Kerger takes PBS’ top post

Top exec at WLIW, WNET replaces Mitchell

PBS has named Paula A. Kerger, an exec from the public TV ranks, to replace Pat Mitchell as prexy-CEO of the pubcaster.

Kerger, a fund-raiser and operations exec for two of the nation’s largest public TV stations, will head up the national network as it battles for funding and a perception in some quarters that its public affairs shows skew politically to the left.

Kerger is the first president chosen from within the public TV ranks in more than a decade, and the choice is proving popular with the stations, which often find themselves at odds with PBS over funds and programming rights.

The last two presidents of PBS — Pat Mitchell and Ervin Duggan — both came from outside public TV, and pressure had been building from the stations to select someone from within the net who is familiar with its challenges and idiosyncrasies.

“We don’t have time for the next CEO to have a learning curve — things are moving too fast in the media world,” said John Lawson, prexy-chief exec of the Assn. of Public Television Stations.

Kerger comes from New York’s Educational Broadcasting Corp., which operates WNET and WLIW, two of the net’s bigger affiliates that also produce a large amount of PBS programming.

She worked as WNET’s director of development and government affairs and completed in 1997 a $79 million fund-raising campaign — the largest endowment campaign ever undertaken by a public TV station.

While liaising with Congress is not an official duty of the PBS president, political skills are crucial as the org navigates the funding process and a relationship with the Corp. for Public Broadcasting, which funnels government funds and is loaded with Republican political appointees.

Outgoing president and former CNN exec Pat Mitchell battled openly with ex-CPB chairman Ken Tomlinson, who criticized the net’s programming lineup for what he claims is a liberal tilt.

Mitchell denied the charges but appointed an ombudsman in the fall to bring greater transparency to PBS’ operations and follow up on viewer complaints.

Kerger said her first priority will be to educate Congress and the public on how programming decisions are made at the network.

“What is important for PBS to do in Washington is to make sure Congress is aware of the scope of our work and not just wait until someone has a concern to talk about what we are doing,” she said.

On the issue of bias, Kerger said the goal is not to meddle with individual shows but to make sure the schedule represents “the spectrum of thought in this country,” she said.

“If you shied away from things and just did what was considered safe, then we would not be doing our jobs,” she said.

PBS lost the conservative talker Journal Editorial Report to Fox News Channel and conservative host Tucker Carlson to MSNBC, but Kerger said she’d be interested in developing another conservative political show, along the lines of “Firing Line,” with William F. Buckley.

Josh Silver, exec director of liberal media watchdog group Free Press, applauded Kerger’s appointment, saying in a statement, “We’re excited and relieved to see a committed advocate of the public interest appointed to lead PBS. Public broadcasting is at a crossroads. It will continue to suffer partisan attacks and threats to its budget without policies to protect long-term funding and provide political insulation. We look forward to working with the new president to put the public back in public broadcasting.”

Tim Graham, director of media analysis at the conservative Media Research Center, was cautiously optimistic, saying, “The interesting thing about her is that she is a big-dollar fund-raiser. We want more private dollars in the system and less public dollars.”

Pubcasting receives less than 15% of funding from federal coffers.

The appointment of Kerger comes at the end of a national search begun soon after Pat Mitchell announced she would not seek a third term as president.

The PBS board named an 11-member committee and retained recruiter Spencer Stuart to search for her successor.

The committee voted unanimously to recommend Kerger to the board, which affirmed its decision in a special meeting on Sunday.

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