PBS kicks off winter TCA tour

Prexy-CEO Kerger willing to 'make tough decisions' in 2012

Despite GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney’s call for ending federal funding for public broadcasting, PBS execs say that it will be the viewing public that determines whether the network will thrive or shrink in the years to come.

“What we hope to say over the next few months is make clear to our elected officials that we have the broad support of the American public,” Paula Kerger, president-CEO of PBS, said Wednesday at the first day of the Television Critics Assn. tour in Pasadena. “Public broadcasting provides an important source of information for many communities.”

Romney, who recently announced he wouldn’t subsidize PBS under his presidency, has said it’s time for the network to earn its own coin via traditional commercial-generated revenue rather than receiving funds from the government.

“Is a program so critical that it’s worth borrowing money from China to pay for it?,” he said. “I like PBS. We subsidize PBS. Look, I’m going to stop that. I’m going to say, ‘PBS is going to have to have advertisements.’ We’re not going to kill Big Bird, but Big Bird’s going to have advertisements, all right?”

Kerger, who rebutted the premise about possibly advertising on “Sesame Street,” knows the pubcaster might find itself in the middle of a political fray between now and Election Day, and said she’s willing “to make tough decisions” as far as how PBS prioritizes its budget. She added that while the federal subsidies for PBS stations in major cities amounts to only about 10%, in more rural areas that contribution can jump to 40% and is “money that can’t be made up.”

Ultimately, Kerger said, if funding is pulled those viewers in more remote areas would suffer the most.

Many in government, Kerger added, have suggested PBS to look more like History, which offered a slew of docus before topper Nancy Dubuc gave it more of a reality spin. Kerger argued, however, that the analogy between the two nets isn’t particularly accurate.

“Congress has said maybe you can learn from this, but ‘Pawn Stars’ and ‘American Pickers’ is not the same as ‘American Experience’ and Ken Burns,” she said.

Speaking of Burns, the documentarian who has had a longtime relationship with PBS is working on two new projects: the Vietnam War and a look at the Roosevelts — Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor — and their place in American history.

Burns’ four-hour “The Dust Bowl,” is set to premiere in the fall.

Talkshow host Charlie Rose, another of PBS’ signature personalities, will be at the pubcaster for the foreseeable future, said Kerger, despite his recent gig as a host on CBS’ ayem news “CBS This Morning.”

The PBS topper said the only reason Rose took the broadcast assignment was to help give him more TV exposure and to use that to help the ratings for PBS’ “Charlie Rose.”

“My only concern is that he gets enough sleep,” Kerger said of the 70-year-old TV vet.

A year after PBS moved its Los Angeles affiliate from KCET to KOCE — nicknamed PBS SoCal — Kerger said the transition has been smooth. The only glitch was alerting Hispanic viewers that PBS’ childrens programming was on a new channel.

New programming announced at TCA include a summer arts festival set to premiere June 29. Fest, to be hosted by Anna Deavere Smith, will include specials on the Kansas City Philharmonic, the Cuban music scene and a profile of actor-playwright John Leguizamo.

PBS also has high hopes for the second season of “Downton Abbey,” which will debut Sunday. “Downton Abbey” was a big winner at the most recent Emmys, winning for top miniseries and drawing viewers to the pubcaster who may not have tuned there before.