PBS Chief Paula Kerger Makes the Case for Public Broadcasting in a Peak TV World

Weigel Broadcasting's Neal Sabin also talks to 'Strictly Business' podcast about Me TV growth

Paula Kerger PBS
David Buchan/Variety

Plans to celebrate PBS’ 50th anniversary last year with programming and events were scuttled by the pandemic. As it turned out, the tough environment of the past 14 months reinforced the value of public TV in more significant ways than any marketing campaign could achieve, as PBS president Paula Kerger tells Variety‘s “Strictly Business” podcast.

“In many ways (2020) was the most important year ever for PBS,” Kerger says. The public’s need for information and credible news coverage of the global pandemic and social upheaval in the U.S. was in the PBS sweet spot reflecting “so much of what we’ve been able to do in our 50-year history.”

Kerger said the noncommercial network dug into its mission of being of service to the information and entertainment needs of the American public. PBS’ flagship “NewsHour” saw big viewership gains during an extraordinary news cycle. Behind the scenes, numerous PBS stations around the country partnered with school districts and teachers to provide remote learning resources and other tools as school-from-home became the norm for millions of students.

PBS’ eternal challenge of fundraising to support the nonprofit network was definitely challenged on the institutional side by the economic downturn brought on by the pandemic. But there were some bright spots.

“Because people have been watching a lot of PBS, many (stations) have seen an increase in the number of people becoming members,” Kerger notes. “The sponsorship money and corporate money has been harder. Raising money around events has been harder. It’s a little bit of a mixed story.”

In a separate conversation, Neal Sabin, Weigel Broadcasting vice chairman, discusses the growth of the vintage TV channel MeTV, which was an early entrant into the multicast network arena that is now packed with offerings.

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Weigel vice chairman Neal Sabin Weigel Broadcasting

MeTV’s roots go back nearly 20 years as a local outlet in Chicago, where Weigel owns WCIU-TV. MeTV went national in 2010 after the nation’s conversion to all-digital broadcasting gave TV station owners the ability to program multiple channels using the same signal that once only carried the mothership station.

With a steady diet of “Bonanza,” “Perry Mason,” “The Andy Griffith Show” and other TV gems from distant eras, MeTV has proven competitive in many markets with network affiliate stations.

The multicast nets also benefit from the general decline of broadcast ratings. It now takes a patchwork quilt to generate the ratings points that advertisers demand.

“What has happened of late as cable and broadcast ratings have come down is the need to buy impressions and get to what the agencies need in terms of audience reach,” Sabin says. “They need networks like MeTV to make their campaigns successful. They can’t get all those ratings and impressions on cable these days.”

There’s another secret to MeTV’s success, in Sabin’s view. It’s easy to watch. There’s no streaming platform, no passwords, no apps that crash or need wifi to work. If you have a TV set and a power source, you can watch MeTV in most U.S. markets.

“It’s not a science project to watch MeTV,” Sabin jokes.

“Strictly Business” is Variety’s weekly podcast featuring conversations with industry leaders about the business of media and entertainment. New episodes debut every Wednesday and can be downloaded on iTunes, Spotify, Google Play, Stitcher and SoundCloud.