PBS Is More Relevant Than Ever in the Age of Reality TV, Says Network President

11:40 AM PST 07/30/2011 by Marisa Guthrie
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Paula Kerger

"Our shareholders aren’t on Wall Street. They’re on Main Street," Paula Kerger told reporters on Saturday morning at TCA.

BEVERLY HILLS – Opening PBS' portion of the Television Critics Association press tour Saturday morning, Paula Kerger, president of PBS, was peppered with questions about the public broadcaster's place in a media universe that chases eyeballs with sensationalistic reality programming.

“Our work is more important than ever [as other networks] increasingly turn to reality programming,” said Kerger. “I think there is a lot of good television that’s being produced on both cable and broadcast. But I do think when you look at the world of cable and broadcast and you look at public media, we are in many ways different. Our shareholders aren’t on Wall Street. They’re on Main Street. It takes you down a different path than if you’re a commercial business focused on the bottom line.”

The topic has become a familiar one at PBS’ portion of TCA since the public broadcasters funding – on the federal and state level – has come under increasing attack from budget-cutting lawmakers.

And Kerger has been an articulate representative for the mission of public broadcasting, throwing reporters gathered at the Beverly Hilton some red meat.

“The A in A&E does stand for arts. Bravo very much focused on arts [programming],” she noted, referring to the network that airs the Real Housewives franchise.

A&E, Bravo, History and Discovery still program arts or science programming, though they have shifted – to varying degrees – to eyeball-generating reality series.

“As the landscape will continue to change, as I have talked to people on The Hill, as I talked to other funders, most people are aware that what started out as an attempt to copy some of the work of public broadcasting that they’ve not been able to sustain that and they’ve actually shifted,” said Kerger.

PBS’ audience has grown as that shift in cable away from educational programming has accelerated.

Ratings for Masterpiece are up 44 percent this year due in large part to the reboot of Upstairs Downstairs and Downton Abbey. National primetime viewership is up 7 percent year-over-year while children’s programming is up 23 percent. The network’s digital service has also seen gains this year: the general site averages 12 million visits per month while the kid’s site has over 9 million per month. And the PBS app for iPad and iPhone has been downloaded 1.4 million times and the kid’s app over one million times.

Kerger herself says the shows she likes to watch – when she’s not watching PBS, of course – include Nurse Jackie, True Blood and the recent HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce.

And she said there are programs on other networks that are laudable and in an alternate universe where money is no object would have loved to see on PBS including Discovery's Planet Earth and John Adams.

“But that would have taken my entire content budget for a full year,” she said of the HBO miniseries about the second president.

“I’d much rather see programs like that than another series about cupcakes,” she said. 

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