PBS head warns about digital switch

Kerger sounds alarm at TCA

Despite the rewards a diverse programming slate and a presumably friendly Obama administration figure to bring PBS in 2009, pubcaster prexy Paula Kerger used most of her time at her Television Critics Assn. session to sound alarm bells over the looming digital TV conversion that will catch many of her viewers unprepared.

The federal program subsidizing the public’s conversion to digital is running out of money, a situation Kerger called “inexcusable.”

“Consumers need those coupons, and they need them now,” she said at the opening day of TCA’s winter press tour at the Universal City Hilton.

Kerger emphasized the issue, at the expense of discussing upcoming PBS series at length, because the predicament figures to affect a significant portion of PBS’ audience that doesn’t get cable or satellite TV.

“A lot of the untethered sets are sets that kids use to watch television … particularly children in lower-income houses,” Kerger said.

Shifting to the network’s outlook, Kerger did sound a cautiously optimistic note about the new leadership in Washington.

“We have been working very carefully to reach out to members of the transition team,” she said. “I am particularly heartened by the new administration’s interest in the arts. That bodes well for public broadcasting.

“But we are also realistic. … These are tough economic times, and we should not assume just because we have done good work in the past that we will be (funded) going forward.”

As far as content, PBS announced the fall premiere of “Dinosaur Train,” a CGI-animated series from the Jim Henson Co. Following in the footsteps of 2008’s “Sid the Science Kid,” the 40-episode “Train” will use dinos and choo-choos — perennial kid faves — as a springboard to encourage basic scientific thinking among preschoolers.

PBS has also scheduled “Circus,” an intimate journey with the Big Apple Circus from the makers of the Emmy-winning “Carrier,” for fall 2010.

Kerger added that PBS is committed to keeping network mainstays such as “Masterpiece,” “Tavis Smiley,” “Antiques Roadshow” and “Charlie Rose” on the air, and that funding for Ken Burns, who will bring “National Parks: America’s Best Idea” to the net this fall and “Baseball” sequel “The Tenth Inning” in 2010, is in “very good shape.”

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