PBS Chief Prioritizing Member Stations With Streaming Strategy

Paula Kerger -Publicity - H 2020
Rahoul Ghose

Paula Kerger also recalled finding out about sexual harassment claims against Charlie Rose and Tavis Smiley within the same three-day period.

As it celebrates 50 years as an institution, PBS has been making aggressive moves in future-proofing — especially for the 300-plus member stations that rely on it for much of their content.

That’s why December’s news of PBS’ streaming move to YouTube TV, the first “skinny bundle” play in its growing streaming strategy, hinged on the inclusion of over 100 local PBS affiliates and not just one monolith channel bearing the PBS brand.

“The hardest thing in that negotiation was wanting to have our local stations streamed, not just PBS,” said CEO Paula Kerger during a keynote conversation at the Realscreen Summit in New Orleans, adding that the deal would have been done much earlier had it not included representation from individual markets. “We have a rich bench of producers working at the community level. You don’t want to lose that.”

“Local media is really challenged,” Kerger continued, calling out the decline of local newspapers and local broadcast affiliates. “As I’ve traveled around the country, in a lot of the communities I visit, the only local stations they have are their public media outlets.”

Kerger has found herself, in recent years, as the spokesperson for her member stations’ health. They’re the primary beneficiaries of the federal government’s admittedly modest funding, funding that has been under constant fire since Donald Trump won the 2016 election. As ever, Kerger stressed that those stations are the ones at risk.

“If you lose 6 percent of your budget, you have to make some cuts,” she said. “If you lose 50 or 60 percent of your budget, it’s existential.”

In the broader streaming conversation, Kerger told the crowd that she felt people were getting too hung up on platforms. Digital or linear, content is content: “We have to stop thinking of platforms as somehow moving up a food chain.”

Two years out from the #MeToo ousters of PBS personalities Charlie Rose and Tavis Smiley, Kerger also reflected on the very bizarre week that saw accusations of sexual harassment and misconduct leveled against both of them.

“Both happened within three days of each other, and it was Thanksgiving week,” she told NPR TV critic Eric Deggans at the tail end of their conversation. “On Monday, we had call from the Washington Post, fact-checking the story they were filing that day about Charlie Rose … Wednesday of that week, we got a call from a woman who said, ‘I want to tell you a story about Tavis Smiley.’”

Rose, whose show aired on member stations through an independent production company, was off the air that Monday and fired by Wednesday. The Smiley situation unfolded a little more slowly, with PBS conducting its own investigation before suspending and ultimately firing him two weeks later. “The onus for the investigation was on us,” Kerger said. “We didn’t have a journalist calling us.”

“It’s not an experience I would want to go through again,” she said, “but I know we’re better for having gone through it.”