PBS' Paula Kerger on Fred Willard's Arrest, Big Bird and the Elmo Sex Scandal

Erika Larsen

After a year of surprising controversy, the executive tells THR about her approach to dealing with challenges: "You need to give everybody the chance to be heard, and then when you need to move, you need to move."

This story first appeared in the Dec. 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

On the evening of Wednesday, Oct. 3, Paula Kerger settled in front of her television along with 70 million fellow U.S. citizens to watch the first presidential debate between President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney. She was at home with her husband, Joseph Kerger, a novelist, when about 30 minutes into the debate Romney took aim at a certain yellow-feathered friend of millions of American children. "I'm sorry, Jim," Romney told moderator Jim Lehrer, the veteran anchor of PBS' NewsHour, "I'm going to stop the subsidy to PBS. I like PBS. I love Big Bird. I actually like you, too."

Nevermind the illogical math -- in 2012, PBS and public radio received $445 million from the federal government, or less than $1.50 a person, while the federal deficit is $1.1 trillion and counting -- the statements made for a memorable debate sound bite.

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"I literally almost fell off my couch," recalls Kerger, 54, on a mid-November afternoon in her Arlington, Va., office at PBS headquarters. "I couldn't believe it."

To be sure, Republican politicians have had public broadcasting in the budget cross hairs for years. But it's hard to imagine many folks -- regardless of what side of the political aisle their loyalties fall -- having it in for a roller-skating, unicycle-riding golden condor.

"People have such warm and fuzzy feelings about Big Bird," she adds. "It was all very strange."

But while uncomfortable seeing PBS used as a "political football" (she was equally chagrined at the Obama campaign's opportunistic use of Big Bird's image in an anti-Romney ad and, along with Sesame Street producer Sesame Workshop, requested that the campaign pull the spot), she used the episode to remind voters of the virtues of PBS relative to its modest federal funding. "Both candidates focused on the importance of education," she said Oct. 4 on CNN. "We're America's biggest classroom."

And in a Nov. 5 op-ed for USA Today, she invoked Thomas Jefferson (few things tug at Republicans' heartstrings like the Founding Fathers) in drawing an analogy between the third president's egalitarian proposal to establish state-funded public libraries and public broadcasting's status as "our nation's 21st century public library."

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Kerger has had practice dealing with controversy. Appointed president and CEO of PBS in 2006, the Baltimore native has steered public television through the 2008 financial collapse that decimated corporate underwriting, viewer donations and allocations from strapped state governments while deflecting annual efforts by the Bush administration to impose steep cuts in federal funds for public broadcasting. She continues to fight for federal funding as well as corporate sponsorship.

"Paula essentially runs a service organization," says Geoffrey Sands, chairman of the PBS board and a director at global management consultancy McKinsey & Co. "It would be hard enough if she were CEO of an entity that she had full control over. PBS is nothing like that, so it becomes a very difficult position for anyone to succeed at."

This year, Kerger has weathered the types of personnel flare-ups that usually are the purview of commercial networks. There was Market Warriors host Fred Willard's "lewd act" at a triple-X movie house in July. Less than 24 hours after Willard was arrested in a seedy section of Hollywood, he was fired as host of the Antiques Roadshow spinoff.

Now, Kerger and executives at Sesame Workshop are dealing with the fallout over Elmo puppeteer Kevin Clash's Nov. 20 resignation amid allegations of sexual relationships with minors.

"As a public broadcaster, we're held to a higher standard," says Kerger. "We've tried to be as transparent as possible. Nothing ever goes away. You need to give everybody the chance to be heard, and then when you need to move, you need to move."

Kerger is equally at home touring stations in far-flung rural communities as she is lobbying corporate titans in blue-chip boardrooms. Pragmatic and unflappable, every summer she participates in several sprint triathlons, and she has been known to take the New York subway in an evening gown. When she assumed stewardship of PBS, the public broadcaster's mission had become muddied; there was a lack of innovation and little cohesion among the country's 350-plus public television stations.

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Under her leadership, PBS has entered the digital age and beefed up news and public-affairs offerings as well as historical documentaries (a result of the decline in historical nonfiction on cable, says Kerger). And in 2010, the broadcaster landed a bona fide pop-culture hit with Downton Abbey (which returns Jan. 6 for a third season and has been picked up for a fourth by British producer ITV). The show has helped PBS shake off its musty reputation by luring viewers and awards recognition, which in turn has helped secure funding and corporate sponsorship. "I'm getting calls from everyone reminding me that they're my friends and that they're dying to get their hands on a set of Downton DVDs," says Kerger.

And at a time when there is a dearth of arts education in schools, she has made such programming a priority with the PBS Arts Festival, an annual multipart series featuring programs from disparate cities.

"PBS' role as a presenter of the performing arts had gotten a little cloudy," asserts Peter Gelb, GM of New York's Metropolitan Opera. "She really cleared the weather for us."

When Gelb took his post in 2006, he sought out Kerger (who worked in the opera's development office from 1989 to 1993) to express his desire to see the Met on PBS.

"Usually I'm faced with skepticism and pessimism when I'm talking to television executives," he says. "She floored me with her response, which was, 'Let's do it.' "

PBS has aired all of the Met's HD theater productions, about 70 performances.

"She's willing to fight for things she believes in," adds Gelb.

Indeed, Kerger is PBS' happy warrior, gamely schlepping to the Hill to meet with legislators -- those friendly toward PBS and not. She has visited stations in 46 of 50 states -- all but Alaska, Hawaii, Montana and South Dakota.

"I've been to Fargo. I've been to Scranton in the winter," says Kerger, the first PBS president to visit stations in Amarillo, Texas, and Tacoma, Wash. "It has been essential for me in doing this job to really have an understanding of the country."

It means spending about one-third of the year in hotels. But her travels have conferred on her several honorariums, including Kentucky Colonel, Arkansas Traveler and Admiral in the Great Navy of the State of Nebraska.

Says Kerger, "It's a gift to be able to travel around the country as the president of PBS."