“We’re very happy today,” PBS president and CEO Paula Kerger told reporters Monday at the Television Critics Assn. press tour in Pasadena, Calif., basking in early ratings for the debut of the new drama “Mercy Street,” which had bowed to a 2.2, exceeding expectations. An additional 200,000 streamed the show, giving a boost to the multi-platform effort behind the launch. “I think we’ve begun an important conversation.”
Still, she resisted repeated efforts to commit to an early renewal for the show. “I haven’t seen scripts for a second season,” she said, “but we have very much left the door open.”
Given that “Downton Abbey” is now in its final season, the network can breathe a sigh of relief that its drama slate seems secure with the Civil War-set series. She defended the use of her limited marketing budget to support that transition, telling reporters, “We’re constantly evaluating how we spend the marketing moneys we have and I think in this case it was a good choice.”
Offered the opportunity to take a victory lap for “Downton Abbey,” Kerger reflected on the series launch, when they referred to it internally as “that Gosford Park project.” They learned valuable lessons from its success, notably the power of social media, as well as greenlighting dramas that have the potential to come back for future seasons. “It’s good stories well told,” she said. “That’s the most powerful reminder from ‘Downton Abbey.’ I believe it can happen again.”
Kerger was also celebrating today’s announcement of the upcoming “Hamilton’s America,” an effort from “Great Performances,” which she said would offer glimpses of the musical itself, as well as behind-the-scenes footage. She said others were pursuing the project but that creator and star Lin-Manuel Miranda ultimately chose PBS because of their past relationship with him. “Our commitment to the arts is deep,” she said. “We’re the logical place. We’re built to do this.”
Kerger talked at length about the upcoming auction set for June, where TV stations may sell their broadcast airwaves to the government — putting in question the future of PBS affiliates. “I am concerned that as this moves forward that the entire country is covered,” she said.
“We have not only been talking to our stations, but we’ve also tried to reach out to the license holders as well to help them understand the importance of having a public media presence in the community.”
Among other highlights from her session:
• “Sesame Street’s” move to HBO:
Kerger defended the move of “Sesame Street” to HBO, saying that the network will still have plenty of children’s programming to offer.
“I am happy that ‘Sesame Street’ will continue on public broadcasting,” she said. “With the investment from HBO, there will be the opportunity for more episodes. As we look at everything we’re doing for kids, ‘Sesame Street’ is only one piece.”
• “Sherlock” season four:
The popular series starring Benedict Cumberbatch will return next year, she said. “Benedict’s gotten popular,” she said. “He very much wants to do it.”
• “Finding Your Roots” controversy:
The PBS genealogy series came under scrutiny after it was revealed that producers had eliminated a reference to Ben Affleck’s family being slave-holders. It returned for a new season on Jan. 5.
“We did a fairly deep dive on trying to understand what had transpired,” she said. Proper fact-checking has now been put in place, she said, calling it a “learning experience.”