PBS Chief: "Too Early to Tell" If Trump Poses a Threat to Government Funding

Paula Kerger schools the press on where the broadcaster gets its money — and who stands to be most affected if federal funds vanish.
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Paula Kerger

PBS faces some uncertainty over the next four years. After the Friday inauguration of President-elect (and Apprentice producer) Donald Trump, the public broadcaster will again be at least partly at the mercy of an administration whose party hasn't always been the most supportive.

Paula Kerger, PBS president and CEO, was the last exec to meet with the press at the Television Critics Association's winter press tour on Sunday morning. And as soon as she opened up her panel to questions, one reporter asked her about what is at risk with a GOP majority and a Trump White House. The answer, it turns out, is more "stay tuned" than anything. Kerger, who on Sunday announced a formal greenlight to a 24/7 PBS Kids network, offered details about government financing, her push for kids programming and the future of U.S.-based scripted originals.

Also, appearing at her first press tour since the November death of Gwen Ifill, Kerger shared some kind words about the award-winning journalist. "Gwen Ifill epitomized the mission of public television," the exec said, noting that Ifill's former daily telecast, PBS Newshour, was still determining how it will move on without her.

The Elephant In the Room
Kerger came fully prepared to talk about Trump — and what his tenure might mean for public funding for the channel. "It's too early to tell," she admitted. Trump, after all, has yet to take aim at PBS funding. It would not be terribly surprising, however, given his conservative agenda. "I've been in this work for a long time, and we have periodically gone through periods where our funding has been at risk," she said. Breaking down what specifically is at stake, Kerger pointed out that 15 percent of PBS' budget, most of it at individual stations, comes from government funding. "What happens if that goes away? The reason we fight very hard is because it's an aggregate number," she continued. "For stations, particularly in rural areas like Alaska, the percentage of the station's budget that's from the government is as high as 50 percent." Kerger reminded reporters that federal funding for PBS costs Americans, on average, just $1.35 a year. 

Contributions Are Still Key
In the meantime, the other 85 percent of PBS' budget seems to be doing quite well. Kerger noted that individual contributions have improved in recent years, though returns for the latest post-election fund-raising drive are not yet in. "It's a little early to tell how the end of the year fundraising has gone," she said. "We're just starting to hear from stations. The largest percentage of money that comes into our stations is from individuals."

Doubling Down on Kids
Riding a wave of continued positive feedback and a rise in programming, PBS is extending its Kids brand. PBS and stations will launch a 24-7 PBS Kids network, effective Monday, covering 108 of its licensees and 90 percent of the country. "We're committed to making PBS Kids content available to all children, anytime and anywhere." said Kerger, noting more than 20 PBS originals will be available on the channel — and all of it, streaming or linear, will be available for free. "When we started talking about a service we could build, we talked to a lot of caregivers," the exec said, noting that there is little kids programming on the air late at night, for children in the hospital or unable to sleep for other reasons. "This is pure community service."

More Scripted Programming Is Under Consideration
A year after Downton Abbey finished its record-breaking run on PBS, the broadcaster has a buzzy new import — Victoria, premiering Sunday — and its own original production, Mercy Street, which launches its second season this year. There also are Sherlock and Masterpiece efforts throughout the year. But when asked about paying for original U.S. productions, Kerger noted the door is open, but there are no projects on her immediate radar.