PBS’ Kerger argues for pubcaster’s relevance

Prexy says org is vital in age of reality television

PBS has become “more important than ever” because of the way commercial channels have tilted their schedules toward less-consequential reality programming, pubcaster prexy Paula Kerger contends.

“Channels that were supposed to replace PBS by offering history, drama and arts programming have increasingly turned to reality television,” Kerger said at PBS’ Television Critics Assn. panel Saturday, “and the trend is only accelerating. If the rest of the media continues on its current trajectory, PBS and our stations will be the only enterprise whose sole purpose is to provide content of consequence both nationally and locally to all Americans.”

Kerger thanked the general public for reaching out to elected officials to help preserve federal funding for public broadcasting, which came under serious threat last winter. “We recognize that these are difficult times and Congress is faced with extraordinary choices, but we will continue to make our case for support,” Kerger said.

She added that despite the multiplicity of channels, demand for PBS is growing, with primetime viewership rising 7% over the past year, 23% among children 2-11.

“Please don’t get me wrong: I think there is a lot of good television that’s being produced both for cable and broadcast,” Kerger said, “and I am particularly interested in seeing the increase, frankly, in some of the scripted dramas, some of which I think are extraordinarily well done.”

Though confident in its mission, PBS continues to look for ways to maintain and increase viewership, Kerger said, particularly in a world in which awareness can be hard to come by.

One approach is to have more themed nights, such as on Wednesday, which is now dedicated to science programming anchored by “Nova.” That series’ “Japan’s Killer Quake” episode drew approximately 7 million viewers, the largest audience for “Nova” in five years. Fridays, meanwhile, will be oriented toward performance art, with the upcoming launch of the PBS Arts Fall Festival as the centerpiece.

PBS is also rethinking how to lead viewers from one program to the next. Commercial channels have long adopted the practice of having one program start right as the previous one is ending so there is no break to make it easy for viewers to switch away. With PBS, there has been more definitive separation between programs, a cost of not having commercial breaks during shows, except for pledge drives.

“We have that one break between the programs in order to get all of our business done,” Kerger said, “to thank our underwriters, to do any promotions about what’s coming up next and so forth. We’ve had this same structure for 40 years, and so it just feels like it’s at least worth asking the question: Is this, in fact, the best way to present programming?” Kerger said the net will consider if there is perhaps another way to give viewers the opportunity to see what’s coming up next in a way without interrupting the program every 10 minutes with a commercial break.

Before ending her session, Kerger addressed the tumultuous changes in public broadcasting in Southern California, which saw the defection of KCET from PBS and the alliance of other public broadcast stations. She complimented KCET’s carriage of international news sources such as Al Jazeera, NHK and BBC and is pleased at how quickly the new PBS SoCal, anchored by KOCE, has come together.

“They’ve done an amazing job in a very short period of time to really step up as a full-service station,” Kerger said. “They were able to not only get the schedule pulled together, but they had to completely rebuild everything so that they could serve the full community, making sure that they were carried on all of the cable services, getting all of the breaks and everything built within just a couple months.”

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