While its marquee programming is centered on shows like Downton Abby, Sherlock, and, lately, The Great British Bake Off, much of what PBS does is empower its local affiliates to do the kind of local coverage that most news media has abandoned. And while the network would still exist if President Donald Trump’s proposed budget cuts to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting go into effect, PBS President and CEO Paula Kerger says that the network’s ability to thrive in smaller markets and keep its affiliate stations running would be significantly hampered.
“I spent 13 years of my life in New York working at WNET [PBS’s channel in the NY metropolitan area]. That station would be impacted for sure, but would it go off the air? No,” Kerger tells Vox critic at large Todd VanDerWerff in the latest episode of his podcast, I Think You’re Interesting. “But for many of our stations, particularly stations in rural parts of the country that have communities that are not as able to provide philanthropic support, those stations really face an existential crisis.”
Kerger says that PBS estimates as many as 80 of its stations would face “very serious, if not fatal circumstances should a budget that decimates PBS funding were to go into effect.
While changes in how people consume TV are forcing organizations like Nielsen to rethink their ratings systems to account for cord-cutters and include digital-only platforms, PBS has actually seen its noncable and satellite viewership increase recently.
“I’d always heard it was roughly 15 percent, maybe depending on the community a little less or a little more, and actually now the number is 20 percent, and part of that is cord-cutters who are starting to really be seen in the numbers, and a lot of it is people who are in parts of the country where cable or satellite aren’t as available or affordable,” Kerger says. “And affordable is really the biggest issue for so many families.”
With so many people still relying on the channel for local coverage, PBS has continued to focus on making sure its local stations have power to program lineups that are relevant to their viewers.
“Rather than create this national, ‘Big N’ network, we would create this national ‘Little n’ network that’s more like a co-op. All of our stations join PBS, they send dues every year that we use to put a program schedule together, we maintain the satellite interconnection for the system, we create all of the digital work beginning with PBS.org, but also the architecture for a lot of the stations’ websites,” Kerger says. “We have a lot of rules of engagement of what it means to be a PBS station, but at the end of the day the stations have ultimate autonomy.”
After the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown and the resulting unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, Kerger visited the local PBS affiliate, which had staged a town hall meeting moderated by Gwen Ifill and had brought together local residents to discuss the issues facing the city. After the town hall, the local station head took Kerger around the city to show her the city on a level that wasn’t being portrayed in most major national news coverage.
“He wanted me to see where everything had happened. He wanted me to see where all the other media trucks had been parked, and he wanted me to understand just how everything had laid out in those few days,” Kerger says. “People in the community afterward said to me, ‘Look, we decided we were going to participate in your town hall because one, we knew that people from our community were involved in organizing it, and the second is that we knew you were actually going to be there for the long term. You didn’t just jet in to get some images that you were going to put out on the nightly news and maybe cover for a couple days and get the biggest, most impactful headline and then fly away. You’re going to actually be in this community as we really struggle with what are quite profound and significant issues.’”
Kerger attributes the success of programs like America After Ferguson to PBS’s unique mindset that differs from its national competitors.
“Part of the reason we’ve been so successful in the work we’ve been doing on multi-platforms is that every time we enter a new project our first question isn’t, ‘And how are we going to make a lot of money off of it?’ The first question always is, ‘And what is it going to do to help the people that watch it?’ Kerger explains. “If you come at a new project with that lens it gives you a lot of latitude.”
With much of the public still wary of the media, well-respected and funded local news stations are especially crucial. Kerger notes that PBS was considered the most trustworthy information source on a recent Politico/Morning Consult poll; the network does edge out ABC by 1 percent.
“It’s a lot harder to be suspicious of a media organization if it’s actually in your own backyard and you know the people that are involved in creating the work or at least making the decision about what work is brought into the communities,” she says.
Listen to the full I Think You’re Interesting discussion with Kerger for more about how PBS is tailoring its content to the digital age, how Kerger feels the network’s goals differ from its competitors, and the new “Great American Read” series and book campaign.
To hear more interviews with fascinating people from the world of arts and culture — from powerful showrunners to web series creators to documentary filmmakers — check out the I Think You’re Interesting archives.