PBS Chief on Mitt Romney’s Attack During Presidential Debate, Effect of Sequester

It’s been a roller coaster of a year for public broadcasting, from the eye-popping Nielsen ratings of Downton Abbey to the dubious mention in the presidential debates last fall. To talk about the highs and lows of the past year, NJ Today Managing Editor Mike Schneider sat down Paula Kerger, President and CEO of PBS.

In the first presidential debate, GOP candidate Mitt Romney made a memorable reference to PBS via Bid Bird by pledging to cut federal funding towards public television if he became president. Kerger described how surprised she was to find PBS pulled into the middle of a presidential debate.


“I was sitting on my couch and I just about fell off my couch,” she said, adding that surveys have repeatedly shown that public approval of public television is extraordinarily high. “For ten years in a row, we’ve been marked as the second best use of taxpayer dollars after our nation’s defense and so I know where we sit in the hearts and minds of Americans.”

Despite being caught off guard, Kerger said she used the unexpected spotlight as a teaching moment to bring awareness about the public-private partnership that is PBS and the impact of federal funding.

“We get a small support from the federal government but it’s critical particularly in parts of the country where the resources don’t exist to support a public broadcasting station just from philanthropy,” she explained. “In states like Alaska, for example, and parts of the west, the federal funding is close to 50 percent of their station’s budget . So the consequence of loss of federal funding is those stations go away.”

As the debate in Washington continues over sequestration, public broadcasting will not be immune from its impact.

“We’ve already seen our funding reduced 13 percent last year and we’ve been affected by the sequestration this year,” said Kerger.

The one positive thing about the sequestration, she said, is the notice and the time to plan accordingly. “It means there are projects that we can’t move forward and, as I mentioned before, where I’m really concerned is where there may be stations that go off the air, and we’ve lost a couple of stations over the course of the last couple of years.”

Masterpiece‘s Downton Abbey has provided one of the shining successes for PBS. Kerger said the hit series is bringing new audiences to public television and bringing back those who may have left.

“We have a core audience from Masterpiece on Sunday nights but a lot of people are discovering, rediscovering public broadcasting again, so that’s been tremendously helpful,” Kerger said. “It has helped us to attract some corporate support for Masterpiece which has been helpful and it has helped stations really in reaching out to potential supporters.”

Kerger also touched upon the changing landscape of commercial television, most notably the predominance of reality programming.

“Reality programming is about 56 percent of television right now,” she noted. “Historical documentaries have really slipped away, not as much science content, performing arts [is also] gone. And even in the news space, there isn’t the same kind of work, particularly in the investigative side, as we do in public broadcasting.”