Public Broadcasting in the Public Interest, Part II

GUEST: Paula Kerger
AIR DATE: 07/07/2012
VTR: 05/10/2012

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And I’m so pleased to be joined here again today by Paula Kerger, the quite extraordinary woman who served a memorable decade at the Educational Broadcasting Corporation, the parent company of New York’s Channels 13 and 21, becoming its executive vice president and chief operating officer before moving up in 2006 to become President and Chief Executive Officer of the Public Broadcasting Service – PBS – the nation’s largest non-commercial media organization, with more than 350 member stations throughout the United States.

Well, as I noted last time, my guest is now the surrogate mother of all of us in this medium – a brilliant and nurturing one, indeed – as she presides so even-handedly and even-headedly over public broadcasting in the public interest. And I think we ought to pick up now where we left off last time. Paula we were talking about enhanced commercials.

Now I’ll, I would be remiss if I didn’t pick up on the question of this notion of possibly interrupting programs now or maybe not even interrupting them, but placing these enhanced underwriting symbols in the middle of a program.

KERGER: Yeah. We actually … you know, we spend a lot of time thinking about how we can improve the experience that people have watching public television. And we try to understand what are the attributes of the work that we do that is most … the most important to the people that watch.

And one of the things that we’ve heard … for a number of years … is that we have this big break between our shows … you know, that people, I think enjoy using that time to go to the kitchen and make a sandwich perhaps, but it’s, it’s, it’s a long period of time and if you look at other broadcasters, we’re unique in that space.

And a part of the reason that we have that big break is that we have all of our business we need to take care of … it gives us a chance, that’s the time when we can tell people where to find other programs that are coming up, it gives our local stations an opportunity to thank their donors, it gives us a chance to really talk about whatever the … the issues are that, that a station needs to accomplish in, in, in doing its work each and every day.

And so we … a year or so ago we thought about what if we could sort of break that up a little bit and not break into, into the programs per se, but what if we could move that a little bit … maybe one side or the other … maybe break it in half and so that you’d have programs running together. Because we lose a lot of people in those breaks. People are watching something and then by the time you get to the other end of, of the different promotions and so forth, they’ve moved on.

So, we toyed with it, but we’ve not been able to come up with a way of doing it that would, that would compromise what people most value which is that seamless experience of watching a program. So, I wouldn’t say that we would never think about doing it. Because we do have some programs that do have natural breaks and perhaps for those, that find those breaks between programs so long that might be a relief. I don’t know. But if we ever went down that path, we would certainly do it carefully and I can’t imagine there’s, there’s so many programs that we do have on our air … that part of the beauty of watching them on public television is that they have that opportunity to have the whole sweep of the story and I’d hate to see that interrupted … so …

HEFFNER: In my day … fifty years ago … one of the criticisms of educational television, as it was called … well it was called then … beginning to be called then … your network would be called, if you want to call it a network … the British Broadcasting Network. Because of all the programs, the quality programs that came from England. What’s the situation now, and what’s the reaction to what the situation is?

KERGER: Well, we, we certainly work with partners in, in the UK on some of the work that we produce. That’s actually how we’re able to take the resources we have a leverage it into, into a schedule of programming for American audience.

And some of our biggest programs this past year have been those partnerships. We have a partnership with Channel 4 with Downton Abbey. We have partnerships with … that has just brought us the Sherlock series which is another really big success for us.

But we also, with some of those partnerships … for example we did a whole series of programs that looked at different periods of time and really … and put contemporary people into those settings.

One was a show called Frontier House another one was called Colonial House, one was called 1900 House. We did those with, with UK partners and actually the way that series worked is we shot half of the programs here in the United States. They shot half of the programs in the UK and then we exchanged them.

So, we … you know, I, I think our media partners in the UK and in other places … we’ve worked with NHK in Japan … we’ve worked with Canadian broadcasting. So we have other relationships beyond just our relationship with the BBC.

But interestingly, back in November of last year we turned the tables a little bit and we launched our first international channel which is PBS-UK.

HEFFNER: Now tell us about that, that’s fascinating.

KERGER: Yeah. And so, you know, I have …

HEFFNER: Tomorrow the world.

KERGER: … tomorrow the world (laugh) … perhaps. But I’ve always thought that, you know, if you look at the work in the United States that is sent overseas … and we sell our programs to different broadcasters overseas. Not all of them, but, but ones that are of interest.

And so it’s not as if public television work hasn’t been seen outside of the United States, but, but in, you know, small doses. And when I think about some of the big programs that are exported … you know, for many years the, the biggest export … cultural export from the United States was Baywatch.

Well, I’m sure Baywatch is an interesting program to some, but it doesn’t, in my mind reflect the full character and spirit of this country and so I’ve been interested for a long time in, in trying to figure out how to put together a full channel that we could share with audiences around the world to show another side of America.

And so we were very fortunate that we were able to build a relationship with a … someone who I refer to as a venture philanthropist … someone who actually grew up in Canada, ironically, but watched a lot of PBS content growing up. Has been living in the UK for about 20 years, really missed it and had the same idea that I did. He felt that in a time when countries really need to understand each other better, that this would be a really great opportunity for public television.

And so he put up the investment capital, we put up the programs. We got … and so we, ah … we launched our channel in, in November and it’s done well.

You know people like Ken Burns are not so well known outside of the United States. And so we launched with Prohibition … just right after Prohibition … his series on Prohibition launched here … and it was hugely successful.

And it’s interesting, since the channel’s been up … the most popular program, so far, broadcast last week and it was a program produced as part of our American Experience series on the Amish. Now isn’t that interesting?

HEFFNER: It is.

KERGER: So, I …

HEFFNER: And a wonderful program.

KERGER: Yes. So, I, I, I’m very excited about what we’re doing in the UK. And, and if it works there and we’re still, we working hard on it, we have a staff … a big staff of four people (laugh) who put this whole channel together and they’ve done a really great job at, at really experimenting with something that I think does have the potential of bringing great American stories other places.

Newshour, by the way, appears there. So, a UK audience has a chance to listen to how we think about the news and, and some of our major series are, are run every night, so …

HEFFNER: So you’re competitive there. How competitive are you here in the States?

KERGER: Well, I think, you know, there are a lot of people that, you know, believe that there’s just some small group of people that watch public television. But 91% of all US households watch public television.

HEFFNER: 91%?

KERGER: 91%. Our audience is significantly larger than, you know, channels like Bravo and HBO. More people watch the Newshour than, than CNN. You know, so I think that there is a lot of people in this country that are watching public television and our audiences are “up”. They’ve been “up” for the last two years. Our children’s audience is “up” significantly … our prime time audience is “up” about 4% this year in a, in a … where flat seems to be the new “up” …

HEFFNER: (Laugh)

KERGER: … as some say. And I think part of it is because when you really look at what’s on television right now, it’s really interesting. So, there are … there is a lot of, I think, very fine scripted drama now on television. There’s some really fine programs … my, my favorite program right now is a series called Homeland, it’s aired on, on Showtime.

There is a lot of reality programming … 56% of television right now is reality shows.

And so, when you think about that, you realize that there is suddenly for a public broadcaster a very big opening. So, I think about channels that were created to be the commercial versions of public television.

So Arts and Entertainment started out on a very different path before it became A&E and running a lot of, of CSI and Law and Order repeats. You look at a channel like Bravo that started out, again, as a, as an arts channel and really … started to go down a very different path when first Project Runway and then all of the different programs are about creativity, but a different kind of creativity than one thinks about when one thinks of the performing arts.

And my, and my most recent example is the History Channel which is being … which has undergone a true transformation … from a commercial standpoint … has been tremendously successful, they have brilliant woman running History, but it’s not really history …

HEFFNER: Not history.

KERGER: … programming anymore. You know, so their big programs are programs like American Pickers, Pawn Stars and Ice Road Truckers. And so, suddenly, I think there, there are a lot of people that are hungering for the kind of content that we produce and they’re coming to public television.

HEFFNER: Paula, if you took that argument and turned it around, and that’s what always worried me about what would happen … first worried about the competition you would have from the cable channels and their determination now to switch sides and to do what, presumably, you were doing. The opposite of what you were doing. Doesn’t that indicate that the American people in largest part, provide an audience for that kind of … I won’t characterize it … that kind of programming?

KERGER: No. I don’t think so. I think what they are doing, very smartly, is they are very interested in a specific market segment that advertisers are interested in.

And so, if you are pursuing an 18 to 35 year old male viewer, you’re going to create programming of a certain type. That leaves a lot of Americans out.

And so I hear from a lot of people who come up to me as I travel around the country and, and visit with our stations that are very worried that there’s not a lot of television for them.

And by “them” I actually am talking about a lot of older American who feel that the rest of the commercial landscape has just sort of forgotten about them. A lot of people who have interests beyond just being entertained. That really look at the time that they spend with television as a time not just to while away some hours, but also to feel inspiration.

And so, I think, that our audience numbers prove the fact that so many people are looking for the kind of content that we produce. And because we’re not focused on trying to sell to advertisers who are interested in males that are 18 to 35 and that’s not to say that there aren’t a lot of those guys watching public television because they are.

But that’s not who we’re building our service for solely. And so that is a … I think that’s really at the heart of, of why we were created.

When, when we were created, when there were only a couple channels there was, at that point, a great recognition that there would be areas that commercial television would never be able to take up.

And not that I want to define ourselves by market failure, but, you know, for a number of years it was very clear the difference between us and everyone else.

And then, I think, that there were some people that looked at the success that public television had and thought well, we could create … we could create programming that would be in the commercial marketplace that would look just like public television.

And that had some, some good success … reasonable success. But, I think at the end of the day, if … as more and more pressures to deliver ROI on the programming pressure you … it just takes you down a different path … and at first subtlety.

So, you know, you would be doing a lot of work on natural history … we do. We have a series Nature that’s produced by WNET that’s been on the air for a number of years.

There are programs that look like Nature on other channels. But they tend to focus on a much smaller subset of, of topic areas, you know, so … and not to pick on Discovery’s Shark Week, but sharks are going to be of great interest to a wider audience than say a program that is about an environmental issue. And so I think that that’s … even those subtle differences I think remind us that there is a gap between what commercial television is set out to do and what we’re set out to do.

We both use the same medium, we’re both using television, but we are in profoundly different businesses. When, when you are trying to focus on profit, you will make very different decisions than if you’re focused instead on what I refer to as a double bottom line.

Obviously we have to run a well run organization, we need to balance our budget, we need to be thoughtful about our investments. But our true bottom line is being able to fulfill our mission.

HEFFNER: Paula, fifty years ago when Channel 13 here in New York began, and I would go to meetings like the one you’ll go to next week of the public stations, I was a renegade though I was the manager of the largest station at the time, my sympathies were with the small stations, the many, many, many smaller stations around the country.

And that made people in Chicago and Boston and San Francisco rather angry with me. I’ve sort of changed my mind about that as I … on the outside look at some of the financial problems that we were talking about initially in our last program together.

And think that maybe the answer has to be not so damn many stations. Forgive me, you preside over those stations, but rather satellites and a few producing stations. What’s your reaction?

KERGER: Well, it’s a really important question and it’s one that our stations are really grappling with right now as we look at what is the best … how can we be the best stewards of the money that’s entrusted to us to deliver quality content?

I think that some of the … some of what we wrestle with is the fact that as I travel around and as I visit in communities across the country, I see that for many parts of the country, the only remaining locally owned and operated broadcaster is the public station.

And so I think before we look at shuttering the doors of stations across the country, I think we have to consider the difference it makes to have people running a broadcast outlet in a community that’s run by people that live in that community.

That stand in the bank lines, that stand in the grocery store next to their members of the community that really understand at a profound level what’s happening in that community and that can document and tell those stories.

I, I visited a couple years ago our smallest public television station which is in Cookeville, Tennessee … the station literally is underneath the bleachers of a football stadium there. And the woman who runs that station is extraordinary and what she has done over the years is she has basically documented the history of that community.

And it is a rich community that, that has a rich cultural heritage that no one else is recording. So, I do think that in communities where the public television station basically just takes the PBS signal and just passes it through … then I would agree that I don’t know that those stations necessarily are as important in this day and age when you can deliver a signal in other ways.

HEFFNER: What are the numbers of the two different kinds?

KERGER: But I think for those stations … I think for those stations that truly are interested in trying to be a convening place for a local community and an historian for a local community. I think those stations we need to really pay attention to.

So, let me … I’m not skirting your question, but I will say to you I was in Kansas City last week. Now Kansas City is an, is an interesting community because it is just large enough that you can do some really interesting work. And it’s, and it’s large enough to have scale, but it’s not so big that you can’t get your arms fully around it if you’re a public broadcaster.

And Kansas City is going through some really interesting community discussions about the future of Kansas City. And the public station has put itself right in the middle. They have a dynamic General Manager, a guy by the name of Cliff Kiehl, who’s been there now a few years and he is at the table with the community leaders as they really are wrestling with these issues because what he’s constantly thinking about is one, how do I chronicle the story so that those that are in, in power to be making decisions on behalf of the community are held accountable, but also, how do we bring the community into these discussions?

So I think those are some of the opportunities that our public stations really should be taking up and many of them have done over the years. Some not so much recently. But what he is good at doing and also the, the guy that runs our station in Detroit, who comes out of a radio background has been extraordinarily good at doing … is looking at the programs that come to him through public broadcasting, through PBS, through the collective investment that we all make.

And he is constantly challenging his … himself and his station team to look at all that content and figuring out how do we make this local? How do we connect this to people in our community in a way that’s going to be impactful for them? I think you need somebody on the ground to be thinking about that. Whether you’re telling your own stories or your taking the local content.

So, I do think that, ahemm, being able to look at that before you make the determination of how many stations you need or you don’t need is an important consideration.

Now, I will say to you that over the course of the last few years we’ve lost some stations. We had a station in Waco that, that closed. We had a station in Flint, Michigan that closed. We had a station in Los Angeles that made a decision that they wanted to be an independent station and so we consolidated our broadcast work with another station in, in Los Angeles and so we have actually seen a process of, of fewer stations through an evolution.

But what we’ve also seen is that stations have realized that they don’t necessarily need to be organized in the same way that they have historically.

And a great example of that is happening right here in New York. So in New York, the stations have come together to build a joint master control for the entire state that actually will be housed in Syracuse. And so being able to better leverage the resources that the stations have and make better use of that collectively I think is also something that should be looked at quite carefully.

So there’s another group right now in Florida that’s looking at doing something very similar to what’s happened here in, in New York.

HEFFNER: Paula … futures? What are your bets?

KERGER: Well, I always enjoy thinking about and I … if I had the true answer I would be smarter than a lot of other people that are spending their time in media right now.

I think a few things: one, I believe that the future of public broadcasting is going to sit with what has been the most important piece of our legacy which is important stories, well told. And stories that have the authenticity and the quality. I think that is … will always be at the heart of who we are.

I see trends as people are wanting to organize their viewing on their own terms. So I see an acceleration towards people making aggressive use of devices like Tivo’s and so forth. I’ve also … so you see a lot of time shifted viewing.

I see a lot of, of interest in people streaming video. So I think broadband distribution is going to become an important … and increasingly important way that we connect to people.

I think that the whole evolution of social media is something that’s going to be important, in what ways I can’t exactly tell you, but I know, for example part of the success of Downton Abbey was that it exploded on social media.

When Downton Abbey won the Golden Globe award it was the most tweeted moment of that award ceremony. And it you look at all of the people that are talking to each other through Twitter … either during the broadcast or now in this period between the series … this season and next season … there’s something really powerful there.

And I think for everyone in, in media to be looking at that and watching it is going to be important.

There’s an interesting dimension of that also in social media and it impacts journalism. Because I, I know that there was a period when people are very excited about citizen journalists and felt that that was really the future of journalism.

I do believe that there is an important role for people that have first hand accounts and can share that. And can share that in a way that is easy and accessible, but I think you need professional journalists that can put the work into context and that can really take that material and, and use it in a manner that truly informs our, our citizenry.

And so I think that that’s going to be something also interesting to, to watch. And I think that in terms of the work that we do for children … the platform that we’re also paying a lot of attention to is games.

You know children are interested in watching video, but they want to act … interact with it. And so that is something that I think will continue to accelerate in the next few years.

HEFFNER: You’ve got an awful lot on your plate there. Much more than we ever dreamed of … so many years ago. You know, I, I was thinking that (cough) I used to work for Frank Stanton … the President ….

KERGER: Yeah.

HEFFNER: … of CBS …

KERGER: I had the pleasure of knowing him a bit towards the end of his life … he was an extraordinary man.

HEFFNER: Absolutely extraordinary. And in that short period when I was running Thirteen … he said you know there are two people who have the two best jobs in the world … he said he at CBS and I at Channel 13.

Listening to you talk with the enthusiasm you bring to your work at PBS … your work at public television generally … your admiration for Newt Minow who is … to me … a lineal descendant of Frank Stanton …

KERGER: Yeah. He’s, he’s a great hero of mine.

HEFFNER: And I notice that you quote or mention Newt in speech after speech after speech that you, you give … you feel he saw in that famous speech of his in 1961 …

KERGER: It was not his comment about the “vast wasteland” that is often quoted that was the most powerful part of that speech. The most powerful part of that speech was when he talked about television in service to the public interest. And that, to me, is something that we have to really stay true to. I, I … that’s why I do quote him a lot.

Because I also believe that, you know, we, we are all here because of those that came before. I talk about my grandfather a lot … my grandfather started the public radio station in Baltimore. And my interest in media and the power of it came from him. And so I think that that work is, is so important to all of us and we need to keep it in our hearts when we think about our work moving forward.

HEFFNER: Paula Kerger, thanks so much for joining me again.

KERGER: Thank you, Dick, it was a pleasure to be with you.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

And do visit the Open Mind Website at thirteen.org/openmind to reprise this program online right now or to draw upon our Archive of 1,500 or so other Open Mind and related programs. That’s thirteen.org/openmind.

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