In the midst of increasingly competitive streaming wars, PBS used its time at the winter Television Critics Association press tour to declare that the network is confident that it will always have a unique space in the television landscape.
Though PBS president and CEO Paula Kerger acknowledged that there is a challenge in “punching through the fray so people are aware of the programs on public television,” she also emphasized the ways in which streaming behemoths like Netflix or Amazon will always differ from PBS. “Public television is not just an ethereal media experience,” Kerger said. She later added that some documentarians are particularly excited to work with PBS instead of a vast streaming platform, where some “get lost in the jukebox effect of scrolling” and “just stumble” on content instead of having it more thoughtfully scheduled.
Then again, as she acknowledged, PBS also benefits from partnering with streamers to air shows such as “Sherlock,” and documentaries like “Minding the Gap” and “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” to make them more visible. Kerger added that PBS has “been in discussions” with platforms like YouTube and SlingTV, but that no partnership announcements are immediately imminent.
Meanwhile, the in-house PBS Passport streaming platform now allows PBS members to explore an archival library of PBS programming. (“It feels like a better thing for people than the mugs, even though we love the mugs,” Kerger joked.) While PBS has experimented with premiering content on Passport, Kerger emphasized that their “first interest is what we’re going on broadcast for free, for everyone.”
Kerger also repeatedly emphasized PBS’ commitment to local stations as singular, saying that they “build trust by connecting with our audience throughout their own communities” with 350 local affiliates. “We are a media service that lives and breathes on the community level,” Kerger said, pointing to their efforts to make content more accessible with the 2017 launch of a 24/7 kids channel that has improved PBS viewing for low-income families by 62%.
And as has become inevitable since President Donald Trump took office, Kerger was asked to address the future of PBS’ government funding. She expressed particular concern about funding for their Ready to Start initiative, which provides resources for early child development, but said, “we’re in a moment right now, in a very bipartisan way, that people understand the importance of early child education.”
Though she added that she has hope that a new wave of Congress members might help ease the tension surrounding public TV funding, Kerger maintained that they never take anything for granted. “No matter who’s in the White House and no matter what party is controlling the Senate, I never assume that money is just gonna come,” she said. “It really requires each and every day for our stations to let their elected officials know that this is important … we could very easily fall through the cracks if we weren’t vigilant.”
In that respect, Kerger continued, “I’m not sure there’ll ever be a time when I’m standing on this stage and say I’m relaxed … justifiably so. We should be asked to prove each and every year that the money is important.”