaels Master Your Metabolism

Season 2009 - Episode 32 - Aired 7/29/2009

Take charge of health and fitness by shedding excess fat and boosting immunity; host Jillian Michaels.

America's Historic Trails With Tom Bodett
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#3 - America's Historic Trails With Tom Bodett

Season 2010 - Episode 3 - Aired 3/11/2010

El Camino Real; Santa Fe, N.M.; mustangs.

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The UltraMind Solution: Defeat Depression, Overcome Anxiety and Sharpen Y our Mind With Mark Hyman, M.D.
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#4 - The UltraMind Solution: Defeat Depression, Overcome Anxiety and Sharpen Y our Mind With Mark Hyman, M.D.

Season 2009 - Episode 33 - Aired 1/31/2009

Dr. Hyman presents the possibility that treating seven key biological imbalances, the body's natural healing takes over and heals the brain.

The Great Cities of Europe
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#5 - The Great Cities of Europe

Season 2009 - Episode 34 - Aired 2/18/2009

This special gives viewers an aerial overview of some of Europe's most interesting cities and locales - London, Amsterdam, the French Riviera and Monaco, Rome, Vienna, Budapest, Prague, Dublin, Florence, Venice and Paris - for the ultimate European tour.

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Windsor Castle: A Royal Year
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#6 - Windsor Castle: A Royal Year

Season 2006 - Episode 2 - Aired 2/15/2006

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Islam Empire of Faith
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#7 - Islam Empire of Faith

Season 2000 - Episode 1 - Aired 1/1/2000

What is Islam? Who is Muhammad? This documentary about Islam is narrated by Ben Kingsley and attempts to answer these questions. Originally broadcast as a three part series, the documentary covers who Muhammad was, the golden age of Islam and the Ottoman Empire.

Directors: Robert Gardner
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Great Cities of Europe
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#8 - Great Cities of Europe

Season 2005 - Episode 3 - Aired 3/5/2005

Explore some of the very best sites, sounds and tastes Europe has to offer. This series takes you from one European hot spot to the next, introducing you to famous landmarks as well as great places to sleep, eat and soak up the culture.

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The Buddha
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#9 - The Buddha

Season 2010 - Episode 7 - Aired 4/7/2010

This documentary for PBS by award-winning filmmaker David Grubin and narrated by Richard Gere, tells the story of the Buddha’s life, a journey especially relevant to our own bewildering times of violent change and spiritual confusion. It features the work of some of the world’s greatest artists and sculptors, who across two millennia, have depicted the Buddha’s life in art rich in beauty and complexity. Hear insights into the ancient narrative by contemporary Buddhists, including Pulitzer Prize winning poet W.S. Merwin and His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Join the conversation and learn more about meditation, the history of Buddhism, and how to incorporate the Buddha’s teachings on compassion and mindfulness into daily life.

Directors: David Grubin
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Forgotten Ellis Island
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#10 - Forgotten Ellis Island

Season 2009 - Episode 3 - Aired 2/2/2009

Forgotten Ellis Island is the first film (and companion book) to be produced about the immigrant hospital on Ellis Island. Opened in 1902, the hospital grew to twenty-two medical buildings which sprawled across two islands adjacent to Ellis Island, the largest port of entry in the United States. Massive and modern, the hospital was America's first line of defense against contagious, often virulent disease. In the era before antibiotics, tens of thousands of immigrant patients were separated from family, detained in the hospital, and healed from illness before becoming citizens. 350 babies were born in the hospital, and many were named after the doctors and nurses that helped deliver them. Ten times that many immigrants died on Ellis Island — 3,500 were buried in paupers graves around New York City.

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Unforgivable Blackness: Rise
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#11 - Unforgivable Blackness: Rise

Season 2010 - Episode 10 - Aired 1/17/2010

Jack Johnson — the first African-American Heavyweight Champion of the World, whose dominance over his white opponents spurred furious debates and race riots in the early 20th century — enters the ring once again in January 2005 when PBS airs Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, a provocative new PBS documentary by acclaimed filmmaker Ken Burns. The two-part film airs on PBS Monday-Tuesday January 17-18, 2005, 9:00-11:00 p.m. ET (check local listings). Burns, whose past films on PBS (The Civil War, Baseball, JAZZ, etc.) are among the most-watched documentaries ever made, shows the gritty details of Johnson's life through archival footage, still photographs, and the commentary of boxing experts such as Stanley Crouch, Bert Sugar, the late George Plimpton, Jack Newfield, Randy Roberts, Gerald Early and James Earl Jones, who portrayed Johnson in the Broadway play and film based on Johnson's life, "The Great White Hope." "Johnson in many ways is an embodiment of the African-American struggle to be truly free in this country — economically, socially and politically," said Burns. "He absolutely refused to play by the rules set by the white establishment, or even those of the black community. In that sense, he fought for freedom not just as a black man, but as an individual." Johnson, who was born in 1878 in Galveston, Texas, began boxing as a young teenager in the Jim Crow-era South. Boxing was a relatively new sport in America, and was banned in many states. African-Americans were permitted to compete for most titles, but not for the title that whites considered their exclusive domain: Heavyweight Champion of the World. African-Americans were considered unworthy to compete for the title — not for lack of talent, but simply by virtue of not being white. Despite this, Johnson was persistent in challenging James J. Jeffries — the heavyweight champion at the time, who was considered by many to be the greatest heavyweight in history

Directors: Ken Burns
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Unforgivable Blackness: Fall
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#12 - Unforgivable Blackness: Fall

Season 2010 - Episode 11 - Aired 1/18/2010

In Unforgivable Blackness, Johnson biographer Randy Roberts observes, "The press reacted [to Johnson's victory] as if Armageddon was here. That this may be the moment when it all starts to fall apart for white society." His victory spurred a search among whites for a "great white hope" who could beat Johnson and win back the title. They finally found him in Johnson's old nemesis, Jim Jeffries, who decided to return from retirement and give Johnson the fight he had always wanted. This fight was especially important to Johnson, because many whites had dismissed his claim to the title as invalid; Burns, it was argued, was never the true champion because he didn't win the title by beating Jeffries. No one had beaten Jeffries, and most thought he was certain to reclaim the title for whites. The Johnson-Jeffries fight, dubbed the "Battle of the Century," took place on July 4, 1910, in Reno, Nevada. Johnson knocked out Jeffries in the 15th round. Johnson's victory sparked a wave of nationwide race riots across in which numerous African-Americans died. Newspaper editorials warned Johnson and the black community not to be too proud. Congress eventually passed an act banning the interstate transport of fight films for fear that the images of Johnson beating his white opponents would provoke further unrest. Perhaps even more troubling for white America than Johnson's dominance over his white opponents in the boxing ring were his romantic entanglements with white women. One of his frequent traveling companions was Hattie McClay, a white prostitute. They were later joined by Belle Schreiber, also a white prostitute whom Johnson met in Chicago. "He wouldn't let anybody define him," says James Earl Jones in Unforgivable Blackness. "He was a self-defined man. And this issue of his being black was not that relevant to him. But the issue of his being free was very relevant." Johnson eventually married a white woman, Etta Duryea. Their relationship was troubled; Johnson dr

Directors: Ken Burns
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The Path to Nuclear Fission: The Story of Lise Meitner and Otto Hahn
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#13 - The Path to Nuclear Fission: The Story of Lise Meitner and Otto Hahn

Season 2006 - Episode 7 - Aired 6/5/2006

There is an intriguing story to tell about the lives and times of Lise Meitner and Otto Hahn, two remarkable scientists whose extraordinary collaboration culminated in the discovery of nuclear fission in 1938, turning Einstein's "theory" into atomic science. Not only did these two revolutionize the history of science and the role of women in physics and chemistry, their tale also parallels the social changes and turbulent history of their times. It involves the war against memory, Nazi intimidation, forced exile, betrayal, and a Nobel Prize awarded only in chemistry that to this day distorts science history. Produced by award-winning Rosemarie Reed (Widow of the Revolution: The Anna Larina Story), this documentary explores the intriguing development of atomic science in the first part of the twentieth century. It captures Meitner's efforts to make her way in the male-dominated world of physics, Hahn's early work and independent discoveries, their collaboration, the racial and political discrimination that forced Meitner to live in exile, and ongoing speculation about her exclusion from the Nobel Prize. These elements are explored through photos, letters, notes, stock footage, and maps; interviews with writers, scientists, and historians; and music of the day.

Directors: Rosemarie Reed
Sandwiches That You Will Like
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#14 - Sandwiches That You Will Like

Season 2002 - Episode 1 - Aired 1/8/2002

An exploration of a wide variety of sandwiches served by restaurants, diners, and roadside stands across the country.

American Prophet: The Story of Joseph Smith
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#15 - American Prophet: The Story of Joseph Smith

Season 1999 - Episode 5 - Aired 11/26/1999

Millions of people around the world know of him. Yet this frontier prophet of the early 1800s found little honor and eventual martyrdom at the hands of an angry mob in his own country. Who was this Joseph Smith and what was it about his remarkable life story, which inspired such impassioned rancor or unflinching reverence? Please join Academy Award-winner Gregory Peck for a fascinating look at this oft-misunderstood American legend.

Directors: Lee B. Groberg
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Depression: Out of The Shadows
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#16 - Depression: Out of The Shadows

Season 2008 - Episode 4 - Aired 5/28/2008

Through the voices and stories of people living with depression, DEPRESSION: Out of the Shadows provides a portrait of the disease never before seen on American television. Along with consumers, it also follows acclaimed scientists as they describe the latest neurological research and groundbreaking new treatments for depression.

Fire and Ice: The Winter War of Finland and Russia
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#17 - Fire and Ice: The Winter War of Finland and Russia

Season 2006 - Episode 1 - Aired 2/1/2006

In November of 1939, when Finland was invaded by the Soviet Union, no one expected that this tiny nation could resist the largest military force in the world. And no one anticipated that 1939 would be one of the coldest winters in recorded history – a winter many historians have described as a ‘frozen hell.’ Filmed on the old battlefields of Finland and Russia, “Fire and Ice” dramatically depicts the intensity of the warfront and the homefront. Outnumbered and outgunned, Finns knew this war was not about changing the borders between nations. The Winter War involved all of Finland’s people, including its women who organized themselves into a unique corps called Lotta Svärd. Finland's fierce resistance changed the course of World War II and saved a democracy. “Fire and Ice” is a timeless story of courage against all odds, of a people united to preserve their freedom.

Directors: Ben Strout
Vizcaya: Palace of Dreams
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#18 - Vizcaya: Palace of Dreams

Season 2009 - Episode 6 - Aired 5/29/2009

Vizcaya, a 60-minute stunning historical documentary film that tells the story of this grand estate, through an entertaining and educational combination of on-location visuals, rich narratives, and interviews with architectural and cultural historians, reservationists, and curators. Viewers will learn about the estate's rich history, dramatic landscape, and extraordinary architecture and collections through an informal learning experience that appeals to a broad audience. Viewers will also learn about the fragility of Vizcaya and other historic sites, and the challenges of preservation that threaten these bastions of our local and national heritage.

Window to the Sea
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#19 - Window to the Sea

Season 2005 - Episode 15 - Aired 12/28/2005

A portrait of 4 US aquariums: Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, Illinois; Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, California; New England Aquarium in Boston, Massachusetts; and Waikiki Aquarium in Honolulu, Hawaii. Nararted by Phil Knoerzer

Directors: John Grant
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Exploring Space - The Quest for Life
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#20 - Exploring Space - The Quest for Life

Season 2006 - Episode 4 - Aired 3/22/2006

How did life begin? Is there life outside of Earth? Is there a future for humankind on other planets? Each new discovery inches us closer to answering these cosmic questions linking life on Earth with the rest of the Universe and renewing our dreams of what lies in the unknown realms of the stars.

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Global Warming: The Signs and the Science
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#21 - Global Warming: The Signs and the Science

Season 2005 - Episode 11 - Aired 11/2/2005

This documentary profiles people who are living with the grave consequences of a changing climate, as well as the individuals, communities and scientists inventing new approaches to safeguard our children's future. Filmed across the U.S., Asia and South America, this program brings the reality of climate change to life and offers viewers a variety of ways to make a difference in their own communities.

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An Ice Cream Show
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#22 - An Ice Cream Show

Season 1996 - Episode 1 - Aired 5/28/1996

Rick Sebak explores the process of making ice cream, and many of the small ice cream shops across the country.

Directors: Rick Sebak
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The Marshall Plan: Against the Odds
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#23 - The Marshall Plan: Against the Odds

Season 2009 - Episode 7 - Aired 1/1/2009

Gaze back across 50 years to measure the success of the Marshall Plan, history's most controversial rescue effort. With hunger, poverty and devastation stalking postwar Europe, retired general and war hero George C. Marshall called for a U.S. financed reconstruction of the battered continent. For the first time, hear European witnesses reflect on the legacy and consequences of Marshall's remarkable vision

Dead Reckoning: Champlain in America
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#24 - Dead Reckoning: Champlain in America

Season 2009 - Episode 8 - Aired 11/17/2009

Dead Reckoning ~ Champlain in America focuses on Champlain’s years of exploration in North America, and his successful adaptation to the ways of the Amerindian people, who taught him how to explore and survive in the wilds of North America. Champlain began his voyages as a cartographer in the service of the king of France. By the end of his life, he was responsible for the future of New France in North America.

Liberty or Death
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#25 - Liberty or Death

Season 2007 - Episode 5 - Aired 3/26/2007

To avoid interference from the royal governor of the colony and his marines, the Second Virginia Convention met in Richmond, Virginia on March 20, 1775 to discuss recent proceedings at the First Continental Congress. The meeting turned into a debate over whether or not to arm the colony to resist British forces whose numbers were steadily increasing in North America. Many members preferred to adopt conciliatory measures, but Patrick Henry delivered an impassioned speech, arguing Virginia needed a "well-regulated militia." It was imperative, he declared, that the colony be prepared to oppose King George III. He ended his oration with the phrase: "Give me liberty or give me death!" This documentary, filmed at site of the original convention, provides the historical context for the debates and recreates the most important speeches delivered during the meeting, concluding with Henry's famous address

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