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OnScreen Summit: Kerger: Philanthropy, Not Government, Funds PBS

CEO Says Most of What PBS Does is in Spirit of Education 12/07/2012 2:47 AM Eastern
 
New York - When, during the first debate of the 2012 election cycle, then candidate Mitt Romney proclaimed to PBS's Jim Lehrer that he would cut funding to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting as part of his presidency, all eyes were suddenly on the oft-overlooked broadcaster.

But PBS president and CEO Paula Kerger, speaking with B&C editor-in-chief Melissa Grego as part of B&C/Multichannel News' OnScreen Media Summit here on Thursday, said that the sudden publicity gave them an "opportunity to talk about who we are and what we are."

"We're educators," Kerger said. "Most of what we try to do on a sustained basis is in the spirit of education."

The funding Romney was talking about, she said, is so infinitesimally small -- only 15% of PBS' funding comes from the government -- that it was "strange" Romney would discuss it.

What does fund PBS, Kerger said, is the "strong tradition of philanthropy," with many PBS stations coming from the pockets of individual groups and communities. Though the funding from the government is lacking, Kerger maintained that the public/private partnership works well for PBS.

The outcry that resulted from Romney's comment was most evident on social media, especially Twitter, offering free publicity for PBS. At the time of the debate, Romney v. Big Bird was the biggest political story on social media.

Any social media buzz is invaluable, especially to broadcasters working within constricted budgets. For PBS, social media was also instrumental to the success of its Emmy-winning British scripted drama, Downton Abbey.

"It was a smart use of social media that enabled us to really push the word out about Downton Abbey," Kerger said. "Or should I say, fans to really push the word out."

Parodies of the show proliferate on the Internet, including bits from late-night host Jimmy Kimmel and a Downton Arby spoof that Kerger said is her favorite. "You can't buy that kind of promotion," Kerger said.

Though Downton Abbey has doubled PBS's ratings in primetime during its second-season run and PBS boasts five of the top 10 kids' shows (as well as being the No. 1 online video streamer for kids), Kerger said that ratings are not as important to the network as they are to the commercial broadcasters. For PBS, the interest is attracting an audience and, again, educating and not having to be accountable for selling airtime allows PBS to do so.

Though, Kerger said, "We're noncommercial, but we're not noncompetitive."

One place that PBS does not particularly compete, however, is news. PBS "is not the place you come for breaking news," Kerger said, instead seeking to put that breaking news in context as a part of its ongoing commitment to education, such as on PBS NewsHour. PBS has forged partnerships with other broadcasters, as well as print and radio, in order to shore up its investigative journalism; for instance, ESPN recently partnered with Frontline on a piece about concussions in sports.

Where PBS does become more competitive is in the multiplatform delivery of its content. PBS's solution was to create an infrastructure that allows its individual stations to add local content to its Video Jukebox, where its national content is already loaded. The Jukebox works for both online and mobile content, which is an important facet, Kerger said, with more and more people viewing video on mobile than on computers.

"That is the real conundrum: If you keep trying to force people to come back and find you where you've always had content, you're going to lose," she said.

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