PBS Chief Addresses Ben Affleck Flap, Talks Post-'Downton' Future

Paula Kerger will see 'Downton Abbey' off with a celebratory float at the Tournament of Roses parade in January.
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Paula Kerger

PBS CEO Paula Kerger kicked off the network’s portion on the Television Critics Association summer tour with a heavy dose of tub-thumping.

The underlying message, as she rattled off a string of promising programming and stats: We’re bigger than just Downton Abbey, which will wrap its run after a sixth and final season (along with a float in the Tournament of Roses parade) in early 2016. In fact, Kerger walked a fine fine between heaping the Emmy darling with praise (Downton was a boon not only for ratings and cultural cachet but also for funding) and downplaying its overall impact as PBS prepares for a future without it: "It is a relatively small piece of our broadcast schedule — it's January and February, one night a week — and our audience is up every night," she said from the Beverly Hilton stage. Though she paid early attention to several forthcoming projects, including a live natural history show Big Blue Live, a Michael Jackson tribute and two new kids shows (Nature Cat, Ready Jet Go), it was Abbey upcoming lead-out, Mercy Street, that generated the most airtime Saturday morning.

Mercy Street, a Civil War drama starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Josh Radnor, marks a noteworthy return to American drama for PBS, its first in more than a decade. The challenge with U.S. fare to date has been the escalating budgets, with Kerger noting that her entire programming budget at PBS is less than rival HBO spends on marketing a single show. To be competitive, she has had to look elsewhere, often relying on British series on which PBS can partner (see Downton).

But Kerger felt Mercy Street provided an opportunity to explore two areas of potential interest — the Civil War and the evolution of modern medicine — in a dramatic format that could make the project compelling to a PBS audience. And to her delight, she was able to get philanthropic support and take advantage of Virginia tax credits. Still, Kerger stressed from the podium that this move isn’t illustrative of any major changes to her larger programming strategy. So while she’s cautiously optimistic about being able to produce more American dramas, her schedule won’t be littered with them.

The generally upbeat tone of Kerger’s 45 minutes before the TV press was halted, however, when the executive was forced to address the Finding Your Roots scandal that hit PBS earlier this year. In June, PBS announced it was postponing a potential third season of the anxiety-exploring docuseries after it was discovered — via a WikiLeaks data dump — that the show had edited an episode about Ben Affleck’s family tree to remove all references to the star’s slave-owning ancestors. PBS noted at that time that the series would not move forward with an additional, already-in-the-works third season until necessary staffing changes, including the hiring of a fact-checker, were made.

Though Kerger suggested that she didn’t think the incident “tarnished” PBS, she acknowledged how “unfortunate” the whole situation had been — and the fact that she only learned about it when a series of emails were leaked was particularly disappointing for her. Still, she reiterated her desire to have the series return, assuming all of the steps to ensure accuracy and authenticity can be taken. “Not that you look for teaching moments,” she said, “but this is one.”

The veteran exec managed to expertly shift back to the positives later in the morning-time panel, most notably as she was asked whether networks like Nat Geo and Discovery's push toward more serious, PBS-esque science fare would force her to rethink her own programming approach. "If we have helped to inspire Discovery and National Geo to do more serious science programming, then I would say, 'Mission accomplished,'" she responded with a wide grin, before making clear that she believes that there is a lot of science to be mined. And as for that celebratory Rose Parade Downton float that she teased when she first took the stage: "I think it's fun, and sometimes in public television we're accused of not having a sense of humor or fun and whimsy and this captures all of that," she said, adding to big laughs: "And no, I won't be on it."