PBS Chief on Election Coverage, Continuing Mister Rogers’ Legacy

PBS boss Paula Kerger admitted that the upcoming presidential election will likely be one of the most hostile in history. However, she said PBS intends to remain focused on the facts and the biggest issues facing Americans in its coverage.

Speaking during her executive session at the network’s Television Critics Association press tour day, Kerger discussed how the network’s Democratic debate and election coverage sets it apart from the other networks.

“What we have always tried to do in organizing the debates is not to be based on what everyone else is doing, but to, as we look at the news coverage, step back and think about what are the issues that we hope will come forward,” Kerger said. “Our debate really did try to get more information in front of the public so they could make better, informed decisions.”

In terms of how PBS is approaching its coverage from the upcoming year, Kerger said one of the keys is to learn an important lesson from how the last election was covered.

“Part of what we learned out of the last election coverage, in addition to the animosity of this particular presidential race, is the fact that so much of the coverage was tied to polls and not really based on conversations with people around the country,” she said. “We need to make sure we’re talking to people around the country and make sure we understand what issues are important to them.”

As PBS enters its 50th year of broadcasting, Kerger said the network is planning an anniversary celebration that looks to the future of the network, as well as reflecting on the impact of public television.

Kerger said it’s still too early to assess how the network’s partnership with YouTube TV is going, but added that PBS is still in negotiations with “all the other streaming partners.”

“Viewers have rapidly changing expectations of where and when and how they’ll be able to access content, we have been working on this for a very long time, building partnerships,” she said. “The future of PBS is multi-platform and experiential. It is always routed in community, guided by a mission and focus on authentic storytelling.”

At the heart of those anniversary plans is a new national storytelling project called “American Portrait,” which Kerger described as the network’s “most ambitious project ever.”

The project will ask people all around the country to participate in a conversation about what it means to be an American today. It will begin as a platform for user-generated content participation, and the network hopes it will eventually extend across a whole host of platforms including a web miniseries, public art installations, live events and a documentary series.

Kerger also touched on the network’s longterm collaboration with Fred Rogers Productions. She described it as “an important mission” for PBS to honor the legacy of Mister Rogers, which the network is hoping to continue doing through two forthcoming PBS Kids series.

First, Kerger announced a new season of “Odd Squad,” which will add Toni Collette to its cast. Collette will play the villainous Sand Queen in the series, which centers on four young agents who are part of the titular squad. 

Second, she announced a new pre-school show titled “Donkey Hodie,” a puppet series which follows the adventures of Donkey Hodie, the granddaughter of the original Donkey Hodie character from “Mister Roger’s Neighborhood.” The original character, known as Grampy Hodie, appeared in 59 episodes of the classic children’s show from 1968-1993.

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