Since Perry Simon joined PBS a year ago, he has instituted a programming strategy that is tailored to the unique set of challenges that the public broadcaster faces in the evolving media world. He has also employed a fair number of silly references and acronyms. When PBS’ new programming chief says “LOL,” for instance, he’s talking about “leveraging our localism.” From the mouth of a PBS exec, it plays a bit like a hacky dad joke. But that’s the idea.
“When I got here, I felt that this place was frankly just too damn earnest,” Simon says with a laugh. “You know, like we’ve just got to lighten up here a bit, folks. PBS takes itself really seriously. So I’ve been trying to instill in the team here that it’s OK to have some fun with our programming and introduce some lightness.” To that end, he adds, he has been reminding staff of what he describes as the “Mary Poppins” strategy: “A spoonful of sugar can help the mission and go down.”
The mission, of course, is unlike that of any other U.S. programmer, and Simon is serious about it (“Poppins” nods notwithstanding). A commercial television veteran, he enjoyed successful runs at NBC and Viacom, and from 2010 to 2015 was general manager at BBC America. He joined PBS in September, 2018 from Vulcan productions, where he oversaw documentaries, television series and digital content. He had no prior experience in public media.
As such, it would be understandable if Simon took a beat to acclimatize. But he has moved quickly to identify what makes PBS unique, and develop ideas that play to its strengths and account for its limitations.
“He’s intellectually curious,” PBS president and CEO Paula Kerger says of Simon — who, she adds, has already visited roughly 20 stations in his first year on the job. “He has a wonderful manner. He’s an extraordinary listener. He genuinely cares about and understands what people are thinking about.”
Take “LOL.” Whether cute or cringey, its emphasis on the local speaks to a structural truth about PBS that isn’t well understood — that it’s not a top-down network of affiliates, but rather an organization of member stations. Many key decisions, particularly when it comes to programming, are made at the local level.
The first PBS series greenlit under Simon to make it to air is emblematic of the “LOL” approach. “Retro Report,” which premiered Oct. 7, is an hour-long magazine hosted by journalist Celeste Headlee and artist Masud Olufani, and featuring the New Yorker’s Andy Borowitz. The series takes topics such as football player Colin Kaepernick’s protests against racial injustice and places them in the context of historical incidents such as demonstrations by athletes at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. It also is the first national program to originate from PBS member organization Georgia Public Broadcasting.
One key element of the show is a supplemental initiative called Retro Local, through which PBS provides grants to member stations so they can produce their own segments to air as part of their broadcasts of “Retro Report.” Those local segments are made available through PBS to other stations, should they also want to air them.
“Our producers embraced it, because this is where we’re going to find some of our future stories for future episodes — through the Retro Local stories that we might not have known before,” Simon says. “So we’ve got everyone from Alaska to Florida to Tennessee doing their retro local stories to be companions to the national ‘Retro Report.’”
In addition to the opportunities to leverage local content on a national scale, Perry also understands the limitations under which PBS operates. Marketing budgets, even for stalwarts such as “Nova,” “Nature” and “Masterpiece,” could charitably be called modest. With that in mind, Simon has developed what he calls “quarterly programming initiatives” — clusters of related programs grouped around topics such as arts, natural history, health and wellness or food and culture. Simon, of course, refers to these by an acronym: “QPs.”
“By having this QP strategy, we are clustering together programs that are similarly related in theme,” Simon says, in the hopes that viewers of a particular program will find other content of the same kind on PBS’ broadcast and digital platforms with which to engage.
Marketing, Simon knows, is not the only challenge he faces at PBS. His emphasis on a lighter tone is informed in large part by demographics.
“Our core audience right now tends to be, this won’t come as a surprise, a considerably older audience,” he says. “It’s going to be very important to build a bridge. And I used the word ‘bridge’ advisedly, because we absolutely want to hold on to and continue to support the older core audience. But at the same time we need to build a bridge to start attracting younger, more diverse viewers.”
To do that, Simon says, PBS will have to focus not just on shifting tone, but also on increasing diversity in front of and behind the camera, and on its digital platforms. And it will also, of course, need to continue to put local concerns first.
“I look at the Netflixs of the world and the Amazons and Hulus and the big players like the HBOs and the major networks — Netflix is bent on global domination,” Simon says. “And I come to PBS and realize PBS is bent on community domination. None of these other media platforms are thinking about community. So I saw that as an advantage and an opportunity and a chance to do something really meaningful.”