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As a theater-obsessed middle school kid in Santa Monica, Calif., Alexis Soloski watched a 1991 recording of PBS’s “American Playhouse” broadcast of “Into the Woods” so many times that her VHS tape became nearly unplayable.
So when Lorne Manly, a senior editor on The New York Times’s Culture desk, asked her to interview a fellow theater lover, Holland Taylor, as part of an article listing 50 reasons that fans cherish PBS for the network’s 50th anniversary this month, she hesitated exactly zero seconds.
“I was definitely a PBS kid,” Ms. Soloski, a freelance culture writer, said. She loved “Great Performances” and was a devoted viewer of “Mystery!” though only its animated opening sequence. “I’d stay up and watch the Edward Gorey cartoon before anyone got murdered or anything scary happened — it was the most fascinating, elegant thing I’d ever seen.”
Jeremy Egner, the television editor for The Times, said the Culture desk began discussing how to commemorate the half-century mark in April. “It seemed like a good opportunity to take a step back and look at the impact PBS has had on TV, and certainly on American cultural life,” he said.
Mr. Manly, who edited the list and oversaw the package, said the idea grew out of a brainstorming meeting among several of the Culture editors in July. “We were interested in this idea of a family tree,” he said. “That became the concept of 50 programs over 50 years.”
Mr. Manly asked nearly two dozen writers from inside and outside The Times to identify and reflect on their memories of some of the system’s most iconic programs. He also recruited notable names, like the celebrity cook Rachael Ray and the Grammy-winning singer and songwriter Gary Clark Jr., to share first-person reminiscences about programs that changed their lives.
“The Times audience is, I think, very knowledgeable about public television and has lots of memories,” Mr. Manly said. “We tried to include shows from every era to capture the impact on different generations.”
Mr. Manly and other editors emailed a Google Doc to writers to collect ideas, which generated around 80 potential programs. Mr. Egner and Meeta Agrawal, The Times’s Arts & Leisure editor, helped to narrow them down, and then Mr. Manly chose the final 50 based on writer interest and the desire to represent different eras and genres. (“There were no fisticuffs,” Mr. Egner said.)
Mr. Manly said many of the writers had personal connections to the programs they wrote about. “When someone has had a formative experience with a show, that makes for really engaging writing,” he said.
But Mr. Manly would like to be clear: This is not a case of one man determining the 50 best shows on PBS. “It’s definitely not supposed to be a ranking,” he said. He added that he sought out programs that were well known, of course, such as “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” Ken Burns’s documentaries and “Sesame Street.” But, he said, “we also wanted to introduce some surprises in there.”
For instance, Damon Lindelof, a creator of series including “Watchmen” and “The Leftovers,” suggested “Miss Marple,” whose heroine he became infatuated with as an 11-year-old navigating his parents’ divorce. “I don’t know if that was on the original list, but he found it a powerful part of growing up,” Mr. Manly said. “So we wanted to weave that in.”
Other well-known programs lurk near the top of the list: The 1973 documentary series “An American Family,” “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” Julia Child’s cooking show “The French Chef,” “Downton Abbey” and Mr. Burns’s 11-hour documentary series, “The Civil War,”
This is hardly the first list Mr. Manly has edited at The Times, and he said he had learned that it is better to try to represent a wide range of programs than to try to be definitive. “I haven’t seen anyone yet who’s outraged that we left something out,” he said, though he acknowledged he had heard some good-natured grumbling from an editor’s husband about the omission of Thomas the Tank Engine.
Much has changed since PBS broadcast its first program, an episode of “The French Chef,” a cooking show created and hosted by Ms. Child, on Oct. 4, 1970. But the original mission of the system remains the same: education.
“PBS created TV as we know it,” Mr. Egner said. “They dealt with issues like censorship, funding and political priorities while airing some really formative programming. Now the challenge is to figure out how to survive and thrive over the next 50 years.”