PBS President and CEO Paula Kerger discusses the status of public television in America.
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GUEST: Paula Kerger
AIR DATE: 06/27/2012
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. I first spoke those words 56 years ago this week as we record this broadcast.
Later – only 50 years ago this week – as its Founding General Manager, I was deep, deep, deep in the throes of preparing Channel Thirteen here in New York to go on the air as the metropolitan area’s first full-time public television outlet.
So that September, 2012 will mark a full half century since Thirteen here in the Big Apple joined so many other splendid public stations in cities like Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Pittsburgh and others still to come. Time to celebrate, no doubt.
And which is why, of course, I’m so pleased to be joined here today by Paula Kerger, the quite extraordinary woman who served a memorable decade at the Educational Broadcasting Corporation, by then 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.
So that my guest is now the surrogate mother of us all – a brilliant and nurturing one, indeed – as she presides so even-handedly and even-headedly over public broadcasting in the public interest. And it seems quite appropriate here at mid-year, 2012, to start off today by asking my friend just how things are going in the public interest in public television?
KERGER: Well, this is a fascinating time, actually, in our history. We have a lot of the same challenges that have dogged public broadcasting throughout … we never have enough resources, we always worry about where we’re going to be able to cobble the monies together and we always worry about the Federal appropriation which, for us, is a significant piece of seed money that goes directly into our stations.
But even with all the complicated financial pressures that we always face, this has been an extraordinary period for public television in this country.
We’ve had some wonderful successes with programs that everyone seemed to be talking about like Downton Abbey. But we also have, I think, put together a schedule of programs that are important, that are impactful … series like Frontline that each and every week bring some of the best investigative journalism, I think, of any media organization.
And at the same time that we’re focused on all of this extraordinary content, we have the breadth and depth of distribution through multi-media. So television, which is the most important means through which we connect with people is obviously the focal point of what we do.
But we also now have online, we have the ability to put material onto iPads and smart phones. We have ways that we can connect with people that the founders of public broadcasting, yourself included, I would bet … couldn’t have imagined when this fledging organization was put together.
So, it is a little of the Dickens “best of times, worst of times” in, in many ways. But I think so profoundly exciting.
HEFFNER: What makes it the “worst of times”?
KERGER: Well …
HEFFNER: … what’s the downside?
KERGER: The downside, from my perspective is that I look at our stations across the country and that is in fact, what makes public broadcasting so unique.
I am not a network at PBS. I don’t run a network at PBS. We were created by the stations in order to achieve that scale, the work that would be so important for them … to leverage the resources they could cobble together from across the country to invest in significant content. We maintain the distribution system that connects our stations all together and by that connects to the American people.
But they’re all independent, they all have they’re own perspectives and they all have significant financial challenges right now, as they try to put together the resources to enable them to be significant and important members of the communities that they serve.
So that to me is, is the biggest challenge. Some of our stations receive state funding and the last couple of years have been particularly complicated for them.
But, there’s been some good news. The State of Florida is one example. Eliminated all the funding for public broadcasting last year and has put a significant piece back this year because they recognize the unique role that the public television stations in that state provide for education in really reaching the kids across the state with content that’s important and really brings the whole educational world to life for them.
So, I think that it’s … for me … as I look at every other media organization that’s going through some of the same challenges we are … really trying to figure out how to use these different technologies everyone’s wrestling with … what’s going to be important … where do we make the investments, how do we think about how to leverage all of our work across these various places, what is it mean if, if a Nielson number isn’t the most important barometer of success. All of these open questions for broadcasters make this complicated.
I think what makes this very exciting for us is that from our perspective it just broadens our reach in such extraordinary ways.
HEFFNER: How do you sit on it all? How do you work it all?
KERGER: Well, you … that’s a really good question, no one’s ever asked me that. I think the … what we try to do is we, we prioritize out what, of course is going to be the most important and, and television is the most important.
Actually, I … I’ll take that back … what’s the most important are stories well told. Authentic stories that really cut to the heart of, of the matter at hand.
And if you stay focused on that, which again differentiates us from everyone else in, in media. And that’s not disparaging of anyone else, they’re just in a different business than we are.
Our business is to touch hearts and, and minds. And so if you stay focused on, as your guide star, creating the kind of content that’s really resonant, making sure that you’re really attracting the best talent to tell those stories and to look carefully at what kinds of information is not being covered by everyone else.
That then becomes the core. So it … in, in some respects, it’s, it’s easy … because if you stay focused on what’s missing in, in the commercial landscape and what would be important for Americans to know, then you can begin to build out the work.
As, as I started to say a few moments ago, television as a distribution then is the principal piece. And then around the edges we continue to look at ways that we can expand beyond that. And that’s how we’ve been able to try to, to balance it all together.
HEFFNER: Paula, when it began, there was a lot of thinking about a conflict between … well, you remember it was called “Educational Television” …
KERGER: Right. Many of our stations … the “E” in their name stands for “educational” … that was certainly the case for WNET.
HEFFNER: But that led to a sense of conflict between public television … television in the public’s general interest …
HEFFNER: … and something that was closer to instructional educational television.
HEFFNER: Now, that battle in a sense was won years and years and years ago, but do you think that now with the emphasis on using the media for instruction, we may come back to a time when the lines are drawn again that way?
KERGER: No. I don’t think so and I’ll tell you why. I mean obviously if you look at the work that we produce in public broadcasting and certainly the work that we produce for children, which is all curriculum based, which differentiates it from anyone else that is producing children’s content, to the range of programs that we produce for broadcast … there is, t here is an educational basis, a little “e” educational basis I would say.
But what we have been engaged in and developing is a project called “PBS Learning Media” which is using broadband as a distribution platform to deliver content to the classroom for teachers that is correlated against the standards that, that teachers use as the framework for their lessons.
Correlated, by the way at the state level because all education, like all politics (laugh) is local.
And, and a K-12 curriculum. And so for the stations that have been very engaged in educational television, instructional television … of which a number of stations still produce a fair amount of that content … it gives them a platform to distribute that material in a manner that teachers can actually use it.
So, a teacher that has access to a three or a five minute clip of content that relates to the lesson plan, really is quite powerful because it enables a teacher to bring that lesson to life.
We also, in this platform of content, are using not just public television developed material, but also working with organizations like NASA, the Library of Congress, the National Archives, so that we can take some of the breadth of material that they have developed, some of them digitized objects, some of them short little animation pieces and some of them video content … and, and put them in the hands of, of teachers.
So I think that the fact that we now have the technology and the capability to look at our work from many different perspectives, I think eliminates that tension of “is it going to be public interest television” or is it going to be “instructional television”? I think we have different platforms to distribute different types of content.
HEFFNER: Did you think that was going to be the case, ten, twenty years ago when you got into this field?
KERGER: Well, I think certainly as the … as the Internet has evolved … I, I … you know and when I first came into public broadcasting … I mean we were very early on … people … I’m not, I’m not sure a lot of people are aware that public television, actually for a long time was the most used dot.org site in the world. Because we recognized that this was a platform that had an enormous potential.
If you think about all of the research that goes into a public television project. You think about a series like Frontline, I think it’s an excellent example … because they were … very early on … realized that all of the material that they were gathering together in order to create an hour of television programming meant that the final product was going to be a distillation of a … a extraordinary range of research.
So what if you could take some of those interviews that don’t end up in the final documentary … the full interview and you could put it up on line. Initially, it was just the transcript. And initially, it was just text material that was supplemental to the series. But now if you go on to the site you can see full programs … you can go back over areas that Frontline has covered over a period of time that have, that have cascaded over multiple shows.
The, the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are great examples, where you can actually go back and look at the programs that have covered this story as it evolves, but really look at what people were saying throughout, as, as history was being made.
So, I think that certainly when I first got into this business and we were looking at our website and thinking about “Well, we could put teacher guides there”. We had sort of this idea of what the potential of it could be.
And now I think of it as just another appliance, like a television set as a way of just connecting people to content.
HEFFNER: When you mention Frontline, I think, of course, of the brilliant piece I saw the other night on the Murdoch …
HEFFNER: … story. How much flak, how much political flak do you get from the programs that appear quite regularly on PBS?
KERGER: Well, ahhh, we certainly do hear from people that like what we do and don’t like what we do … we tend to hear a little more from the people who don’t like what we do.
HEFFNER: That’s what I meant.
KERGER: And, and, and certainly, you know, we do ruffle feathers. I mean we do, we do hear at times I think that’s part of what inspires some on, on Capitol Hill to be candid to put forward the idea that perhaps this is not an institution that deserves Federal support.
Ahemm, I, I’m hearing rumors that there’s an effort … starting up, yet again, to question whether it’s appropriate. And, of course, now the, the argument is around financial terms. But I think there are those that I think feel that we’re perhaps too liberal, there are those that think we’re too conservative, as well.
And I, I’ve … I do hear from people on both sides that feel that we haven’t been rigorous enough in, in covering other areas. So it’s … I think what we try to stay focused on all the time, though, is to look at multiple viewpoints, to make sure that we are … in telling the stories … doing it in a fair way and we try … I think, certainly in the Newshour every night, what we try to do is to put the important stories of the day into context. And so many of the issues that we’re wrestling with as a nation are complex and the … being able to consider the implications of, of, of an evolving story based on a two or twenty or two minute sound bite isn’t going to quite cut it. And to be able to take the time to really dive into the background of these stories, I think, is, is what … the contribution that we make
HEFFNER: What’s the history of the efforts that have been made in the past … political movements to cut back on the funding of public television.
KERGER: Well, it’s, it’s gone back … actually I think almost since the beginning of public television. There have been these cyclical attempts by various legislators to suggest that funding of public broadcasting is not an appropriate activity.
And, you know, I look … I spend a lot of time now with public broadcasters from around the world. Of course, when you, you think about public broadcasters in other parts of, of the world … you think of the BBC, you know, which is funded many times over ours … they’re … there have been days when I’ve thought “if we only had the resources of the BBC, what extraordinary work we could do”.
And, and they’re funded as you know on the taxes on television sets. Our funding was always envisioned as a public/private partnership with the Federal government kicking in a small amount and, and then the stations all obliged to raise the rest.
And our funding overall is, is … the Federal contribution amounts to about 15% of our funding. That’s “one, five”, not “five, o”. But some of our stations, particularly stations in rural parts of the country … that percentage of their overall operating budget might actually as much as 50%. That 15% number is an accurate number for the entire country … it’s a little less for Channel 13 here. But in, in some parts of the country … in Alaska, for example, the Federal appropriation is a significant piece of, of that … of that … of those stations … actually there’s a few stations in Alaska covering that very big geographic area.
HEFFNER: With what consequence?
KERGER: And so, if … that funding goes away … which is really why I spend so much energy fighting and trying to make the case so carefully about the importance of public broadcasting … what it means is a, a station like WNET in New York would be seriously hurt by a reduction in Federal funding … there’s no question about it.
But a number of stations across the country would go off the air and that’s actually the consequence. And so people’s access to information and content and particularly in parts of the country … in Alaska, for example, there are parts of the state that the public station isn’t just covering public television content, it is the only broadcaster in that part of the state and so being able to provide all Americans with, what I refer to as “content of consequence”.
Content that really has the potential to impact lives. That is what is put at risk if we don’t maintain the Federal appropriation as part of our funding.
Now having said that … that doesn’t mean that we sit back and say “Well, we’ve got this pot of money from the Federal government and we, you know, we’re fine.” We work really hard to try to bring in resources from other places so that we hold up our end of the bargain.
And I’ll tell you every year for the last nine years there’s been a national survey done of how the American people perceive PBS and Public television. And every year for those nine years they have indicated through the survey that Federal funding of public television was the most important investment, second only to our nation’s defense.
So, I know … because I spend a lot of time traveling around the country and visiting with people in communities large and small … and I know the important role that public television plays.
In fact, when I took this job I went to Nebraska, one of my very first station visits and I met with a number of donors to the station and community leaders and so forth. And this man came up to me during the reception and he said to me, “I want you to know I drove three hours to come to this reception so that I could meet you. And he said … I grew up … he said, I live in the Western part of the state on the farm where I was born, where I’m now raising my kids. And I thought very hard about whether my children were going to be disadvantaged, living in a rural community.
But I wanted them to have the experience and I knew that they wouldn’t been disadvantaged because you were there … that PBS was part of my family’s life.
And he said so I’ve driven three hours to tell you, you can’t screw this up.
So, and I think about him all the time. Because that’s really who uses public television. That’s the face of public television. It’s people across the country that sit around their kitchen table and try to figure out how they’re going to educate their kids, how they’re going to live each and every day and try to, to really live the American dream. And many of those people also, as difficult as the circumstances are that we’re living in right now, also sit at their kitchen tables and write checks to their local stations. Because they know that it’s this public/private partnership that what’s kept this extraordinary enterprise alive.
HEFFNER: Will that partnership be any … in any important way skewed by the recent decision that political advertising really can’t be kept off of …
KERGER: So that …
HEFFNER: … of the broadcast ….
KERGER: … so I think this, this decision is an important one and it’s one that everyone should be watching very carefully. It is a decision right now that was made by the Ninth Circuit Court, so at the moment it only applies to that district.
And it was based on an appeal of a, a public station in, in the San Francisco area was running commercials. And it was fined by the FCC because that’s against the law. And the station took it to court and, and lost the case. And then appealed it to the Ninth District and the Ninth District agreed with the lower court’s decision that, that running commercials was inappropriate. But did strike down a provision that had barred us from, from accepting political ads … indicating that it was a violation of First Amendment.
I, I, I think that this will probably go to appeal and I think that it is really important to look at. Because what the, what the reading says is that stations are not obliged to take those political ads, but that it opens the door.
And I think that that could be a very slippery slope. If public television stations whose most important asset is the relationship they have with their communities, that relationship of trust. And I really worry if stations begin taking political ads how that could actually skew the relationship with the communities that they serve.
HEFFNER: Are there any indications what the next step will be?
KERGER: So, we’re right now waiting to see what … what the FCC will do. My … I, I would think that the FCC would probably appeal the decision. So, but they’re in the window where they have an opportunity to respond and so we’re waiting to see what the outcome will be.
HEFFNER: Leaving political commercials, but dealing with commercial material, certainly there has been more and more criticism of the … what, what is it that we call it … enhanced …
KERGER: Enhanced underwriting.
HEFFNER: Enhanced underwriting.
KERGER: So, we …
HEFFNER: You smile.
KERGER: Yeah, I do smile … because I was thinking as you were talking how … what a great change you’ve seen since the days of the little blue card that we used to put up on the air, remember, that used to have the company name imprinted on it. Or the very, the very simple “Thank you Paine Weber” which is an ad that I remember from when I was growing up at the time.
And so I think that non-profits, not just public television stations, really struggle with how do you navigate that line between really wanting to build solid relationships with companies and partnerships. But at the same time, not becoming commercial, because that obviously … once you cross that line it, it just takes you in a, in a whole other business.
In… and you know, it could be an honorable business, but it’s just different. So what we accept for air are, are, are spots that do not have call to action … I mean there’s a whole series of criteria that we have to oblige, but it’s certainly more than that blue card. And I … we watch that very carefully and we’re constantly in discussions about what is appropriate and isn’t appropriate for a public station.
The corporate … I, I think the one thing that I will say about our corporate underwriting … and, there’s a lot of work that we do that wouldn’t be possible if we didn’t have good corporate partners as well.
And they’ve been with us for many years that have helped us particularly in the sponsorship of, of programs that have come to air.
But the largest support that comes to public television stations is from viewer (smile) like you. It’s individuals. And, ah, it’s more than half of the resources that come into public television from individual philanthropy.
That, I think, at the end of the day is what anchors public television’s … television stations most carefully in their communities. Because the only reason that stations receive that support is because they are operating in the public interest.
And I think if stations start to veer away from that they hear from their … they hear from their members. And so I think that that, and that’s why, when I fantasize about all the revenue that comes in from the BCC, the system that we have that perhaps we wouldn’t have created now, actually works. Because I think that staying anchored in communities is what makes us different and unique.
HEFFNER: Paula, what are the differences in amounts? That “per capita” in this country and in, let’s say, England are received by public broadcasting.
KERGER: Yes. So, we are … we’re on the lower end in terms of per capita contribution to public broadcasting. We’re at about $1.25 a person a year. I used to say that that was the price of a cup of coffee …
KERGER: … but certainly in some coffee establishments that wouldn’t even buy you a small coffee. A $1.25 a person a year. And, and I think that the, the BBC is tenfold. So it, it just gives you some idea of the difference between the funding for us and the funding for others.
We do a lot of … you know leverage our money significantly. Our entire content budget is less than HBO has as their advertising budget for one of their big series.
So, we, we work pretty efficiently. And we develop partners and we leverage our work.
HEFFNER: Let’s leave it at that right now, Paula. But you’ve promised to sit still and do a second program. So I’ll thank you now for joining me and thank the audience. But stay where you are.
KERGER: Okay. Thanks, Dick.
HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. Meanwhile, as another 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.