PBS Chief Paula Kerger Talks 'Sherlock,' Streaming and Cable's Exit From Education

Paula Kerger Portrait Exec Suite - P 2012
Erika Larsen

Paula Kerger Portrait Exec Suite - P 2012

With Downton Abbey, Sherlock and a few other scripted successes currently on its roster, PBS is certainly part of the "golden age of television" that seems to have been touted more than ever during this summer's Television Critics Association press tour. But one thing isn't quite as golden, says chief Paula Kerger, is the kind of nonfiction programming currently on offer.

The public broadcaster's president and CEO spoke with reporters at the start of its two-day session on Tuesday morning — and in addition to touting big plans for streaming (and teasing a move into original stateside dramas), she emphasized that her channels were among the shrinking number of those committed to educational nonfiction and not just reality.

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"A lot of cable networks that were at one point formed as an alternative to PBS, they've gone down a different path," said Kerger, mentioning A&E, History and Bravo. "I often say we're not in the same business. Our work is very different."

Education is still a priority

Yes, it's great to be the U.S. home of Emmy darling and international phenomenon Downton Abbey. That's just one piece of the PBS puzzle. Kerger emphasized that their scripted successes, while great, are not her biggest mandate. Kerger brought up cable's significant departure from science, art, history and curriculum-based kids programming as voids she is constantly trying to fill. "Art, except for competition series, is gone," she said. "Ovation is still out there and trying to capture an audience, but we see ourselves as standing alone in that space. … My hope is that if we do our job well and more people watch, other channels will follow suit. I'm the only person who will stand on this stage and say I hope people steal our ideas, because that means more good television for the public."

Ratings don't matter — but they're still growing

Several times during the Q&A, Kerger emphasized that the publicly funded organization put little stock in viewership. Their "mission" is still to air programming that connects and educates viewers, but knowing people are watching still helps. "We actually have a broad audience," she said. "If you look at the numbers, 90 percent of people are watching us at some point in the year." What's more: Nights with targeted programming — like Sunday's drama hub, home to Downton Abbey — are growing substantially year over year. Sunday, for 2014, is up 14 percent from the previous year.

Streaming is key

Using the day to also announce that Ken Burns' sprawling, 14-hour The Roosevelts: An Intimate History will be available in full online only a day after the first part airs, Kerger said that boosting streaming options is a big priority for both PBS' widely distributed content and its local offerings. "We have put a lot of effort into [streaming]," she said. "To be able to be in different platforms where people are looking for content seems like a good investment."

Sherlock's return date remains up in the air

The recent announcement that Sherlock will tape additional episodes in 2015 has not cleared up when the Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman starrer will be back on the air in the U.S. Kerger was quite happy, however, knowing that they still have the rights to air the Christmas special and three additional episodes. "We're so proud to have it on public broadcasting," she said. "We have to wait to really know when it will be finished. Whenever it comes, we'll put it in a wonderful place, and we know it's going to be terrific."

Domestic drama could come soon

No, there was no news of a new series order, but when asked about the likelihood of PBS moving into original dramas produced here in the U.S. — not just the imported Masterpiece fare — Kerger was playfully cryptic. "I'm smiling, and I'll be able to tell you something sometime," she said. "How's that for a tease?"