Pasadena, CA (The Hollywood Times) 1/16/17 – The PBS mission has been the same since it’s inception. To provide a service and bring hard news and quality entertainment over-the-air to communities poorly served by for-profit-only broadcast goliaths like CBS, NBC, ABC and FOX. So, it would make sense that questions about politics and funding would dominate this exec session. In fact Paula Kerger had a friendly bet that the first question from the TCA would be about the incoming Trump administration and it’s effect on PBS funding. Turned out it was the second question. Regardless, the seismic shift in the political landscape cast a long shadow over this PBS Executive session in a way I’ve never seen before.
Look at the line-up for the coming year and you can see PBS might already be in the crosshairs of the Fact-Free posse. Science program “NOVA” is going bold with an episode bringing the Flint water pollution disaster front and center. “Masterpiece” is tacking away from 19th century period curios by offering a feminist viewpoint with “Prime Suspect: Tennison”. Also, the whole concept of the British monarchy is challenged with the Future/Drama “King Charles III”.
With that in mind, Kerger made sure she rolled out mundane programming announcements early in her preamble. Additionally, she gave a heartfelt tribute to Gwen Ifill who passed away last year. Ifill was a mainstay and respected elder of the most respected news program on broadcast, “The PBS News Hour”. MLK day will see the launch of the first ever PBS Kids 24/7 channel; an over-the-air channel that will bring constant access to informative, entertaining, child-oriented content to 90% percent of the households in America. The launch includes live streaming through pbskids.org and the PBS Kids Video APP. This roll out will also include an interactive gaming feature with an educational slant. Kerger pointed to recent surveys that indicate parents trust PBS – more than any other network – with their kid’s impressionable brains.
On the drama front, the ‘Masterpiece’ series “Sherlock” has proven itself a franchise player throughout four seasons across multiple platforms and trending upward. Additionally, civil war drama “Mercy Street” returns for a second season, and period piece “Victoria” kicks off it’s eight part run Sunday night.
After a polite inquiry on the advisability of giving kids a reason to watch TV at three in the morning, we got to the question on everyone’s mind; Trump’s election and its affect on public funding:
Paula Kerger: “So I lost my bet. I thought that would be the first question. It’s really too early to tell. I’ve been in this work for a long time, both in the 11 years that I’ve been at PBS and 13 years before that in public broadcasting. And so we have periodically gone through periods where our funding has been at risk.”
Kerger went on to discuss the metrics or funding and what’s at stake for PBS:
“Our funding through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting through the federal government represents about 15% of our funding for public television in total. That’s our entire industry. Most of that money goes directly to our stations. And so the question you didn’t ask, but someone will, is what happens if that goes away? The reason that we fight very hard for that 15% is that’s an aggregate number. For some of our stations, a percentage of their budget that represents federal funding is smaller, 7, 9, 10%. But for stations particularly in rural parts of the country and in places like Alaska, in particular, the percentage of the station’s budget that is from the federal government represent about 50%.
So we work very hard, particularly our stations at the local level, in talking to legislators about the importance of federal funding, because it enables our content to be accessible to everyone in this country, and it particularly is critical in parts of the country where citizens may not have access to information other ways, and particularly as we look at what I just announced with the children’s channel, that we care a lot about making sure that our content connects to families, and particularly to kids who are most at risk, and many of those are watching us over the air, and many of them really rely on the services we provide that is made possible by the federal appropriation.”
Politicians have rattled their sabers in the direction of Public Broadcasting before. Particularly when truth and facts seem to support a progressive agenda. It’s obvious that Kerger and PBS know what’s at risk and are taking proactive steps to protect their funding:
“And so as we’ve looked at this change, and change always presents a lot of uncertainty, and in this case, more uncertainty. We are spending time talking to as many people as we can, but particularly legislators, both sides of the aisle, the Senate and the House, to make sure that they understand the role that we play in civic discourse in this country, but also the role that we play in helping to reach those with content that we think will make a difference in their lives. So stay tuned. I’m sure that I’ll be talking to some of you over the course of these next months as we see how this begins to play out. And in the meantime, we will be spending time and particular stations will be spending a lot of time talking to their legislators, as they wrestle with difficult decisions, to try to help them understand the consequence of any reduction in federal funding to public broadcasting.”
Kerger discussed private funding and journalism:
PAULA KERGER: “It’s a little early to tell how the end-of-the-year fund raising has gone. We’re just starting to hear from stations. The last couple years, we’ve seen an increase in our funding from individual philanthropy. That is the largest percentage of money that comes into our stations, is from the individuals. Our plan over these next months, over these next years, is to do the job the public expects of us, to bring the very best in journalism, through series like the NEWSHOUR, but also FRONTLINE, and as you look at our lineup over the course of this next year, you’ll see we’re trying to understand what is the most important issues of the time and making sure that we’re connecting those stories to the public. And there’s lots of ways to do that, and I think you’ll see across our schedule a real commitment. And so my hope is that we’ll continue to see strong support from individuals, and I have every reason to believe that will, in fact, be the case.”
In this post fact world, science and critical thinking are clearly the enemies of a large swath of politicians, evangelicals and science deniers. Kerger seems solidly committed to the PBS mission of bringing news and information to people ill served by mass media. Kerger was asked if affiliate stations in conservative areas of the country have pushed back because of content:
PAULA KERGER: “No. And, in fact, I think it’s tremendously important, again, because we reach everyone in this country, to use the opportunity that we have to help people understand science and to help understand that fact is fact, and that’s what we do with the science programming. I think that the range of programs that we have committed to in science, both through our series NOVA and NATURE, but also the special series that we have brought to public television hopefully will make a real contribution to helping people understand science and natural history, the fragility of our Earth and our collective responsibility towards it. The truth is that for 14 years now, we have participated in an annual poll, and we are deemed the most trusted public institution in America, and I take that very seriously. In fact, when I look at all of the ways that we gauge our success, the audiences that we’re able to garner around series, awards, that’s all your parlance. These are the ways that you normally gauge success. I’m not gauging success by advertising revenue. That’s not part of what we do. But that annual survey, really looking at how people view public television, the trust that they place in us is the most important, and particularly, I think, in this era, a reliance on an organization that is trusted, that has presence in every community in this country, puts us in a different position than any other media organization.”
Now more than ever, Public Broadcasting is both the conscience and beating heart of American media.