PBS Chief Talks Social Media Spurred Success of 'Downton Abbey,' Violence on TV and Reality Push

Erika Larsen

“We think a lot about the images that particularly the most impressionable [viewers] are confronted with,” said PBS president and CEO Paula Kerger.

PBS is enjoying its biggest hit in recent memory with the period drama Downton Abbey, which last week was nominated for 16 Emmy Awards including outstanding drama series and nominations in all of the main acting categories. Downton, which heads into its third season this winter, already has a miniseries Emmy and Golden Globe. And PBS president and CEO Paula Kerger attributed at least some of the smash success of the show to the communal viewing experience enabled by social media. 

PHOTOS: Emmys 2012: 'Mad Men,' 'Downton Abbey' and More Nominees

“The fact that people were able to talk about it on social media, I think it just fed [Downton’s popularity],” said Kerger, adding that the show's Golden Globe award was the Globe’s most-Tweeted moment. And she admitted that her favorite Downton Twitter handle is @LadyMarysEyebrows.

“We hope that work we do will create conversations. And to see the kind of conversations that are happening around Downton has been really fun," said Kerger, during the PBS executive session at the Television Critic's Association press tour Saturday.

But the public broadcaster has a mission beyond tune-in numbers and positioning in the zeitgeist.

“I measure our impact in the lives we touch,” said Kerger.

That’s why PBS has put considerable resources toward children’s programming, which has been basically abandoned by the broadcast networks as kid-targeted cable networks have monopolized that space. This fall, PBS will bow Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, an animated preschool series inspired by kid’s TV icon Fred Rogers. (And PBS has given Mr. Rogers, who died in 2003, new life via the viral video “Garden of Your Mind.” It has been viewed more than 5.67 million times on YouTube.)

“It is indeed possible to break new ground across genres and platforms while consistently staying true to our values,” noted Kerger, adding that the public broadcaster is also at work on a new math-centric kid’s show with a female lead.

“We’re very focused on [programming for] kids 2-8, that’s were we know we can make an investment and it really can make a difference,” she said.

Asked whether media companies bear some responsibility to curb violent imagery in the wake of the murders of 12 people at an Aurora, Colo., theater screening of the new Batman movie, Kerger reflected that it is particularly important to be vigilant about the content aimed at young audiences.

“We think a lot about the images that particularly the most impressionable [viewers] are confronted with,” she said, adding that TV has a responsibility not to "bombard children with images" that could have a negative impact.

Certainly, PBS needs to attract viewers to survive. The public broadcaster receives some federal funding (which is seemingly under constant threat), but it also relies heavily on small donations from viewers.

To that end, it bowed its first competition reality series, Market Warriors, on Monday, July 16. So far, the Antiques Roadshow spinoff has made headlines for erstwhile host Fred Willard’s swift firing after the 72-year-old actor was caught in an adult movie theater allegedly with his pants down. But the public broadcaster's expansion into the kind of unscripted television that has become the bread and butter of basic cable should not be seen as a sop to commercialism.

“I’m not looking to create reality TV on public television,” said Kerger. In fact, fans of Antiques Roadshow were clamoring for another iteration of the show. Market Warriors has four pickers scouring flea markets and antiques shows for items that will fetch the highest price at auction.

And coming to PBS in September is the three-part documentary series Broadway or Bust, which follows the country’s best performing arts prospects as they vie to compete at the annual National High School Musical Theater Awards (a.k.a. The Jimmy Awards).

Kerger said she hopes Broadway or Bust will “encourage young people to think about the arts,” which has been a programming priority at PBS. And if attracts Glee-sized ratings, all the better. 

PBS also announced that Ken Burns' The Roosevelts: An Intimate History will bow in 2014; Constitution USA, which has Wait, Wait...Don't Tell Me host Peter Sagal taking to the road for a journey through the 4,418 words and 27 amendments that made America, is targeted for 2013; and Cuban Missile Crisis: Three Men Go to War, centering on President John F. Kennedy, Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev and Cuban leader Fidel Castro, will premiere Oct. 23 at 8 p.m., followed at 9 p.m. by The Man Who Saved the World - about Russian submarine pilot Vasili Arkhipov who refused orders to fire a missile at the U.S. in the waters off Florida some 50 years ago.


Email: Marisa.Guthrie@thr.com

Twitter: @MarisaGuthrie