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PBS Programming Chief Sylvia Bugg Works to Keep the Public Broadcaster Relevant Amid 2020 Tumult

PBS Programming Chief Sylvia Bugg
Getty Images for NALIP

When Sylvia Bugg rejoined PBS for a third stint in February 2020, the public broadcaster faced a conventional set of challenges. Then March happened, and everything became very unconventional.

The onset of the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S. and the summer of social upheaval that followed had a dramatic effect on PBS. Now Bugg — who last month was promoted to chief programming executive and GM of general audience programming — is drawing inspiration from the last few months as she charts a forward-looking content strategy for the organization.

“The real lesson and revelation in all of this was how we had to pivot over the summer, dealing with everything from a pandemic to conversations about race and racism in America, and now an election,” says Bugg. “For me, it is continuing the work of ensuring that our core content strategy remains strong in terms of audience appeal and an audience engagement.”

Turning to long-standing franchises such as “PBS NewsHour” and younger ones such as the digital initiative “American Portrait,” PBS was able to quickly get to air new specials about the COVID-19 pandemic and race in America in the wake of protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd. But it also was able to dive into a vast library of existing programming on science and social issues suddenly more relevant than ever. 

PBS created packages of programs on issues such as race that it continues to feed to its local stations, while also drawing on those stations to provide content for new programs.

“We continue to lean into the local-national relationship,” says Bugg. “So much of the great work that’s done on behalf of public media is done through PBS stations.”

Bugg began her television career in the ’90s as an administrative assistant in the PBS programming department. Then, in 1999, she joined Discovery Communications, serving the cable conglom in a variety of roles for the next 13 years before returning to PBS in 2012 as director of programming. Two years later she left again — but stayed in the media neighborhood, joining the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, where she led diversity initiatives and television content. When she rejoined PBS in the spring, it was as VP of programming, a role she was in only eight months before being promoted.

“As chief programming executive, Sylvia is focused on identifying new and diverse voices, elevating the next generation of emerging filmmakers, and bringing forward the kind of inspirational content that is the hallmark of PBS,” says PBS CEO and president Paula Kerger. “As someone who has led an extraordinary career in public media, she steps into this role with deep experience and unique insights about PBS and our member stations. She is a great leader who is passionate about the mission of public television, and I’m excited for her to put her mark on PBS’ programming as we lean into our next 50 years.”

Bugg’s return to PBS coincided with its 50th anniversary. She was eager to help execute plans for celebrating the milestone, even amid shifting priorities.

Moving forward, she is keenly aware of PBS’ need to evolve. PBS Digital Studios, a short-form content arm, has been brought under the general-audience umbrella, a move Bugg hopes will help the service incubate more content to engage younger viewers. And she emphasizes the need to “continue to reflect the diversity of our audiences and this country.”

Bugg contends that in terms of programming inventory, PBS is “actually in pretty good shape for 2021” despite the production challenges created by the ongoing pandemic. And with no end in sight to the public health crisis and political uncertainty still strong, she points to “NewsHour,” public affairs show “Washington Week” and documentary series “Frontline” as key vehicles through which PBS will continue to serve viewers.

Despite ceaseless growth in the number of subscription streaming platforms in the market, Bugg views PBS’ programming identity as strong enough to keep the service relevant, even vital.

“Yes, it’s a cluttered environment,” she says. “But I still think there is something very special and unique about PBS content. It is great storytelling; it can go in depth; it can go across platforms. And I hope that people can see themselves in our content.”