Q&A: PBS CEO Paula Kerger Talks About the Repercussions of Potential Funding Cuts

Paula Kerger sounds way too nice to be a CEO. She also sounds remarkably calm for someone who, as we spoke, was facing losing a major source of funding to her organization—the U.S. House last week voted to withhold all federal funding to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. But it's her ability to stay cool and collected while remaining charming that propelled Kerger to the presidency of PBS in 2006—and has made her tenure a welcome respite following the controversial and politicized reign of Pat Mitchell. Kerger will be in Knoxville for Thursday's Be More Awards, East Tennessee PBS' annual celebration of local non-profit organizations. But while she says she can't wait to visit the area, it was clear her mind was on Capitol Hill.

So CPB funding is once again up for cuts in Congress. This has kept coming up, again and again, over the past 20 years or so, and it never actually goes anywhere. Do you think this year will be any different?

I'm worried about it because this is a very extreme time, and with finances being tight, they're—understandably—looking for places to cut. I am hopeful that the people who use public television and care about it will be in touch with their congressmen, and that that will make the difference. But we can't count on that. ... I don't take anything for granted.

But PBS itself wouldn't lose that much if it weren't to receive any CPB funds.

That's not true. ... The rural stations, many of which depend on a lot of CPB funding to exist, tend to be much more vulnerable. ... If federal funding stopped, we would definitely lose some stations—and they buy programming from us. Yeah, the direct money [from CPB] is really small, but the part of our funding that comes from stations that fund that content is not. We'd definitely be hurt.

For a while there PBS was kind of flailing. Under your tenure, it seems to have somewhat gained relevance again, but it still has nowhere near the influence that NPR now has, whose audience keeps growing—[Kerger cuts me off here]

That's news. You're talking about NPR's news, and they studied what was happening in the media environment—radio was moving away from substantive news coverage, and closing bureaus, but NPR focused on expanding their coverage. ... On the television side, it's another media environment. There are just so many options, and so many channels have pursued different niches. ... Other channels, like the Learning Channel, Bravo, and the History Channel started down the path towards being a commercial version of public broadcasting, but they've all moved away from it. [Kerger talks for a while about cable channels and reality TV, and speaks too fast for me to write it all down accurately] ... The History Channel's name franchise is now Ice-Road Truckers, you know? So we're still providing something no one else is. Still, we've put a fair amount of time into studying our content. Like with our children's programming [Kerger talks for a while about PBS Kids] ... We had five of the top 10 children's shows on broadcast stations ... and our website last month had 10 million unique views ... making it the number one online destination for kids. ... Now when it comes to our primetime programming, our ratings were up 18 percent last year. I think we're definitely on the right track.

But PBS has done its own reality shows, like Frontier House.

We have. I'm almost embarrassed to say this, but we basically created the whole reality genre with American Family back 30 years ago. But we're interested in bringing our viewers into a specific part of history, you know, not doing anything exploitative. Not that all reality TV is exploitative, but some of it is, even though it can be entertaining.

One of my coworkers is a big fan of Frontier House and its sequels. We were talking, and it seems like Civil War House would be a perfect fit for PBS, given the popularity of the Ken Burns documentary, and the fact that this spring marks the war's sesquicentennial. Will this ever happen?

We haven't done anything with those producers in a few years. But it certainly would be a really interesting period of history to focus on. And we will be rebroadcasting the entirety of the Burns series later this year.

The recent Masterpiece Theatre broadcast Downton Abbey was a huge success. What is it with PBS audiences loving everything British?

[laughs loudly] I don't know! You tell me! [laughs again] I think part of it is that Masterpiece has been there for 40 years, and people go there for that. We knew Downton Abbey would be popular. But we had no idea how much so—it had the highest ratings for Masterpiece in 10 years!