At Friends of THIRTEEN Board Meeting, PBS President Paints a Bright Picture for the Future of Public Media

October 27th, 2009

Paula Kerger – President and CEO of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) – returned “home” to WNET.ORG on October 21st to address the Board of Directors of the Friends of THIRTEEN. Kerger, who began her public broadcasting career at THIRTEEN, was the keynote speaker in a meeting that also featured presentations by WNET.ORG President and CEO, Neal Shapiro, and WNET.ORG Vice President for Education, Ron Thorpe.

Neal Shapiro, President and CEO of WNET.ORG, and Paula Kerger, President and CEO of PBS

Kerger is a familiar face in the halls of WNET.ORG’s headquarters in midtown Manhattan. During her 13-year tenure with public television in New York, she held a series of leadership positions and was instrumental in overseeing the growth and diversification of THIRTEEN, WLIW21 and their many channels and services. In 2006, she was serving as WNET’s Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer when she was tapped to become the head of PBS in Washington.

“It does feel like coming back home,” Kerger said, recalling the many “meetings and important discussion that had been held this room.”

While the surroundings seemed familiar, however, Kerger quickly acknowledged how much has changed in the media in the few years since she left New York. Today, if viewers don’t catch a PBS program during its television broadcast, she remarked, “they might catch it on one of our multicast channels, or on demand. Or they might go on their laptop to watch it. Or they might watch it on their iPhone. Or on YouTube.”

Kerger noted that the online space is creating new opportunities for expanding public television audiences. “The exciting thing about the online experience is that it’s a very different audience. Forty-eight percent of the viewers watching PBS content online are under 35. And that’s not including kids.”

It comes as little surprise that kids are also connecting with public television via the Web. One real point of pride for Kerger is the traffic that the websites PBS Kids and PBS Kids Go have been attracting. So many kids are visiting – and sticking around for so long – that PBS sometimes worries their servers will crash. “It’s a good problem to have,” she said. “We’re just watching the numbers go through the roof.”

Neal Shapiro addresses the meeting of the Board of Directors of the Friends of THIRTEEN.

Kerger also spoke of a project close to her heart and one that she is determined to get off the ground – “a major arts initiative.” As Kerger sees it, “arts are nowhere on commercial television – except for Dancing with the Stars and American Idol.” Stating her belief that the popularity of those programs comes from an interest “not just in seeing people get voted off – but in expression . . . which is inherent in what makes us human,” Kerger proposed that PBS has a big role to play in the area of arts and culture programming. “I think that, for us, it is not only an opportunity, it is an obligation to really think about how we can bring both the performing and the visual arts to a wider audience.”

As she spoke about the success of the recent Ken Burns series, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea – which garnered stellar audiences nationwide – Kerger also took a moment to dialogue with Dan Allen of the Friends of THIRTEEN and special guest Daniel Cowen, a student at Hunter College. Allen and Cowen are the team responsible for developing the WNET local companion program National Parks: New Yorkers’ Memories. Allen writes about the experience in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

In looking toward the future, Kerger acknowledged that many difficult funding challenges face America’s public television providers today. But her enthusiasm for the promise of public media – especially in this area of technological change – never failed to come through. “How can we use this online space to reach younger, more diverse audiences? How can we use the online space to begin to experiment with programming that may not find a home on public broadcasting’s national schedule just yet? How can we look at the online space as a way to bring new voices in? I think it’s just really an exciting time.”