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Q&A: PBS CEO Paula Kerger discusses the future of public television

Q&A: PBS CEO Paula Kerger discusses the future of public television

On June 2, KSMQ-TV public television upgraded its broadcast signal to high definition allowing for a better signal that will offer higher resolution of images and allow programming to be more compatible with newer home television equipment.

The high definition switch also ensures KSMQ will have better control over its content offerings and will have the ability to produce live broadcasts.

Red Couch Stories producer Laurie Archbold sat down with Paula A. Kerger, president and CEO of PBS, for an interview when Kerger visited Minnesota to help celebrate KSMQ’s high definition upgrade. This transcript has been edited.

PBS continues to be rated as one of the most trustworthy institutions among nationally known organization and has earned the reputation as one of the most fair networks for news and public affairs. How have you been able to sustain this reputation and what are the overall goals for PBS?

Our goal is to really continue to focus on the stories that matter, the important stories and figuring out how to bring that to a larger audience.

We were created at a time of market failure. The commercial media was set up to do certain things and in some cases has done them very well. But always the decision about the stories in which they were told and the format that those stories took were always dictated by the fact that at some point or another it had to be monetized.

There was overall recognition that there was a need for the public and a place where the stories that perhaps weren’t relevant to a commercial industry might actually be tremendously important. That’s where I think public media continues to play an important role because we serve a curatorial function that we’ve always been engaged in since our beginning days.

We live in a 24/7 cycle of information and we have the ability to be in constant communication. It can be challenging when it comes to finding real, authentic content and content that matters. How does this impact public television?

It’s an interesting time for public media. So many of the things that have been a through line since our beginning are still relevant today. For us the difference is we are producing content for both broadcast and digital, we are finding great audiences in both spaces.

Two years ago, we were the 12th most watched of all the broadcast and cable organizations and this year we are fifth. In terms of television we have a very large audience, we are one of three media organizations that last year saw an increase in audience and I think that is significant.

This is because we stay focused on what has always been our guide star, which is making sure that we are telling important stories and that we are telling them well. That relates to everything from Downton Abbey to the journalism that we take up each an everyday. We look for stories that are going to be meaningful and we look to do them as well a well can.

Tell me about the station's commitment to digital programming.

Our idea in creating Digital Studios was not to take our broadcast programs and sort of drop them on to YouTube. It was really to think about the people who were using that space as their medium and try and work with them as a part of the PBS family.

We have 60 different channels on YouTube under Digital Studios with a lot of science content. A great deal of it is to get kids interested in science. 

Our digital platform allows flexibility and gives us the ability to let the content and the stories themselves dictate the format whereas broadcast has more strict parameters with half hour to hour-long programming.

Right now, we are doing an independent film series online and the films range anywhere from 3-5 minutes to longer. The stories are beautiful. They wouldn’t work on television but digital is a great space for this work to be seen and shared with others.

You have 350 independently owned and operated public broadcasting stations across the country. How does this show strength individually and collectively for the creation of content?

Our stations across the county are the front lines and where the work comes from. Our stations are the source for great storytelling and are important resources in each of the communities they serve.

You have people who find these amazing stories and they bring them forward. KSMQ did a documentary called The Typist, which is about the last surviving participant in the Nuremberg trials and he was transcribing the trials. His story is so profound and it’s a beautiful local story, which also becomes an important national story of significance.

I think that is what has always made public broadcasting so interesting is that you have people who find these amazing stories that have local interest but actually appeal to a much wider audience that is really interested in understanding some of the great people, the ideas, the stories that make up our country.

That is what makes public broadcasting so powerful and unique in the world.

Where do you see the future of public television going?

When you look at the future of public media you are really looking at two questions. One, what is the content itself and the stories we are producing and the second is how do we connect to viewers. The viewer expectation is clear, they want to find whatever they want to watch wherever they want to watch it. If I look out five years do I know exactly what we are going to be doing? No. But I do know the kind of stories that we will be telling are the same as when we first started and I think the execution of them will continue to shift as it is with other media organizations.

What is needed to support the mission of public television?

In terms of financial support, people sometimes think that are confused because they believe we are government funded. We get a very small percentage of our funding from the Federal Government. In aggregate it’s 15% and that goes directly to our stations across the country and it’s disproportioned to the stations that are in rural areas, which the federal support may be a larger part of their budget.

The lion share of money that comes into public broadcasting comes from viewers like you. It’s that individual support and lots of small gift frankly that makes us very democratic. We are very much a part of the community and we are very much a part of the social fabric of the communities that we serve.

All of our stations are independent. They are locally owned and operated, which in the media today is becoming rarer and rarer that you have media stations that are run by people that actually live in the community and each station creates content that is relevant to that local community. It’s the communities themselves that make sure the public media stations stay strong.

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