PBS head sees a future in high-quality programming | St. Louis Public Radio

PBS head sees a future in high-quality programming

Oct 8, 2008

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: October 8, 2008 - Paula A. Kerger, president and chief executive of PBS, the parent network of KETC, spent two days this week helping the station celebrate its 10th anniversary in its building in the Grand Center area. She's a veteran of public broadcasting, having spent 10 years in executive positions with Educational Broadcasting Corp. (EBC), the parent company of Thirteen/WNET and WLIW New York.

Kerger also was in St. Louis to call attention to the station's locally produced series, "Facing the Mortgage Crisis." The project, done in coordination with a Beacon series of stories online, focuses on the struggle of some area residents to maintain their homes, credit, lives and families in the face of the mortgage meltdown. The series also helped people find assistance. Kerger, 50, said KETC's series is the kind of program PBS affiliates all over the country could and should be producing for their local audiences. She has been PBS' CEO for two years.

Here are excerpts from her interview at the station:

St. Louis Beacon: How does a PBS affiliate survive in this age of dozens of cable channels and the Internet?

Kerger: We survive by paying attention to our core. We put our attention into programs nobody else is doing well. There is a lot of 24-hour news, but it's not worth much. It's really not thoughtful analysis. It's sound bites.

High-quality kids' programming that's curriculum based is important. And I'm very interested in the arts.

If we are distracted and try to chase audience, we'd lose the game at the end of the day.

Q: Fox chases audience. So does CNN.

A: We have a larger audience than CNN. More people watch "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" than watch CNN.

We have this large organization called PBS, which is an association of stations. It's exactly like a co-op. What is happening in newspapers is what's happening in a lot of television. In Detroit, the CBS affiliate has stopped doing news and is running sitcoms during news. Even when they have a local news presence, they're doing nail-salon stories. They are doing reporting that doesn't focus on issues that count -- frivolous stuff.

One of the reasons I came here was what KETC is doing around "... the Mortgage Crisis." This is exactly what stations should be doing. They have the ability to bring a very large audience together. They can reach out. They can make sure people are connecting to information about something as crucial as people losing their house.

Q: How do you distinguish yourself in broadcasting?

A: By doing content no one else is doing. By being a "local station" in an ever-(more) consolidated medium.

Q: What do you want your legacy to be?

A: I want to leave this job knowing that stations around the country are doing programs like KETC is doing, that they are being a vital part of their community, that we are creating programming for the 21st Century that is meeting the needs of the communities and the needs of Americans.

Q: More focus on local news?

A: More local news that matters, local information that matters. We have an extraordinary broadcast coming up next week from "Frontline" called "Heat." It is about the global-warming problem and how everyone is paying lip service and turning their back on what truly needs to happen.

It's an important national story and also has local connections, to provide stations with stories they can share with their local communities and then make local connections.

Q: Is "Frontline" your premier program?

A: It certainly is one. You're asking me to pick my favorite, which I cannot do. It's like having children.

Q: Is it a prototype for the kind of programs you want?

A: It is a prototype, and the producers have been more aggressive about how to use technology to deliver stories. So they have been ahead of the curve in terms of thinking about (using the) online (medium). They take linear story telling in a fixed amount of time and take all of the research and scholarship and push it out.

Q: So using the Internet to complement the broadcast? You mean adding hyperlinks to the online content?

A: You can go as deep as you want. The broadcast is the executive summary. But if your interest takes you down this path, -- that's the thing that's amazing about the Internet. You can keep going as far as you want to go.

Q: Commercial television isn't going to do that, is it?

A: They haven't been.

Q: The BBC has been posting stories and text with links you can follow if you want.

A: BBC has been doing that. Not only do we watch what's going on in this country in other media, we are also watching what other public-service media are doing. BBC has been very aggressive in pushing out content.

Q: Are you getting where you want to go in making these changes?

A: We are moving slowly because we don't have the resources. We do it in little pieces. 

Repps Hudson is a freelance journalist.