Throughout its 40-year history, PBS has been the occasional whipping boy for small government advocates. But this past year, the publicly funded network endured its fiercest attacks to date.
The broadcast stalwart survived a potentially devastating blow in March when the Republican-controlled House of Representatives passed a measure that would have slashed $50 million from the Corp. for Public Broadcasting, which supports NPR and PBS. But the cacophony of calls to pull the plug on the so-called elitist network subsided when the bill died in the Senate.
Now, PBS is basking in the vindication of its 43 Emmy nominations, which eclipses the number earned by everyone expect HBO, CBS and NBC.
“This has been a challenging year for public broadcasting, and we’ve really worked through some Washington issues,” says PBS prexy and CEO Paula Kerger of the political brouhaha. “To come through a difficult year and have this kind of recognition is extraordinary.”
The perception lingers that PBS caters to an audience more reflective of a country club than the country at large. But Kerger is quick to point out the broad reach of the network, which also nabbed 32 news and documentary Emmy nominations as well as 46 daytime noms, for a total of 121 Emmy nominations.
“We are not a broadcaster who just appeals to a certain part of the country,” counters Kerger to the suggestion that the net plays only in blue states. “Our audience does, in fact, reflect the population. Over the course of the year, 88% of U.S. households watched PBS.”
In a typical month, more than 124 million viewers tune in to their local PBS stations, with the network breakdown mirroring the overall U.S. population with respect to race/ethnicity, education and income. And the network’s audience is enjoying an upswing, with primetime viewership up 7% over last year.
Much of the upward momentum can be credited to primetime’s crown jewel “Masterpiece,” which garnered 25 Emmy nominations — a series high in its 40-year history. Three years ago, executive producer Rebecca Eaton dropped the word “Theatre” from the title and spearheaded a dramatic overhaul of the series, which this year included four titles — “Downtown Abbey,” “Upstairs Downstairs,” “Any Human Heart” and “Sherlock” — all of which received multiple Emmy nominations.
“The ratings, the press attention and the awards have been steadily growing,” notes Eaton, who oversaw a new, hipper spin on the Sherlock Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle as part of the overall “Masterpiece” rebrand. “There’s a new vitality to the series.”
In fact, “Masterpiece,” which drew 13 million viewers including one million online, represents PBS’ mandate to reach a younger, plugged-in audience while still serving its loyal core fanbase. So far, auds are embracing the “Masterpiece” revamp, with viewership up 47% this season.
What’s most impressive to Kerger is that PBS continues to churn out high-quality programming like “Masterpiece” and Ken Burns’ 2010 Emmy winner “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea” with less money than its rivals.
“Throughout or history, we’ve been a lean organization,” says Kerger, who has held the network’s top post for five-plus years. “We’re not the New York Yankees. We’re more like Tampa Bay.”
But do all the successes help or hurt PBS’ case for federal funding?
“I think it helps because being able to point to the 43 Emmy nominations is a testament to the quality of the work we are producing,” explains Kerger. “At a time when people may wonder (about the necessity for public funding), here is another indication that the work that we do is exceptional.”
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