Banff: PBS Chief Paula Kerger Talks Trusted Brand, Big Bird and Congressional Budget Fights

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PBS CEO and president Paula Kerger

The CEO of the public broadcaster told the Banff World Media Festival that trust in the PBS brand is key to fundraising and fending off critics.

PBS CEO and president Paula Kerger on Monday touted the continuing relevance of the public broadcaster in a Trumpian era of fake news and toxic social media conversations.

The lion's share of PBS funding comes "from viewers like you," Kerger reminded delegates at the Banff World Media Festival. So getting PBS supporters to keep donating for otherwise free content relies on remaining a trusted media brand.

"Obviously, you have to trust that media organization and trust that brand," Kerger said of PBS supporters. As president and CEO of the public broadcaster, Kerger oversees 350 stations, while working with the PBS programming and fundraising teams.

She argued that PBS is helped by reaching viewers via local affiliates, who are key to programming and fund-raising efforts. "It's much easier to pick on a media organization that's away, than on a media organization in your backyard," Kerger said.

Ahead of the 2020 U.S. president election, PBS is working on landmark programming that aims to bring Americans together during a divisive political moment. "There's great risk that the country may feel divided, and we're looking at some big initiatives around that," Kerger said, without being specific.

"It's a big idea that will be multi-platform," she added. PBS is best known for dramas like Downton Abbey, a co-production with U.K.-based ITV and Carnival Films, and on the factual side, titles like Ken Burns and Lynn Novick's The Vietnam War documentary and the kids show Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.

Kerger, the public face of PBS, also addressed the perennial speculation that funding may be stripped by the U.S. Congress from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which subsidizes public media. "It is frustrating... Under this administration, we've been zeroed out every year," Kerger said of annual Congressional fights to maintain PBS funding.

She added federal government assistance comprises only a small slice of the organization's funding, and PBS has Congressional supporters on both sides of the aisle.

And Kerger pointed to the U.S. media doing a better job of covering the yearly struggle to maintain federal funding for PBS, in contrast to early years when some media outlets argued Big Bird was big business and didn't need taxpayer money to survive.

"We were sort of a punchline that Big Bird would be wiped out. That's how we were covered," Kerger recalled. The PBS chief also talked about Downton Abbey, which the public broadcaster early on nearly didn't invest in, as it had already committed to back a remake of Upstairs, Downstairs.

"I'm really happy that we did, because [Downton Abbey] made us part of water cooler conversations again," Kerger said.