CEO Paula Kerger on PBS’s Election Coverage, Funding, and Connecting with Kids
There’s been much to absorb for media outlets across the country following the conclusion of this latest presidential election cycle. The change in political leadership also brings new issues and stories to share with audiences.
At PBS, whose 350 member stations combine to reach nearly 100 million people each month, its focus moving forward remains on how to facilitate conversations surrounding the big issues.
“I think for us in public media we always look at a goal of trying to provide light not heat, and that has been consistent through our coverage of the election and certainly it will be part of our coverage as we look at this new administration,” said Paula Kerger, PBS president and CEO.
The network executive visited member station Ozarks Public Television on Wednesday, just hours after the presidential race was decided. She took time out of her visit to speak with KSMU, which together with OPT make up Ozarks Public Broadcasting.
In July, PBS teamed with NPR for joint coverage of the Republican and Democratic national conventions. The partnership is nothing new, says Kerger, noting her network’s investigative series Frontline, as one example. Kerger acknowledged some issues that first convention night, but overall the joint coverage gave new life to collaborative opportunities in the future.
“Some of the greatest challenges and opportunities that we should be talking about as a country I think is a big moment for public media to come together. So we’re beginning conversations now about what that might look like.”
How might a new administration and makeup of Congress come 2017 affect federal funding for public broadcasting? Kerger says it’s too soon to know. She notes that leadership in the U.S. House and Senate did not experience major change, and PBS has always benefited from bi-partisan support.
“Particularly when you look at some of the work we do on behalf of kids and the work we do in the classrooms, but also the wide arrange of commitment we have to history and science, the arts and news and public affairs; people on both sides of the aisle support our work.”
Public media did not come up this election cycle, notes a smiling Kerger. She’s referencing the 2012 presidential race during which Republican nominee Mitt Romney said during a debate that he would “stop the subsidy to PBS,” despite his love of Big Bird. President Obama would later use the Sesame Street character in a television ad to criticize Romney.
“I believe that if we continue to do the kind of work that ads value that others will see the merits of that,” said Kerger.
On average, according to Kerger, PBS member stations get only 15 percent of its funding from the federal government. The rest is raised internally, mainly through listener contributions. However, she says for stations in more rural areas, using Alaska as an example, the percentage of government subsidy is larger.
“The reason we fight so hard to try to retain some level of funding is that for stations like those, those wouldn’t exist without some level of federal support.”
Kids and Technology
Kerger says she’s excited about launching a 24-hour children’s channel and live stream. Announced in February, the initiative extends kids programming from its traditional daytime hours to “those complicated hours,” as Kerger puts it, when kids are restless and parents are trying to settle the family down.
“We create programs that are not just a safe place for kids to spend time, but all of our programs are education based with the goal of ensuring that every child, no matter where that child lives – whether they live in a house with a lot of technology and resources or a child that lives in a home with no books and no computers – that they have access to information that will help them be successful in school and in life.”
The product’s live streaming capabilities gives parents an option for their children on the go, she says.
Kerger, who has served as CEO since 2006, reflected on the digital changes that have occurred during her tenure.
“In the first year that I was at PBS, ABC announced they were gonna sell episodes of Desperate Housewives on iTunes for $1.99 and it sounded so weird. And of course now we expect that so much of the content that we enjoy on television we’re able to access whenever we want it and wherever we want it.”
She believes the quality and integrity of the content has stayed the same, but that it’s important to cater to the viewer’s selectivity, when able. Kerger adds that some programming is more important to viewers at different stages in their life. She recalls a project a few years back called The Forgetting, which focused on Alzheimer’s disease.
“I can’t tell you how many people contact me and did not find it as relevant in the year that it broadcast but have looked for it on an on-demand basis because they have found it to be helpful with circumstances they’re coping with in their family or with people that are close to them.”
Kerger calls technology for public television “a great gift,” because it enables the network to utilize its library of programming and match it with those who want it when they want it.
“I think that, at the end of the day, ends up being a great public service.”