NET was founded in 1952 by a grant from the Ford Foundation. Originally it was a limited service for exchanging and distributing educational programs produced by local television stations to other stations. In 1954 it expanded its goals, becoming a network and airing 5 hours of programing a day. Early on many of the stations were not linked by coaxial cable, and much of the programing was shipped on film. The programing was noted for treating subjects in depth, including hour long interviews with people of literary and historical importance. The programing was also noted for being dry and accademic, with little consideration given to entertainment value, in marked contrast to commercial television. Many of the shows were designed as adult education, and NET was nicknamed "The University of the Air".
In 1958 National Educational Television headquarters was moved from Ann Arbor, Michigan to New York City, and more aggressive programming was undertaken to secure for NET the role of the USA's fourth television network (with CBS, NBC, and ABC). At this time NET also started importing programing from the BBC.
In 1968 the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Ford Foundation threaten to withdraw it's funding to the NET network if they did not merge with Newark, New Jersey public broadcaster WNDT-TV Channel 13 (Now WNET-TV) and so in the beginning of 1969 NET and WNDT-TV completed their merger and the National Educational Television Network permanently signed off the air and was replaced with the more government friendly Public Broadcasting Service which featured former NET programming such as Sesame Street and Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.