Longtime PBS President and CEO Paula Kerger is proud of the fact-based, trusted journalism the network provided leading up to the election and inauguration— including the United State Capitol’s violent siege on Jan. 6.
“This commitment to editorial integrity is especially important in this climate of misinformation and it is one of the reasons that PBS center member stations continue to be the most trusted national institution for 18 years running,” Kerger said during her executive session at the network’s Television Critics Association (TCA) virtual winter press tour on Tuesday. “As we reflect on the past year there are lessons from this extraordinary time that inform public television’s path forward.”
To that end, Kerger discussed how the network has deepened its commitment to sharing stories of historically marginalized communities from filmmakers of diverse backgrounds and to heightening awareness about the legacies of systemic racism hate and inequality that continues to plague our country. PBS’ plan to leverage the unique strengths of public television to enable meaningful change will be twofold: releasing special TV programming that is focused on Black history and stories, and major social justice initiatives.
“I believe that PBS and remember stations have an important role to play in shining a bright light on facts, creating a space for civil discourse and sparking conversations about where we go from here,” Kerger added.
Some of the programs coming to PBS in the coming months include “The Black Church: This is Our Story, This is Our Song,” executive produced by Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr, who is also behind the PBS series “Finding Your Roots.” The two-part, four-hour documentary premieres on Feb. 16 and 17.
Kerger also announced other inclusions to PBS’ slate, including “Tulsa: The Fire and The Forgotten,” which is set to air on May 31 and will examine the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre on the 100th anniversary of the crime in the context of “other racial masochism police killings,” executive produced by WNET’s Lesley Norman. Stanley Nelson, the founder of Firelight Media, will be collaborating with PBS’ science series NOVA to produce segments on medical racism, which will explore racial inequity in our nation’s healthcare system as well as scientific evidence that racism itself has an adverse impact on the human body. Additionally, PBS’ docuseries “Independent Lens” will delve into issues that affect BIPOC most, including mass incarceration in Philadelphia (“Philly D.A.”) and facial-recognition software algorithms (“Coded Bias”). Furthermore, the history series “American Experience” will feature the story of Isaac Woodward, a Black army sergeant who was left permanently blind in the ’40s after police savagely beat him. “The Blinding of Isaac Woodward” premieres on March 30.
“We’re committed to shining a light on the next generation of filmmakers in close partnership with the National Multicultural Alliance,” Kerger said. As such, PBS is launching an open call to further amplify the work of storytellers. The network is encouraging content creators of diverse backgrounds to submit both long and short-form films. PBS will provide funding to the top entries.
Moreover, Kerger mentioned some of PBS’ other anticipated upcoming projects that “draw inspiration from founding pioneers” like the upcoming PBS Kids puppet series “Donkey Hodie,” which is inspired by Fred Rogers and the iconic “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” New, original music will be featured in the show—along with reimagined versions of Fred Rogers’ beloved songs. “Donkey Hodie” premieres on May 3. The PBS boss also touched on the network’s audience developing a “deepening appetite” for British drama during COVID-19, particularly for those who were looking for an immersive escape into another country. As a result, “All Creatures Great and Small” is having “an extraordinary run,” Kerger said. “Call the Midwife,” another popular British drama on PBS, had to delay its production due to the pandemic, but Kerger confirmed that the series would be broadcast sometime later this year.
Though according to Kerger, many people are watching public television right now, not all of PBS’ stations fared well with all of the unprecedented tumults of 2020, prompting the network to freeze positions and freeze salary increases. Still, Kerger is “cautiously optimistic,” especially in regards to President Biden’s budget. While the President’s budget has not been released yet, PBS has a “great relationship” with the Bidens and has “deep support” from Congress. Part of that foundation comes from First Lady Jill Biden and the President’s commitment to education, and how PBS and other public television stations have been broadcasting educational content into homes for kids who may not have access to broadband in the house.
“I think like any company in this country right now we’re managing quite dynamically we want to make sure that we’re putting all of our investment into the things that matter, and the things that matter to our viewers. And our stations need from us, and that’s where we’re making those investments. So stay tuned for more to follow I’m sure as we get deeper into this year-end and just see how the country begins to recover,” Kerger stated.