How 'Downton Abbey,' Mitt Romney Are Suddenly Making PBS Topic A (Q&A)

Erika Larsen
Paula Kerger

President and CEO Paula Kerger spoke to THR about the public broadcaster's primetime strategy, Charlie Rose's double duty and why it matters who's in the White House.

Paula Kerger seems destined to have become the public face of PBS. Her grandfather, Ed Arnold, founded the public radio station WBJC in Baltimore, and PBS was a favorite channel in her Baltimore household when she was growing up. "I remember watching Masterpiece Theatre programs like The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Elizabeth R and I, Claudius," she says. "Public media was always part of my life."

Today, it is her calling. Kerger, who began her career in the nonprofit sector, was recruited in 1993 by WNET, PBS' flagship station in New York, to run a capital campaign. She raised $79 million, then public TV's largest endowment campaign, and stayed at WNET for 13 years. In 2006, she accepted her current post and relocated with her novelist husband and their two cats to PBS headquarters in Arlington, Va.

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As president and CEO of PBS, Kerger, 54, oversees 350 stations while working with the PBS programming and fund-raising teams. Additionally, she heads the PBS Foundation, which solicits grants so that PBS can continue to underwrite such programs as Downton Abbey, a co-production with U.K.-based ITV and Carnival Films. That surprise hit (its second-season finale airs Feb. 19) became the toast of September's Emmys ceremony, winning six statues in categories typically dominated by HBO. The show has helped reinvigorate PBS' primetime lineup, which also includes BBC co-productions Upstairs Downstairs (in production on season two) and Sherlock, a contemporary version of Arthur Conan Doyle's classic character (its second season bows in May).

The co-productions are more essential to PBS as the rising deficit has again made the federal funding it receives through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting a target of Republican lawmakers. "We're not going to kill Big Bird," GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney said recently. "Big Bird's going to have advertisements."

The onslaught means Kerger has to think outside the box. In addition to leveraging relationships with longtime partners like Downton writer-producer Julian Fellowes, PBS last year partnered with HBO on a marketing campaign for Ken Burns' documentary Prohibition and HBO's Prohibition-set series Boardwalk Empire.

The Hollywood Reporter: Are you surprised by Downton Abbey's popularity?

Paula Kerger: Anyone who tells you that they knew something was going to be a smash is obviously blowing smoke. You think you're picking well, but when something really pops, it's a combination of good content and hitting at the right time.

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THR: Has the success of Downton Abbey opened up new scripted opportunities for PBS?

Kerger: There is a lot of fine scripted work in other places, but we are always looking for quality content. I'm excited about having a program like Downton Abbey that people are talking about. But I'm equally excited about the work we do on a day-to-day basis.

THR: What is your primetime strategy?

Kerger: We're constantly looking at what everybody else is not doing. We really eased up on history because others were in that space. But History Channel has taken a very different turn with Pawn Stars. It's almost all reality. So it gives us a big opportunity to invest [in history shows.]

THR: But PBS has done reality-style programs with Colonial House (2004) and this summer's Market Wars, an Antiques Roadshow companion described as "rough and tumble competition."

Kerger: Colonial House and [2002's] Frontier House are different types of reality. They're experiential history programs. Moving forward, we'll look at those types of things. To get younger people engaged in history, you have to really look closely at the formats. And since reality has taken over, I think there are some aspects of it that we can do.

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THR: How do projects come to PBS and get funded?

Kerger: Our projects come to us in many different forms. Boardwalk Empire is $5 million an hour. We have significantly less resources to put against content. So we try to make good decisions on production models that will allow us to leverage the resources that we have to put together a full schedule. We do a lot of co-production work. Some of our series are wholly produced by us, like Frontline. Some are produced with seed funding from us. We have long relationships with a lot of producers. [Masterpiece executive producer] Rebecca Eaton has deep relationships within the BBC and Channel 4. She knows Julian Fellowes. When you've got series like NOVA and Nature that have been in existence for years, those producers know all of the science producers. It's a relationship business. And then we're constantly shopping for new voices and new talent. We go to a lot of the film festivals. And then, believe it or not, we get stuff that comes in over the transom. We get about 2,000 proposals a year.

THR: Did Charlie Rose talk to you before he took a second full-time job on CBS This Morning?

Kerger: Yes. He said what he needed me to know is that his PBS show is his top priority. And it is, because it's his. The only thing I worry about is his stamina. So far he seems to have unlimited stamina.

THR: The CPB is your largest source of funding, contributing $75.3 million to your budget of $355.2 million in 2010, while the CPB's entire federal investment in public media -- TV and radio -- was $420 million, correct?

Kerger: Yes. That's about $1.35 per household. Not even the cost of a cup of coffee.

THR: Yet there's constant criticism of that funding. Do you have to prepare for a day when you don't receive any government money?

Kerger: Look, the challenges about funding have gone back to our earliest days. Nixon at one point was determined to zero us out. Obviously, I think about what would happen if the CPB funding were to go away. We're watching it play out right now on the state level. [New Jersey Gov.] Chris Christie eliminated the funding for New Jersey's PBS station. WNET had to take it over; otherwise, the station would have been sold. In Florida last year, the governor zeroed out funding. And the station in Orlando decided they weren't going to do it anymore, so they put it up for sale.

THR: Is defending that funding the hardest part of your job?

Kerger: It is. The amount of energy that goes into just trying to make the case for -- in the scheme of things -- this relatively small amount of funding … I don't mean to say that our funding from the federal government is insignificant, and I know people have to make tough decisions. On the other hand, it's such a good investment. And so, when Mitt Romney says, we're not going to kill Big Bird, we're just going to make him take commercials, it's frustrating because it shows a lack of truly understanding the impact we have. People assume the core public television viewers are people on either coast. But the people who rely on us, I can tell you because I've met them, are people throughout the country, particularly in rural areas where they don't have access to some of the things that we enjoy in Washington or New York or Los Angeles.

THR: Does it matter to PBS who's in the White House?

Kerger: We were part of [Newt Gingrich's 1994] Contract With America, which was to zero out public broadcasting. The current administration has been supportive. So I think it does matter who ends up in the White House. 

THR: What qualms did you have about taking this job?

Kerger: I knew that there were going to be a lot of challenges. My two predecessors were really fine, talented people but had come into public television from the outside. I knew it at the grass-roots level. There were a lot of tensions at that time between the stations and PBS. And I was persuaded that it was important that someone with credibility from within the system come into this job to try to bring the system together.

THR: How would you describe your management style?

Kerger: It's very different from running a network because I have 350 stations that all have different ideas of what public media should be, and I can't do anything by fiat. That's a huge piece of my job, making sure everyone stays on the same page and everyone is really committed. And then it's being the ultimate cheerleader. You have to fully subscribe to the Tinker Bell theory: You have to really believe. If you don't fully buy in to the potential and believe that the direction we're going in is the right direction, no one is going to follow you.

THR: So what do you do to relax?

Kerger: When I first took the job, I was traveling a lot and things were falling apart. I was sick all the time. And so I knew I had to start exercising. I decided I was going to try to compete in a sprint triathlon, which is a half-mile open-water swim, somewhere between a 12- to 18-mile bike ride and a 5K run. I've done two seasons, and I'm training for the third season. I swam in the Potomac River. The water is brown. You can't see the bottom. I didn't want to think about what I was swimming in. The first year I did it, I did get a tetanus shot and a hepatitis shot just to be safe. So now if I'm at a meeting and someone wants to give me a hard time, I can say: But I've swum in the Potomac! Take that!


PBS ON A ROLL: "Ratings don't drive our business," says Kerger, "but we're a mass-media organization. And so, if no one's watching, what's the point?"

Downtown Abbey: 6.4 million -- The average number of viewers for the first two episodes of season two, including on-demand and delayed viewing.

Upstairs Downstairs: 4.4 million -- Public sniping over similarities with Downton have not dampened the ratings for the rebooted PBS favorite.

Prohibition: 6.2 million -- The series' audience was stellar yet a fraction of Ken Burns' Baseball (28 million) and The Civil War (14 million for episode one alone).

Sherlock: 4.6 million -- The contemporary retelling of Arthur Conan Doyle's hero features a "fresh twist" on an established story, says Kerger.

Nova: 3.2 million -- The science series has seen its audience this season jump 70 percent thanks to a reinvigorated lineup and compelling storytellers.

Freedom Riders: 3 million -- The American Experience documentary about civil-rights workers was the most-watched in the franchise in 2011.

Curious George: 2.3 million -- PBS' top-rated kids show is also driving multiplatform viewership; more than 58 million videos streamed for iPhone/iPad in January.