Changing the Lives of Viewers Like You A Conversation with PBS' Paula Kerger


A young Sri Lankan girl takes part in a candlelight memorial for AIDS victims. From the Frontline documentary The Age of AIDS.

In March 2006, Paula Kerger joined the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) as its sixth president and CEO. Prior to her appointment at PBS, Kerger was executive vice president, chief operating officer and a member of the office of the president at the Educational Broadcasting Corporation, the parent company of Thirteen/WNET and WLIW New York, two of the nation's largest public television stations. Kerger sat down with Documentary to share her thoughts on the new job, the challenges of fundraising and PBS' place in an iPod world. .

 

What's been the biggest challenge of the job so far?

Paula Kerger: It's been an interesting four months. I've been in public television for 13 years. When I took this job, I took it assuming that I'd know a fair amount about our business but also that there'd been a lot to learn because the industry is shifting so quickly. When you look back, so much has transpired since October, when the announcement was made of the iTunes deal with Desperate Housewives and Lost. It's been hard to pick up a newspaper or a magazine without reading some reference to our "evolving media landscape."

As I look around at the commercial broadcasters and other media companies that are thinking about these issues, the interesting thing to me is that everyone is trying to figure this out at the same timehow to think about content moving forward.

Previously, it was all about a linear channel with a fixed schedule. Now, broadcast is a hugely important piece of the work, but we've also got to be thinking about other formats such as multi-cast signals, big screen vs. small screen, HD, iPods, video-on-demand, video streaming. It's very exciting. It's also a little scary.

We don't have the deep resources of our commercial brethren, yet public television has somehow always risen to the challenge and incorporated new technology. Because we're not a networkwe're a membership organization of 347 very independent, very local television stationswe need to figure out how we can help our local stations take advantage of the opportunities in the changing landscape for their communities.

 

How does your experience working at the Educational Broadcasting Corporation inform your new role?

The biggest advantage now has been being able to understand what it feels like to work at the local levelhow one thinks about putting together and managing a schedule that takes advantage of the national offerings, but is also complemented by local work; how one thinks about partnerships and building out presence in the community; what it feels like to worry about budgets.

 

John Boland, your new chief content officer, also comes from a local station background.

We used to have a national programming department, and a separate Internet department and a separate education department. I really see all of those activities being intertwined, so for me the best way to ensure that the work of each was informed by each was to bring them together. As I looked around and thought about who would be the right person to really think strategically about all of the platforms that we need to be thinking about, and at the same time really make sure that our core content and our broadcast stayed strong, the station that was doing really innovative work was KQED, the San Francisco station. So I was really delighted that John Boland agreed to come here; he brings all those perspectives to public broadcasting, with the added benefit of having worked at a local station.

 

Is there an example of a show that you were able to showcase across different platforms successfully?

We did a broadcast of the FRONTLINE documentary The Age of AIDS [Renata Simone, William Cran, Greg Barker, prods.]. This project was in development for a long time, and we filmed in multiple countries. Historically, we would have put all this effort into producing the program, and then it would have broadcast nationally once and maybe had a couple of repeats. In this case, it's an important documentary, so we asked ourselves, 'How do we take a series like this and bring it to the widest possible audience?' We made a deal through Cable Positive with cable operators to offer the series for free on cable-on-demand for the two weeks following the broadcast. FRONTLINE has most of last three seasons available online with an extraordinary companion website (www.frontline.org/view). It's also available through ShopPBS.com and on VHS and DVD. When you aggregate it out, the number of people who were eventually exposed to the series is many times over what we would have reached with just traditional broadcast.

When you look at the media landscape, you can really see that we need to be thinking about how to deliver content in a way that people can access it when they want it, and how they want it.

 

Reaching a wider audience is always desirable, but how will documentarians be compensated if their film plays online? Where is the place for the filmmaker in this new media landscape?

I think that it's an important issue. I have been participating in a number of efforts that are now underway--including discussions at the Ford Foundation, WGBH, American University and WNET--to really look at how to figure out the rights scenarios on all these different platforms. It's complicated.

One of the things that is going to be important is figuring out which specific platforms will be helpful for the distribution of particular content. The Age of AIDS filmmakers' principal intention was to push the series out to as many people as possible, so we just looked at every opportunity to do so. With some work, we've been looking at a landscape where within a broadcast window of when we'd normally have it scheduled, you may want to push something out aggressively. Then through our library, we could make it available for a fee which would involve some sort of compensatory situation analogous to DVD sales, such as "download-to-own," by which people are actually buying content through streaming video.

I'm hoping that what we'll do is not reinvent the wheel, but through all these discussions figure out how it all fits together. We're going to have to do it if we're going to survive. Broadcast will be strong for a very long time, but while the other markets are still small, we may want to use this time to experiment with various platforms. It's always a question of how you strike that balance between making sure that your work is seen and making sure that you're taking advantage of whatever opportunities there are for remuneration.

 

Documentarians aren't the only ones challenged by funding. As you take PBS forward into the digital, non-linear era, someone's got to foot the bill for these new initiatives.

Our funding is cobbled together from federal funding, membership station dues (approximately 50 percent), philanthropy and some business revenue. We have to answer these questions: How do we sustain ourselves if we're going to have work on multiple platforms? How do we get the work out there? How do we support that structure? What is the business model to ensure that we remain viable? At the end of the day, we're a nonprofit media company, so the work that we are more focused on isn't necessarily commercially viable. How do you support that in a way that makes sense?

 

You've got such a strong background in fundraising and development. Have any answers presented themselves in the last four months?

I don't know yet. The revenue that comes from member stations is obviously a key piece, and that is going to be relatively flat. Corporate underwriting over the last four or five years has also been flat. I really think that philanthropy is a big opportunity for us, and it's possible that there may be revenue avenues in multi-platforms. There are a lot of people out there who care a lot about the work we're doing, particularly with public affairs, the arts and [programming] for kids.

 

You said in one of your remarks to the Press Club, "Those of us who work in this business do so because it is good." How powerful a tool is that when one is trying to exact dollars from people?

There is great work that comes out of commercial broadcast and commercial television and cable, but their bottom line is the bottom line. For us, our bottom line is service to the American public. And even if you're doing very high-quality work, there is a difference if in the back of your head you're still wrestling with how it will contribute to the health of the corporate entity. So for us, having the focus being service does lead us to some different paths.

I have spent a lot of time thinking about and looking at the broadcast landscape and trying to assess where there are gaps, where there is content that could be important to our country that is not being provided. When I talk to potential donors, the thing that I really emphasize is the fact that our principal orientation, our principal mission is profoundly different from anyone else's. It is to serve the public good. That is the aspect of our work that is the most appealing to donors. That is the thing that's dragged us all into this businessthat feeling that we can actually make a difference.

 

We recently interviewed Cara Mertes [the outgoing executive producer at P.O.V.] and she made a very similar comment about her experience at P.O.V.that the points of view of the people who work there are generally very different from those who work in the commercial television arena.

I've been in nonprofit work since I graduated from college. I fell into this line of work by accident, and I am so eternally grateful that I did. Documentaries touch people's lives. Public television does, too. That's why no matter all of the challengesand I know documentary filmmakers have the same issuesit's so hard to do this work, it seems like everyone's against you. It would be so much easier to just cash it in and go for the gold. But there is no replacement for the feeling that we are changing lives. And at the end of the day that's what it's all about.

Tags: