When public television made its Central Texas debut 50 years ago, many viewers still had black-and-white TV sets.

High-definition? Ha. The programs were decidedly low-tech.

But people were instantly hooked. Five decades later, that's still the case, with preschoolers in need of their daily "Sesame Street" fix and prime-time period drama "Downton Abbey" becoming an almost-instant cult favorite.

"We try to put together programming that's distinctive and unique," Paula Kerger, PBS' president and CEO, told the American-Statesman on a recent visit to Austin. "What are the things we can produce that no one else is doing?"

Figures from Nielsen Media Research show that 91 percent of American households watch PBS at some point during the year. In a typical month, it has 123 million viewers — more than several well-known networks, including Discovery Channel, HBO, HGTV and TLC, Nielsen reports.

Public broadcasting got its start in 1953 right here in Texas, when Houston's KUHT launched, according to current.org.

Austin and San Antonio were initially served by KLRN, which signed on in 1962. The station was based on the University of Texas campus, but had its transmitter in New Braunfels, midway between the two cities.

KLRU came online in 1979 and, over the next few years, slowly split off from KLRN, which continues to serve San Antonio.

PBS, now available on more than 300 member stations nationwide, prides itself on "intellectual" shows, Kerger said – something you can't find elsewhere on the TV dial.

Other networks have tried over the years — A&E and Bravo come to mind — but they've long since abandoned high-brow programming in favor of mindless reality shows such as "Real Housewives" and "Dog the Bounty Hunter" that tend to grab the young viewers advertisers crave.

In fact, reality TV accounts for an eye-popping 40 percent of what airs on broadcast and cable networks today, according to Kerger.

"A&E and Bravo were launched with very high aspirations," said Bill Stotesbery, KLRU's CEO. "But they had to change their programming to appeal to a broader audience."

PBS shows, though, don't live or die based on ad sales. That allows it to take creative risks, Kerger said.

Instead, stations largely rely on a mix of donations from viewers, corporations and foundations – and tough economic times nationwide have presented some occasional challenges.

In 2009, KLRU was forced to enact budget cuts — including some layoffs — to make ends meet. The financial picture has since improved, station executives say.

"We're in a different business than the other guys," Kerger said. "If you're not bound by the ad model, it really gives you the opportunity to be different.

"Look at the visual arts. You don't see that anywhere else except public broadcasting — and we're looking to do more theater, particularly with musicals.

"This is really amazing work that deserves a national audience."

The network has been working recently to make Friday nights must-see viewing for arts lovers — and the results have been promising.

"People who haven't been watching all week are coming in on Fridays," Stotesbery said.

History is another sweet spot for PBS, especially now that the History Channel is giving "Pawn Stars" and "Swamp People" more and more airtime.

"It left us a big opening," Kerger said.

"History Detectives," for instance, focuses on genealogy, helping people trace their roots.

But it's children's programming and prime-time stalwarts such as "Antiques Roadshow" that most people associate with PBS. And that's A-OK with Stotesbery and Kerger. Those shows, they say, create an opportunity to introduce viewers to the network's other offerings – programs such as "Downton Abbey," which wasted little time generating considerable buzz.

"Would ‘Downton Abbey' work?" Kerger asked. "No one in TV knew that, but there was something about ‘Downton' that really got people's attention."

"It was pretty much an instantaneous hit," Stotesbery said.

Children's programming designed to educate and entertain takes up a sizeable chunk of PBS' lineup, with "Arthur," "Curious George," "Maya and Miguel" and, of course, "Sesame Street" sometimes taking up close to half of KLRU's daily broadcast schedule.

"I'm proudest of the work we've done for kids," Kerger said. "We're going to continue to invest heavily in quality programming."

It's a strategy that seems to be working. In January, Kerger reports, PBS' kids' programming was streamed online 183 million times.

"We want to make sure kids enter school ready to learn and excited to learn," she said. "It's the most important work we do."

Contact Gary Dinges at 912-5987