PBS Chief on 'Mercy Street' Renewal Prospects, 'Hamilton' Special and 'Sesame Street' Move

Paula Kerger - Winter TCA Tour - 2009
Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

PBS CEO Paula Kerger had plenty to celebrate at the network's portion of the Television Critics Association's winter press tour Monday.

Her turn at the podium came the day after the launch of PBS' first American drama in more than a decade, Mercy Street. According to fast overnight ratings, which the exec received just an hour before her time in front of the critics, the Civil War drama opened to a 2.2, putting it above the Sherlock season three premiere.

"We're very happy today," Kerger told reporters about the ratings which "exceeded" internal expectations. "I think we've begun an important conversation."

The CEO attributed part of that to marketing money spent on Downton Abbey's farewell tour. "We felt that by participating in a great send-off and also linking it to the launch of Mercy Street … really served us well," she said. "We're constantly evaluating how we spend the marketing moneys we have and I think in this case it was a good choice."

Kerger said she has not yet seen scripts for season two, but "we have very much left the door open for a season two, and we've done what we need to make sure that there could be a season two," she said. "We just got the numbers an hour ago, but obviously we're very excited about the series and if it does well, it will hopefully come back — but we're not ready to make that announcement yet."

Good news also arrived in the form of a forthcoming special that will go behind the scenes of the hit musical Hamilton. Hamilton's America, produced RadicalMedia, will air this fall on Great Performances and show how Lin-Manuel Miranda created the Broadway sensation and will include performances from the musical. "I think you have I think these moments where you can tell when you look at a piece of world that its changing everything and I feel that way about Hamilton," said Kerger.

She also discussed the intense competition to align with the hit show — which Kerger deemed a "defining moment in musical history" — and called PBS the "logical place" for such a production. "Everyone will fight to bring a megahit to television, but we come at it not just because we're looking at something that could maybe bring a big audience, but we look at it as a way of extending our educational reach," she said. "I know everyone was trying to negotiate doing something with him, and the fact that he said yes to us, I think, is hugely significant."

In addition to a new partnership with NPR for election coverage, which also was announced Monday, PBS announced it will team with National Geographic Channels International for Genius By Stephen Hawking, a six-part science series. The show, produced by Bigger Bang, will air domestically on PBS later this year and internationally on National Geographic Channels.

Other highlights follow.

Sesame Street's Big Move

The children's program, which has aired solely on PBS for 45 seasons, launched its 46th season on HBO on Jan. 16. While airing first on HBO, episodes will be broadcast at a later time on PBS.

"I am happy that Sesame will continue on Public Broadcasting, and with the investment from HBO, there will be the opportunity for more episodes," said Kerger. She also emphasized PBS' range of children's programming, such as the upcoming Ready Jet Go, among others. "Sesame Street is just one piece. It's an important piece, because they've been a part of our history for many years," she said. "I am happy that Sesame is a part, but they're only a part."

Getting Finding Your Roots Back on Track

In June, PBS postponed a potential third season of the ancestry-exploring docuseries Finding Your Roots after it was discovered that the show had edited an episode about Ben Affleck’s family tree to remove all references to the star’s slave-owning ancestors.

At the time, PBS noted 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. More than six months later and three weeks into the new season, Kerger expressed her restored "confidence" in the show.  

"We made a series of recommendations with the producers, and they have taken up our recommendations, including having additional research and having an independent genealogist look at the work. We're very satisfied with all that went on around it, and we're comfortable looking at this season that we would move forward," she said. "We look forward to continuing our work together."

The Next Downton Abbey?

With Mercy Street off to a solid start and the stateside airing of Downton Abbey's finale just weeks away, Kerger looked back on how the landmark series has shaped and influence PBS' future, particularly when it comes to focusing on series with a continued lifespan and "the opportunity to tell stories over a longer arc" rather than one-off event shows. "If you pull together a great story, sometimes, when the stars align, magic happens," said Kerger. "I believe it can happen again and again, even to an organization like Public Broadcasting that people sometimes look at us as this ugly stepchild."

The Future of Public Broadcasting

The future, and particularly the span of PBS' affiliates nationwide, has come into question following a Wall Street Journal report that TV stations across the country are considering whether to sell their broadcasting airwaves to the government in a multibillion-dollar auction set to take place in June.

"We have not only been talking to our stations, but we've also have tried to reach out to the license holders as well to help them understand the importance of having a public media presence in community," said Kerger. "We'll know the impact [in June], and hopefully there won't be any of these holes that I'm discussing. But we are concerned about it, that there may be part of the country that could lose Public Broadcasting."