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I’m sure you’ve seen all those promotions. 

Shows that are upcoming on your local PBS station but somewhere at the bottom of the promotion, usually in parenthesis and sometimes in really small letters – Check Local Listings, like this one for an episode of American Masters.

Why do I have to do that you may ask yourself?

The reason is, on one level simple, and on another, quite complex. 

The simple reason is your local public television station is just that, your local public television station.  With few exceptions, every show that airs on your local station and the time it airs is a decision made locally.

The complex reason is, as I’ve written elsewhere, the public television system is a federated system. Each local public television is owned and operated in its own market, indeed to qualify as a public television station according to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the CPB, it must be independently owned and operated. (The same for public radio stations by the way).

A local television station can choose to become a member of PBS.  What does becoming a member of PBS get them? A lot of things but for the purposes of this column I’m going to focus on general audience programming (which is separate from kids programming).

You are probably wondering how this has anything to do with “Check Local Listings.” Bear with me.

When a station becomes a full member of PBS, it gets access to all the programming PBS provides through the National Programming Service provided by PBS. As a member a station it commits to a certain number of hours of programming in prime time that are designated “Common Carriage (CC).”

That commitment amounts to 500 hours of programming a year, which given the thousands of hours of programming across the system, is not very much.

Common Carriage means that you know Masterpiece is going to air every Sunday night at 9 p.m. Eastern.  So this promo for the new season of Victoria does not tell you to check local listings.

It also includes other programs that you are incredibly familiar with – Washington Week, Frontline, Nova and Nature are among these CC household names. In addition, CC programming can include special event series like this fall’s documentary series Vietnam, that aired at the same time and days across all public television stations that carried it.

Finding Your Roots is a common carriage show so the promotional material tells you the day and time the show is going to air. 

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I asked PBS SVP of programming, Beth Hoppe, about common carriage: “If it's promotable, being promoted, we obviously we want it to be common carriage because people will be able to find it.  If it represents what we consider to be high value, mission programming we’ll make it common carriage. If we see something more as, well that’s a nice to have but we’d like stations to feel free to do with it what they want with it,  then it won’t. There are more things that fit in the first category of high value mission programming that we’d like to have as common carriage than hours available for CC.”

Outside these 500 hours a year, your local station can air whatever it wants, from a variety of different providers, including but not limited to, PBS.  I’ve written elsewhere about how some of your favorite public television shows are not actually PBS shows.

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So when you see  promotions like the ones above,  and the fine print says “check local listings” that means that you have to see if your local station is going to air it and if so, what time and day.

Our inbox is frequently bombarded with questions such as: Why is Doc Martin no longer on?  I do no support PBS’s decision to air Martha Stewart, take it off the air;  Greater Boston aired something that was wrong. And more often than not they are questions that I cannot answer.

I can’t answer the question about why Doc Martin was taken off by your local station. I can’t demand that your local station remove Martha Stewart from their air. Your local news programs are reported in your community and I am sure that those local newsrooms want your feedback.

I repeat, your local station is just that, your local station. Programming decisions are made to fit the market and the audience. Nobody at PBS is sitting in Arlington, Virginia telling a local station what it should and shouldn’t air for most of the day.

There is no single PBS television schedule, but hundreds of local public television schedules. 

It’s an interesting exercise to check out the schedules of public stations across the country to see how different the schedules are from your own local station. I encourage you to take a look.

In a world of increasing media consolidation, public stations (tv and radio) are among the few entities that are still owned and operated and governed locally. You as an avid viewer and supporter can have a say in decisions made by your local station. Please take advantage of that relationship by making your voice heard.

Your first stop for queries about programming should be to your local station. Public broadcasting is built on the unique foundation of a partnership with you, the audience.

Part of my role as Public Editor is to explain the system and to examine some decisions made by PBS or some producers of its content. However, the uniqueness of the public broadcasting system is that it is a federated system, driven by local decision making that you can play a part in.