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PBS sets sights on arts expansion

Pubcaster sets goal to ramp up coverage

WASHINGTON — Describing herself as “passionate about the arts,” PBS topper Paula Kerger plans to increase arts programming and coverage — assuming, of course, that FCC indecency cops don’t get in the way.

Speaking at a National Press Club luncheon Tuesday, Kerger, in prepared remarks, touted PBS’ “uncontested leadership” in arts coverage among television networks. “We have no rivals,” she said. “For serious arts coverage, there is only one choice.”

But while praising PBS for its arts lineup, observers and critics have noted that current levels of arts programming are down significantly from 25 years ago. Also, according to pubcasting officials, the amount of PBS’ overall programming devoted to arts — about 20% — has remained flat for the past five or six years.

Asked whether she intends to increase such coverage, Kerger replied, “I certainly do. I am passionate about arts programming and how it serves our community and opens minds.”

She said a prominent San Francisco Ballet company member once told her that he wouldn’t have even known about ballet had it not been for a PBS broadcast he’d seen years ago.

But any increase in programming would depend on how much additional money can be raised for the operating budget, Kerger continued. “One of our big priorities will be to raise money for more arts programming,” she said. “We need to grow our funding pie.”

In addition to arts programming like “Great Performances” and “Masterpiece Theatre,” PBS airs arts-related documentaries. A recent example is Martin Scorsese’s acclaimed history of blues music, which resulted in an indecency fine against a San Mateo, Calif., pubcaster because at least one viewer had complained about words like “shit” and “fuck” that bluesmen used.

“The documentary film community is very concerned about the impact the ruling will have on them, and we share that concern,” Kerger said when asked about the fine.

“The chilling effect a ruling like that could have on us is huge,” she added. She said PBS’ office of general counsel “is working closely” with the pubcaster in its defense. Both the station and Scorsese have filed oppositions to the fine.

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