PBS president discusses ‘challenge’ of change

Longtime public television executive Paula Kerger embraced the challenges facing the nation’s rapidly evolving media landscape in March when she became the sixth president and chief executive officer of the 348-station Public Broadcasting Service.

“How do we take the power of the local stations, take the new media, take our commitment to growth and education and come up with a way to bring it all together,” Kerger asked during a discussion following the taping of a segment for New Hampshire Public Television’s “New Hampshire Outlook” program at the Bedford Village Inn. “That’s the principle challenge, and that challenge is what made me take this job.”

Kerger, 48, was in New Hampshire over the weekend of Sept. 15 to discuss the changing media environment and the role of public broadcasting in education.

Prior to joining PBS, Kerger served as executive vice president and chief operating officer of the Educational Broadcasting Corp. in New York, parent company of two of the nation’s largest public television stations, Thirteen/WNET and WLIW.

During her 14-year tenure with the New York stations Kerger played at leadership role in the largest fund-raising campaign in the history of public television raising $79 million for Channel 13.

While in the Granite State, Kerger sat down to talk with New Hampshire Business Review about her thoughts of the changing landscape of public media, the future of PBS and possible solutions to ongoing funding concerns.

Q. How has the role of public television changed since its founding and how has it remained the same?

A. When I was a child, we sat together as a family on Sunday night and watched television. I’m not sure how many families do that now — people are just so busy all the time. Now we really have to think about how best to reach people when they have time to see us.

Looking forward, it’s going to be even more so. What has stayed the same, however, is the quality of our content. Our commitment to quality and our commitment to definitive programming is hallmark to PBS.

Q. We’re living in an era when people seem to have less down time. For many, when they do sit down in front of the television they just want to be entertained. How will PBS marry its commitment to growth and education with viewers’ desire to be entertained?

A. Educational television doesn’t have to mean spinach. Take “Antique Roadshow” – it’s a very entertaining program as well as being educational. And there are a lot of people — I know I am one of them – that have a little block of time to relax and want to use it wisely. Our goal is to serve both masses well.

Q. Technological advancements are coming fast and keeping pace presents a challenge for all industries. Talk about how PBS will meet this challenge.

A. I am always talking multimedia and multi-platforms. It is easy to be distracted by the bright, shiny object, but we need to remember our core business is putting together great programming. Our challenge is to maintain a balance, to keep our programming robust, and to balance this with this new technology.

I’m also interested in looking at doing some of this in reverse. We’re looking at new ways and at different models where we develop something, say for a download or iPod, then adapt it for television viewing. We want to continue to serve our traditional viewers but hope to utilize new technology to reach our younger audience.

Q. Another big challenge has got to be the changes in FCC regulation. Do you think PBS programming should fall under the same regulations as commercial stations?

A. Our work at PBS is profoundly different. I do think that’s particularly true when we’re talking about our documentaries. We’re trying to tell honest stories, and so I think we are hoping we will be given the latitude — as we have historically – to make wise decisions. We have to protect those trying to tell their stories and we have to protect the communities we serve. We, as always, look at each program in context.

Q. You’ve spoken about the importance of the “local connection” of public broadcasting and how it sets PBS apart. But at the same time there is such growing diversity in PBS programming, with new channels and new platforms – how do you see PBS proceeding with its efforts to offer so many choices in so many ways without threatening the survival of local PBS broadcasters like NHPTV?

A. The varied programming that we’re delivering we’re distributing through our local stations. If they’re running “Antique Roadshow” on one PBS channel and you don’t particularly like “Antique Roadshow,” you can find something you do like on another PBS channel. We want to provide enough opportunity for people to see what they would like to see. We are not trying to hold our audience, but serve our audience better by offering them choices.

Q. What is the status of federal funding for public broadcasting? How are you addressing this and what effects can NHPTV viewers expect?

A. We’ve been classically under-funded. That has been our legacy. One of the things I’ve been involved with was the creation of a foundation for PBS, which has already put together $17 million to go toward resources and programming. We want to look at ways to help local stations to build their capacity for fund-raising.

We’ve had some experience with download-to-own and we’re trying to anticipate what will happen with the DVD market. There may be revenue there for us. Also, there is still an opportunity for federal money, and possibly money from the future sale of the analog spectrum.

Q. In your remarks to the National Press Club earlier this year you talked about the role your grandfather played in the establishment of a public radio station in Baltimore and shared fond memories of listening to classical music on the radio with him. What do you think he would have to say about today’s public media?

A. My grandfather was a great storyteller and was very interested in theater and opera and musical theater. He was of the generation where you had to wait for repeats if you missed something on television, but in his later years he taped everything. He had all these tapes – he just loved them. I talked a lot with him about high-definition television – about not just the great picture but the great sound. It’s funny, I was explaining it all to him just like he had taught me as a little girl. Things kind of came full circle.

Even though towards the end of his life he had lost much of eyesight and hearing he was still amazed. He would be loving this. – TRACIE STONE

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