PBS On The Firing Line in Trump Era

The public TV network’s President, Paula Kerger, promises no change to programming or news, but worries about the impact of the new administration on local stations. PBS's new network for children launches on MLK Day

PBS President and CEO Paula Kerger

SHE MADE A BET ON THE FIRST QUESTION FROM CRITICS - AND LOST

Before PBS President and CEO Paula Kerger appeared before the nation’s TV journalists in Los Angeles on Sunday during the annual critic’s tour, she made a friendly bet that the first question would be the impact of the incoming Trump administration on funding for the nation’s largest public television network.

It turned out to be the second question.

Regardless, the seismic shift in the political landscape cast a long shadow over this PBS Executive session.

"So I lost my bet,” said Kerger, adding that it is, “really too early to tell. I’ve been in this work for a long time, both in the 11 years that I’ve been at PBS and 13 years before that in public broadcasting. And so we have periodically gone through periods where our funding has been at risk."

Kerger explained the importance of the federal funding even though overall it is a small portion of PBS’s total budget.

"Our funding through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting through the federal government,” she said, “represents about 15 percent of our funding for public television in total. That’s our entire industry. Most of that money goes directly to our stations.”

“The question you didn’t ask, but someone will, is what happens if that goes away?” continued Kerger. “The reason that we fight very hard for that 15 percent is that’s an aggregate number. For some of our stations, a percentage of their budget that represents federal funding is smaller, 7, 9, 10 percent. But for stations - particularly in rural parts of the country and in places like Alaska, in particular - the percentage of the station’s budget that is from the federal government represent about 50 percent.”

She said that is why PBS tries to work closely with the stations, so that together they talk to legislators about “the importance of federal funding, because it enables our content to be accessible to everyone in this country, and it particularly is critical in parts of the country where citizens may not have access to information other ways"

PBS Faces Funding Threat As It Launches New Kids Network

The latest in a long line of threats to defund public broadcasting comes as PBS is about to launch a new over-the-air (and cable) channel for children, PBS Kids 24/7, expected to reach 90 percent of American TV homes.

It is important because thanks to shows like Sesame Street, recent surveys have shown families have a lot of trust in PBS and are likely to encourage impressionable youngsters to enjoy all it offers.

When it launches for Martin Luther King Day, It will provide constant access to informative, entertaining, child-oriented content.

The launch includes live streaming through pbskids.org and on the PBS Kids Video APP. There’s also an interactive gaming feature with an educational slant.

“We care a lot about making sure that our content connects to families,” said Kerger, “and particularly to kids who are most at risk, and many of those are watching us over the air. Many of them really rely on the service we provide that is made possible by the federal appropriation."

Politicians have rattled their sabers in the direction of Public Broadcasting before but the current change raises special concerns.

to protect their funding:

"And so as we’ve looked at this change, and change always presents a lot of uncertainty,” added Kerger, “and in this case, more uncertainty. We are spending time talking to as many people as we can, but particularly legislators, both sides of the aisle, the Senate and the House, to make sure that they understand the role that we play in civic discourse in this country, but also the role that we play in helping to reach those with content that we think will make a difference in their lives.”

Science Program NOVA Could Take Heat From "Fact-Free posse"

Some of the shows Kerger announced for the coming season might soon be in the crosshairs of the “Fact-Free posse.” That includes the acclaimed science program NOVA, which is going bold with an episode that will place the Flint water pollution disaster front and center.

"Masterpiece" is tacking away from 19th century period curios by offering a feminist viewpoint with "Prime Suspect: Tennyson". Also, the whole concept of the British monarchy is challenged with the Future/Drama "King Charles III".

On the drama front, the 'Masterpiece' series "Sherlock" will continue as a strong franchise as it has been for four seasons.

The civil war drama "Mercy Street" returns for a second season, and period piece "Victoria" kicks off its eight-part run Sunday night.

Gwen Ifill who passed away on Nov. 14, 2016 was a mainstay on PBS News. She is shown here in a graphic from public TV station WETA in Washington, D.C.

PBS is also sensitive to keeping its commitment to news and public affair programming, said Kerger, taking a moment to give a heartfelt tribute to Gwen Ifill, who passed away last year. Ifill was a mainstay and respected elder of the highly respected news program, The PBS News Hour.

“The PBS mission has been the same since its inception,” said Kerger, “to provide a service and bring hard news and quality entertainment over-the-air to communities poorly served by for-profit-only broadcast goliaths like CBS, NBC, ABC and FOX.

In this post fact world, science and critical thinking are clearly the enemies of a large swath of politicians, evangelicals and science deniers. Kerger was still committed to the PBS mission of bringing news and information to people not well served by mass media.

Kerger was asked if affiliate stations in conservative areas of the country have pushed back because of content:

"No,” she replied. “And, in fact, I think it’s tremendously important, again…to use the opportunity that we have to help people understand science and to help understand that fact is fact.”

“The truth is that for 14 years now, we have participated in an annual poll, and we are deemed the most trusted public institution in America, and I take that very seriously.

“The trust that they place in us is the most important, and particularly, I think, in this era, a reliance on an organization that is trusted, that has presence in every community in this country, puts us in a different position than any other media organization."

Valerie Milano will now be contributing to Block & Tackle.biz

Valerie Milano is the well-connected Senior Editor and TV Critic at The Hollywood Times, a showbiz/promotions aggregate mainly for insiders. She has written for Communications Daily, Hollywood Today, Television International, and Video Age International and others. Valerie works closely with the Human Rights Campaign (Fed Club Member), the LGBT Center, and Outfest. She is also a member of the Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church in Hollywood. Milano loves meeting people. Her favorite getaway is Palm Springs where she is a member of the alm Springs Museum. She helps her husband with events at his club El Cid in Silverlake. For years Valerie Milano volunteered as a board member and was one of the chief organizers for the Television Critics Association’s press tours, which take place twice a year in Beverly Hills or Pasadena.

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