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PBS Chief Paula Kerger Celebrates a Hectic Anniversary

Paula Kerger’s 10th year as the CEO of PBS hasn’t been a quiet one. Already the public broadcaster said goodbye to one flagship series, “Downton Abbey,” and entered into shared custody of another, “Sesame Street.” It announced plans for a new channel devoted to children’s programming, and rolled out a new streaming-video platform to incentivize viewer donations. All this in a presidential-election year — a time when, recent history suggests, PBS is especially likely to be turned into a political football.

Against that backdrop, Kerger is tasked with guiding the public broadcaster through the same shifting media landscape that commercial television companies must navigate. But because of PBS’ unique business model and the challenges baked into it, Kerger, who joined PBS in 2006 and is the longest serving chief executive in its history, must innovate in unique ways — as she has had to do throughout her anniversary year.

“Ten years ago, the big breaking news was ‘Desperate Housewives’ was going to be offered up on iTunes for $1.99,” Kerger says. “It just seemed like such a big, different, weird idea.” Since then, change has not just continued — it’s quickened its pace. “When I travel around, people ask me, ‘Wow, things have changed so much. Do you think the pace of change is going to slow down?’ And it feels like every year it accelerates more and more. This past year it feels like things have really accelerated.”

The last decade has seen television transformed by digital media, with large swaths of viewers migrating from linear telecasts to digital and delayed viewing. A PricewaterhouseCoopers survey in December found that 78% of people subscribe to at least one streaming-video service — and projected that the percentage of consumers who planned to continue their cable subscriptions could drop by as much as 20% in 2016.

In the face of that change, PBS has found a digital foothold. Its general-audience and kids apps have been downloaded more than 39.5 million times. PBSKids.org accounted for 47% of all time spent watching children’s videos online in March, according to comScore. And multichannel network PBS Digital Studios has amassed more than 8 million YouTube subscribers, 80% of whom, according to PBS, are under the age of 34.

“I’ve known all the presidents of PBS back to Larry Grossman, and they’ve all been different,” says Ken Burns, the documentarian whose relationship with PBS spans almost 40 years. “I would say unhesitatingly and without a doubt, Paula’s the best of them all.”

Burns’ 2014 series “The Roosevelts” was the vehicle for another ambitious digital play. PBS made the entire 14-hour series available to stream on the same night as the first episode’s broadcast premiere. The series went on to rack up 1.85 million digital views within one month. Burns calls the streaming strategy “hugely significant” to the success of the series.

But as PBS pushes into digital, it risks being accused of trying to bypass its member stations. Digital platforms give programmers direct access to consumers. They also disturb existing ecosystems. In public television, PBS relies on programming fees from local stations, which in turn rely on the status of being their regions’ conduits to PBS programming as they solicit financial support.

A former executive at New York’s WNET, Kerger has experienced the PBS-member station relationship — and its tensions — from both sides.

“I think that she has been particularly good” at working with local stations, says Burns. Previous PBS leaders paid little attention to local stations “except for the big ones, like Boston or New York. But she’s out there all the time. I’ve bumped into her on the road in Oklahoma. She and I share a mutual friendship and respect for the guy who runs Arkansas.”

Kerger points to Passport, a streaming service introduced in December, as an example of how local stations are being integrated into digital initiatives.

“The only way you can get this is through your station,” Kerger says. “We don’t even offer it up. If you called us to try to get the service, I would point you to a local station.” PBS is also encouraging stations to make their own locally produced programming available on Passport.

The debut of Passport presaged a busy year for Kerger. PBS bid farewell in March to “Downton Abbey,” the British-import drama series that was the most watched show in PBS’ history and ended with its season-six finale.

Less ceremonious was the change in the broadcaster’s 47-year relationship with “Sesame Street.” In January, under a deal made last year with producer Sesame Workshop, HBO became the first-run home of the landmark children’s series. New episodes will migrate to PBS at the end of an exclusive nine-month window for HBO.

Kerger acknowledges the void left by “Downton,” which brought in millions of viewers who otherwise might not have tuned in to PBS. “Looking for ways that we can have other great dramas continuing to have a place on Sunday nights is obviously something that we need to stay focused on,” she says.

But “Sesame Street” is a different matter.

“I have to say that I don’t know that ‘Sesame’ had that kind of impact, because it stayed on public television — it’s in the same timeslot,” Kerger says. “I’m surprised when I talk to people how many people don’t realize that it’s also on HBO.”

Of the deal itself, she says, “I would have hoped that we could have looked at a different broadcast window.”

Because of its close association with the PBS brand, “Sesame Street” has come into play when PBS — specifically funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which provides financial support to PBS stations — has been the subject of political debate. In 2012, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney campaigned on a plan to defund public broadcasting — prompting accusations in the press and on social media that Romney was trying to “kill Big Bird.” Though no such plan has been floated in the current election cycle, House Speaker Paul Ryan has in the past included defunding the CPB as a piece of his proposed federal budget.

As the “Sesame Street”-HBO deal came together, Kerger and PBS executives consulted with members of Congress about possible fallout.

“How this could play out, particularly in a complicated election year, I can’t guess,” she says. “It hasn’t yet. As you well know, we were part of the last presidential debate and that was not a place I ever want us to be again.”

Meanwhile PBS is continuing to push aggressively in original programming for kids and adults. In January it debuted “Mercy Street,” its first American-produced drama in more than a decade, using “Downton Abbey” as a lead-in for the first few episodes. A second season is already in the works and slated to premiere next year. In news and nonfiction programming, PBS announced in January a partnership with NPR on election coverage and a 2017 premiere for Burns’ next series “Vietnam.” And bolstered by the success of series such as “Odd Squad” and “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood,” PBS has introduced plans to launch a new broadcast channel devoted full-time to kids programming.

“In households where you have kids who are at risk, a huge number of those kids are watching primetime television, and there really isn’t an option for them for kids programming,” Kerger says. “We’re hoping that by being accessible to parents between the hours of 6 and 10 in particular, that we’ll be picking up more kids that could benefit from the content that we produce.”

The new channel is set to launch in the fourth quarter of 2016. Which means that Kerger’s 10th year running PBS isn’t going to quiet down any time soon.

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