PBS Chief Paula Kerger Talks Legacy of Fred Rogers, Importance of Civility

Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images
Paula Kerger

After Mr. Rogers documentary 'Won't You Be My Neighbor?' became the highest-grossing biodoc at the domestic box office, the CEO of the public broadcaster talked about the film's success and its subject's enduring value.

PBS CEO and president Paula Kerger on Monday made her 25th consecutive presentation at the semiannual Television Critics Association's press tour, which makes her the longest-serving broadcast chief in an increasingly disrupted medium.

Kerger herself noted that milestone is "hard to believe."

She also reminded reporters gathered at the Beverly Hilton that the scandal-free (now that Charlie Rose and Tavis Smiley have been dispatched) and beloved (save for the Trump administration and its Republican allies) public broadcaster is more relevant than ever in the era of fake news and social media vitriol. 

Kerger pointed to her network’s legacy of quality, core-curriculum targeted children’s programming as a linchpin of the PBS brand. In addition, the public broadcaster is currently enjoying a lift from one of its most famous personalities: Fred Rogers. Morgan Neville’s documentary about the late children's TV personality, Won’t Your Be My Neighbor?, recently crossed the $20 million threshold, making it the highest-grossing biodoc ever at the domestic box office.

PBS will air the film on its stations next year, said Kerger. "We at PBS continue to be inspired by Fred’s work," said the exec, and his "civility and graciousness are especially resonant today."

She also noted that PBS' popular kids' program Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood is produced by Rogers protégé Angela Santomero and is very much in keeping the themes of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood

"Fred was a singular individual," said Kerger, "and when Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood was in development, one of the things that the Fred Rogers Company and Angela realized is there can never be another Fred. Part of what we’ve tried to do is continue to connect families back to the fact that our children’s programming is very much the Fred Rogers legacy."

Kerger announced several new programs in the coming season, including an American Experience take on Woodstock from filmmaker Barak Goodman; a partnership between Ken Burns and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Siddhartha Mukherjee, M.D., on Mukherjee’s 2016 best-seller The Gene: An Intimate History; and the four-hour doc Reconstruction: America After the Civil War from Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

Kerger also introduced Perry Simon, who joins PBS as its new programming chief and will begin his duties in September. He comes to pubcaster from George P. Allen’s Vulcan Productions and before that BBC America. He also had stints at NBC Entertainment (during the Brandon Tartikoff era), so his experience and strengths are grounded in scripted programming, especially drama.

Kerger also fielded questions about PBS' quest for another Downton Abbey.

"Downton Abbey was an extraordinary moment [for the network]," said Kerger. "Some refer to it as 'lightning in a bottle.' I think lightning strikes more than once."

The exec also noted creator Daisy Goodwin’s Victoria — which will air its third season this year — could go on for some time. “We’re fairly early in the queen’s life,” said Kerger. “And as long as it continues to find audiences, it will be on the schedule.”