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PBS, explained (by its president)

PBS president and CEO Paula Kerger touches on the network’s storied past, its future — and its shaky present.

2017 is PBS’s first year without Downton Abbey, one of its signature hits. Its usual timeslot is now the home of the Queen Victoria biography series Victoria.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

It’s a weird time to be PBS.

On the one hand, the network was never a political football in the 2016 presidential election in the way it was in 2012, when Republican candidate Mitt Romney proposed defunding the US’s only public television broadcaster. That might suggest a degree of security.

On the other hand, the network has more to worry about than just an incoming Republican administration turning it into a political talking point again. The changing ways that people are watching television are inherently creating various stress points on what is ultimately just a collection of local TV stations that loosely form a network.

Many of PBS’s viewers are in rural areas, and many of those viewers — especially kids — don’t subscribe to cable packages and get the network over the air (or via an antenna). And yet, increasingly, as urban areas shift to getting more and more television over broadband internet, the Federal Communications Commission is opening up the signal spectrum (the range across which various forms of data can be transmitted) to auction, in hopes of providing more breathing room for increasingly stressed broadband connections. That auction can’t eliminate PBS entirely — if nothing else, the network offers plenty of programming online as well — but it could significantly curtail its reach, especially in smaller communities.

To discuss that issue and a host of others — including the 2016 end of its signature hit Downton Abbey — I got together with PBS president and CEO Paula Kerger last July. In a half-hour conversation, she talked with me openly about positioning the company for success and predicting how we’ll watch TV 10 years from now, while making sure those who still watch it the way it was watched 20 years ago continue to have access.

In light of both the incoming presidential administration and the network’s January 15 launch of its big Downton Abbey replacement Victoria (about the life of Queen Victoria), it’s as good a time as any to check out Kerger’s thoughtful take on TV’s past and future.

Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

2017 Winter TCA Tour - Day 11
Paula Kerger
Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Todd VanDerWerff

When I talk to people, even people who follow TV really closely, they often misunderstand just how PBS works. How do you explain to people how the organization is structured?

Paula Kerger

We’re set up completely different from any other media enterprise. We're inherently local.

Here in the States, television evolved completely differently than it did most places around the world. In the UK, for example, the [publicly funded] BBC came first, and commercial television came second. It was a woman by the name of Frieda Hennock, the first woman FCC commissioner, who had this idea. She was looking at this emerging medium, recognizing that it could be such a democratizing element of society, but that would never fully be realized if there wasn't some piece of it set aside for noncommercial purposes.

When public television came into being, local stations came first. The very first station was started in Houston at the University of Houston. A lot of the early stations came out of universities. In fact, the early stations were all educational television, viewed as classrooms in the air.

There was a recognition as Lyndon Johnson was signing the Public Broadcasting Act [of 1967] that if the stations came together and created, in essence, a co-op, everyone could kick in money, and you could then take those resources and create a news service. You could create program strands in the arts and industry and so forth. That's how PBS was created.

Unlike a network that is very top down — and even the BBC is very top down — we're bottom up. A lot of the programming, a lot of the work that we do comes from [local] stations.

In this media environment, with a lot of media consolidation, with all the distribution platforms, the opportunity to centralize and be able to touch everyone may seem like an appealing concept. But I believe that there is power in local media organizations, and anyone that works at a local newspaper could tell you the same thing.

As a country, we share a lot of the same things. But our communities are different. So what we've tried to do in this media environment is look at these new platforms and figure out not only how do we get our national content there, but how do we bring our local stations along with us?

This is where scale makes sense. It doesn't make sense for all the stations around the country to create the architecture to put video up online or try to navigate relationships with Hulu and Roku. We can do that, and by doing it once and creating a whole architecture that we use for distributing [on different platforms], we use the same protocols to deliver it to all of the streaming video partners. What we have done is set it up, and now through geotargeting, if you have an app for PBS, your tablet knows where you are physically, so we can localize you that way, or we can just ask you.

I can pick my local station in Washington, WETA, or I spend time in Maine and am interested in Maine issues, so I could actually pick Maine Public Broadcasting and look at their local content alongside the national content. As we look to the future, this whole idea of being able to bring not only the national content to more people but also to think about some of the really great work that our stations are doing and figure out how you can connect that to a larger population is really powerful.

Todd VanDerWerff

I grew up in rural South Dakota. When I was growing up, we still had to use an antenna to pull in local stations, and we were always able to get one of the various PBS frequencies in the area. I understand a lot of PBS’s funding goes toward helping with the costs in running those local stations. What challenges have arisen in dealing with that infrastructure as TV changes?

Paula Kerger

There are people that just assume that cable television or satellite are how most people get content. That’s just not taking into account that there are parts of the country, particularly in rural areas, where over-the-air broadcast is significant in terms of how we get our content to people. But it's also how we connect into a lot of cable systems — through over-the-air broadcasts. [Cable companies] will pull down an [over-the-air] transmission, then send that out.

There are some in our system that would love nothing more than to not have to bear the cost of over-the-air transmission, the cost of the equipment and everything. I think it is such a significant part of our audience that it is the cost of doing business. Being able to maintain that is important.

If there were another way of getting our content to people without using over-the-air broadcast, we would be all for it. I keep talking about it because there hasn't been a lot written about it in the press, and it's a significant public policy issue. As it moves forward, the public has a right to see and weigh in on their opinions about access to information.

Federal Communications Commission Proposes New Open Internet Rules
FCC Chair Tom Wheeler receives public comment on a proposed spectrum auction in 2014.
Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Todd VanDerWerff

You’re referring to the spectrum auction, which you talk about a lot. But you’re about the only person I’ve heard in the TV industry who treats the issue this seriously. What is it, and why do you think it affects not just PBS but the industry as a whole?

Paula Kerger

The idea was [to auction off broadcasting rights across the signal spectrum] to clear spectrum that could be used, particularly in congested areas, like in the Northeast, West Coast, for bandwidth for broadband purposes. More and more content is being pushed out through broadband, and you can see this accelerating, not decreasing.

There are scenarios where broadcasters, including public broadcasters, have looked at ways, through compression and so forth, that you can reduce the need of how much spectrum you need for broadcast. So there's a win in here somewhere. You can give up some of your spectrum, still stay in broadcasting, and hopefully bring in some resources, which would be helpful.

And more broadband penetration I'm also in favor of. I don't want to talk out of both sides of my mouth. We distribute a lot of content online, so I'm all for ubiquitous broadband.

The first reason that we're a little bit vulnerable is — I know it's a shock to you — but we've never been overfunded. The second is a lot of the owners of the public broadcasting licenses are not necessarily the media organizations themselves. They're universities; they're states.

If I was the president of a university and I'm struggling with other needs within the university, and I've got this public station, which may not be the most important thing in my whole enterprise, I may make a different decision. We're just a little bit more vulnerable in all this because the decision-makers are not necessarily the communities, nor necessarily the media organization itself. I won't know until afterward [the auction ends later this year] who's in or who's out.

We've looked carefully at, if we do have parts of the country that aren't covered, how would we compensate for that? We can always put a satellite feed in or a cable feed, but those people that rely on over-the-air, trying to figure out how to serve them, we'd probably have to strike a deal with some broadcaster in the area to see if we could use a piece of their spectrum.

[The spectrum auction began in November, and its most recent round concluded Friday, January 13. It is expected to be the last round, though there could potentially be another. At a press conference on Sunday, January 15, Kerger followed up on the above by saying that she believes the results will not cause major sections of the country to lack PBS coverage, though because all the bids submitted to the auction were sealed, she won’t know for certain until the results are revealed.]

Todd VanDerWerff

Do you have a sense of what the percentage is of people out there who still rely on over-the-air?

Paula Kerger

I have seen a lot of numbers. The national aggregate is somewhere between 9 and 15 percent. Some of it is homes where over-the-air is the only signal or the only way to access TV. In some, there may be a cable connection into a single set, and the sets that are not connected to cable are usually the ones the kids watch. I know the number of kids who watch our programming over the air represent about 40 percent of our audience, so it's a lot of kids.

Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood
PBS Kids programming like Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood is among its more popular online offerings.

Todd VanDerWerff

Let’s take the opposite of that question, which is the digital side of things. What’s PBS’s future as TV moves more and more into online distribution?

Paula Kerger

We've been pretty aggressive from the beginning to get content into the hands of more people. In some ways, this is an area where [we have an advantage over] our commercial counterparts, who worry about how to monetize everything they do.

We have a little bit more latitude because at the end of the day, I just want to make sure that if we create something like [acclaimed documentary] Defying the Nazis, we're getting it to as many people as possible. A curated [on-air] schedule is so important for a lot of people and will be for a long time. So we pay attention to that a great deal, but we also look at, where are the [other] places where we can put content?

There's another piece of this that is an evolution of our original DVD business. The very little amount of federal funding [we get] mostly goes to our stations. We get dues from the stations, and then we have to either fundraise to get the other money or look at ways that we can generate revenue from things like DVD sales.

But the DVD business is slowly dying, while the streaming business is robust. So we've also struck deals with streaming services and distributed through Netflix and Amazon and others. That's helped us to make a lot of programs possible.

We're making some money that helps us provide all the content for free through the other ways that we distribute, and we also have the opportunity to get stuff in front of more people. There are some people whose only content consumption is through streaming services. If you ask me what our strategy is looking forward, I would say "And." You have to look at all of the different pieces and have some foot in a lot of those spaces.

The other thing that's interesting is some of the new technologies like virtual reality. [Frontline producer] Raney Aronson-Rath has produced shortform pieces in the digital space that get distributed through social media, and she's done some really great work in virtual reality, like [a piece set] in a Syrian refugee camp.

If you think about that technology, it's the most empathetic of any technologies. Wouldn't it be cool to actually be in the middle of Hamilton or to be able to scuba dive? How powerful would it be to talk about the refugee crisis, and then to actually experience what it would look like to be in a camp?

It's a whole other kind of journalism and a whole other kind of storytelling that we're just beginning to scratch the surface of.

Sherlock is a PBS hit that performs well on DVD and streaming.

Todd VanDerWerff

Has streaming served as a way to fill in that gap left by DVD sales?

Paula Kerger

It has definitely filled the gap as the DVD business shrinks. Ironically, for us the DVD business is still somewhat robust because [of documentary filmmaker Ken Burns]. A lot of people want to own those DVD sets.

There's still a lot of families that will buy kids’ programming on DVDs. We also have a significant older audience who are slower to adapt to the new streaming technologies and are still buying DVDs. But we are seeing more and more that they're also signing up for streaming services.

It used to be that the DVD business represented more revenue and streaming slightly less than that. Now that's reversed. We're getting more from streaming than we are from the actual DVD sales.

Todd VanDerWerff

Do people who find, say, Downton Abbey on streaming then come and watch it on PBS as it airs live?

Paula Kerger

Yes. For series, for sure. The best example of that was in 2014, we talked Ken into allowing us to stream The Roosevelts. One of the things we wanted to look at is what if, on the first night, we made it all available for anyone that wanted to binge? There was a small group of people — something like 20,000 — that within the first 36 hours watched the entire thing.

Todd VanDerWerff

All 14 hours?

The Roosevelts
PBS convinced Ken Burns to stream The Roosevelts, and it led to more people watching it on TV.

Paula Kerger

Yeah, 14 hours. What most people did was, it was one of the series that people started talking about it, so people who had already missed the beginning [were using streaming] for catch-up viewing. We watched the [live TV] audiences over the course of the seven nights that it was broadcast go up.

We looked at the streaming numbers, and you could see that people were coming in and out. They might go ahead, so that they could see a little bit more, and they were using it to complement their broadcast strategy. We saw that with Downton Abbey as well.

I tend to like to spread things out. Sometimes I'll watch two episodes together of something, but usually not more than that. I like to look at it over a period of time, because you want to savor it a little bit. People have very different habits, and their life is different. Being able to do a little bit of both is important.

As an industry, one of the challenges is figuring out how do you talk about your reach? Because we still as an industry keep coming back to, "What was your overnight [rating]?" But, again, what we see is that people are not only watching or only streaming. They're doing both, and it's whatever happens to be convenient at the time. They make different decisions of what devices they use.

Todd VanDerWerff

Lots of people think PBS is mostly or even wholly subsidized by the federal government, but it’s not. How do you clarify your relationship?

Paula Kerger

[Becoming a political football in] 2012 was unique. It's not to say that we haven't been targeted at various times for defunding, but never in a presidential race have we become an issue, because we usually aren't an issue.

When you think of who relies on public television, it's a lot of voters. A lot of parents rely on us for kids' programming. We're not an obvious target. There's not a huge constituency base like, "Defund public broadcasting." We do polls, and even the people that self-identify as Tea Partiers, you still have a slight majority that still feel that there should be funding for public broadcasting. A lot of that, again, comes from kids’ programming.

But we are always looking at how to make the case and have people understand that it's 15 percent [nationwide], not 50. That's the misunderstanding. Most people think that we get a huge amount of money from the federal government. It's actually relatively small. It's to keep [rural stations] in business, because without federal funding, that's who would go dark.

Downton Abbey
Downton Abbey was one of the biggest hits in PBS’s history.

Todd VanDerWerff

PBS has this longstanding relationship with British broadcasters, so do you watch, say, the arguments over the BBC in the UK with greater interest than the average American?

Paula Kerger

Obviously, the BBC discussions interest me. We are very involved with the other public broadcasters around the world and meet with them on an annual basis. We're different, but we all have the same interest in public service. We have been watching very carefully what's happened there, as they've gone through charter review. NHK [Japan’s largest public broadcaster] has had some of the same issues.

The issue they’re all wrestling with is their funding level, which has shifted. We work in partnership with a lot of public broadcasters, not just the BBC, so we're particularly interested in whatever they're navigating through.

Todd VanDerWerff

PBS has been the home for British programming for decades now, but particularly the success of Downton Abbey has brought a flood of services like Netflix and Acorn acquiring British programming. How do you stay at the apex of that field?

Paula Kerger

We've been doing this for a long time. Series like Masterpiece, which is over 40 years old, have relationships that they've built over the years. We've developed not only the relationships of the producers themselves but an expectation of audience.

During Downton Abbey, people often asked me if I thought that Downton would work as well [on another channel]. I'm not sure. Downton was successful for a lot of reasons, but when it came to public broadcasting, we had an audience that had the expectation that on Sunday nights, we would have the kind of programming that Downton represents. For producers who are interested in connecting to that audience, we're a logical partner.

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