PBS Chief Talks Scripted Moves, Streaming Setbacks and Serializing the Civil War

"It is a little challenging," says Paula Kerger. "We want a common window for all our content, digitally, but we can't quite get there."
Paula Kerger

Downton Abbey is still pulling 10 million viewers to a single episode on PBS, and The Roosevelts recently fetched more than 33 million in a week, but nothing has ever touched Ken Burns' The Civil War.

The broadcaster's nine-part documentary series from 1990 remains its watermark for cultural saturation, netting 40 million viewers during its premiere — without the aid of DVR or online streaming. Its runaway success colors talk of PBS original programming to this day, so it comes as little surprise that its influence is apparent in its first American scripted commission in years.

Read More PBS Orders Civil War Drama, Pushes Further Into Scripted Originals

PBS president and CEO Paula A. Kerger opened her Monday executive session at the Television Critics Association winter press tour by announcing the network's own untitled drama about a Civil War hospital, an original production filmed in the U.S. and set to air over six episodes in early 2016. Kerger's recent appearances at the TCA have been peppered with teases about a non-British drama, so much of her Q&A focused on the project and why she finally pulled the trigger.

"The Civil War is still the most watched television event on public television," said Kerger. "Being able to tie back to that great story and reinterpret a piece of that through a drama is absolutely perfect."

"We're not looking to do drama for drama's sake," she added. "We feel there is a unique role in telling a story that is based on historic fact. From our perspective, and I look at Downton the same way, it shines a light on a part of history that is really engaging. … I think that we're obviously in an era of really great scripted drama. It seems, not that long ago, that we were all lamenting the lack of scripted drama. Great television begets great television."

Finding a way to meld history and entertainment was something Kerger said was paramount in her first commission. "We need to educate and inspire," she added. "I think this latest project is very much at the center of that kind of work. It's been several years in the making. What we try to do is stay true to what was envisioned when we were created. People are interested in stories that go beyond just entertainment."

Hammering out the deal for its own drama might also help how the series is presented on PBS and its stations' growing digital platform. Streaming, on-demand and encore presentations have been complicated for series such as Downton Abbey.

"We're wrestling with stations now on what's the best way to deliver content," she said. "It is a little challenging. We want a common window for all our content, digitally, but we can't quite get there."

Still, like its broadcast network and cable contemporaries, PBS remains interested pulling people to telecasts in their original airings. And Kerger says that Downton Abbey and The Roosevelts' massive hauls prove that "people are still interested in collective viewing" and both have been a mandate to find other ways to bring in linear viewers.

Getting the most accurate picture for how content is consumed across the board is still a work in progress. "I want to know if they're watching Sunday at 9 p.m. or online or on their phones, … something that helps me figure out whether what we're doing is connecting," she said, noting that everyone in television is in the same boat. "We're all just cobbling it together."

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