PBS Chief Details Stakes of Trump Budget Fight: "There Isn't a Plan B"

Paula Kerger TCA Getty H 2016
Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

"PBS itself will not go away, but a number of our stations will," says Paula Kerger, cautioning the press about what's on the line if federal funding is truly yanked.

Without federal funding, many PBS stations will go under.

That was the clear and simple message that PBS president and CEO Paula Kerger tried to drive home Sunday morning to a room full of reporters at the Television Critics Association's summer press tour. "PBS itself will not go away," she noted, "but a number of our stations will."

The last time Kerger addressed the TV press, days before Donald Trump was sworn into office as president, talk of federal funding was merely speculative. Then PBS was left out of the Trump administration's first federal budget, the first step in what could prove to be a damning blow to millions of rural Americans who rely on PBS as their lone source of news and educational programming. Since first wind of the proposed cuts, there has been good and bad news for the 47-year-old institution. The House appropriations committee allocated money, but the budget committee did not. It won't be until August that the matter comes before the Senate.

"I take it very seriously," said Kerger, acknowledging that she's the de facto spokesperson for the broad institution. "I have to assume, as all of us in public media can assume, that anything can happen. We need to be quite vigilant that we don't assume that people remember the impact we have in communities."

The exec reminded her audience of that impact at the top of her press conference, reading a letter from a woman without cable or broadband who relies on PBS to help educate her grandchildren.

When pressed on financials, Kerger outlined the relatively modest numbers in play. PBS costs taxpayers a scant $1.35 a year. Public media, which has seen its state funding hold relatively flat in recent years, gets just $450 million from the federal budget. A third of that goes to NPR, with the rest going to PBS — most of which is divvied up among stations. That pays for, as Kerger put it, "basic operational functions."

Kerger has maintained for some time that fiscally conservative policies pose no legitimate threat to PBS as an institution, instead explaining the cuts will do the most harm to vulnerable affiliates in places such as Alaska and plains states. "For many years there was this misunderstanding that [the money] was going to fund Big Bird," she said. "It really goes to local stations. If that money goes away, it's an existential crisis."

"There's no Plan B," Kerger added. The loss of federal funding will be a death knell for most any station that draws more than 30 percent of its annual budget from federal funding.

It wasn't all Trump talk on Sunday. Kerger also used the stage to announce an ambitious nine-part documentary co-production with the BBC, Civilizations, as well as PBS' continued efforts in kids programming. She also noted that the cancelation of Mercy Street was not the end of its push into original American drama and updated the room on the ongoing search to find a PBS Newshour replacement for the late Gwen Ifill, whose death left Judy Woodruff as its lone anchor. "I am hopeful that they will be making an announcement over the next few months," added Kerger. "Judy has extraordinary stamina and deeply misses her partner, but has truly stepped up in the interim."

But the discussion kept returning to the budget. And Kerger echoed the same sentiment that's come up so many times during the young Trump presidency: If Americans are concerned about something, they have to call their representatives.

"I know that what legislators most care about is impact in their own communities ... they want to hear from constituents," said Kerger, careful to note that it's not a partisan issue. "And it's important to know that we have long-standing support from leaders in both chambers, on both sides of the aisle."