Viewers tuning in, funds tuning out for PBS

RICHMOND, Va. (WTVR) – It’s going on 50 years since the U.S. government created public broadcasting to “enrich the human spirit,  to teach and tell stories of our nation.”

It has seen many changes over those years, but perhaps none so turbulent, challenging and successful as the past two years.

“In the last two years our audiences have actually gone up, and they’ve gone up significantly,” said PBS’s President and CEO, Paula Kerger. “And I think, in part, because we’re very focused on the content obviously, a and good stories.”

Kerger came to the Library of Virginia in Richmond to address members, community partners and legislators at a time when state legislatures are cutting or eliminating longstanding contributions to public broadcasting.

Yet, it is a time when demands like video streaming and downloads have shot up among PBS’ 350 member stations.

Virginia’s stations are hanging in there after Governor Bob McDonnell zeroed their budget, as did governors in Pennsylvania and Florida. Some stations in other states have gone dark.

“It’s a bleak place sometimes,” Kerger said.

Roughly 15 percent of PBS’s budget comes from the federal government. The state contributions are typically a fraction of that. Corporate contributions are significant, but 50 percent of the budget comes from individuals, Kerger said.

PBS has a smash hit with the drama series, Downton Abbey, which has won a Golden Globe award and six  Emmys. The new Sherlock Holmes series on Masterpiece Theatre is also popular.

Sesame Street has won more Emmys than any TV  show in history.

“We focus on creating programs that treat children as children and not as mini consumers,” Kerger said, adding that it’s baffling that states are cutting PBS budgets at time when its childen’s programming and teaching aids are seen as beneficial tools in improving early education, “particularly at a time when education is really under such pressure.”

“The state of California projects the number of prison beds it will need based on third grade reading scores,” Kerger said.

PBS is the home of Ken Burns documentaries. He has the upcoming prohibition series coming up, followed by one on the historic dust bowl and another on Vietnam.

They’ve refined programming so nights have specific themes, like science or arts and entertainment, the latter gaining more emphasis.

There’s an upcoming series on Bill Clinton, which may add fuel to the fire to the view of some Republican lawmakers that PBS leans leftward politically.

“We don’t veer to the left,” Kerger told CBS-6 when asked about that perception. “Actually, there was research study that came out last week that looked at all the different media outlets. And again – I think this is for I don’t know how many years in a row – we were voted the media outlet that’s the most trusted and the most fair in the way it handles the media of any news organization . . . we get support from both sides, left and right, Republicans and Democrats.”

The constant struggle for funding “is depressing for stations to worth through,” she said. They’re working to find creative fund-raising techniques to match the popular programming and also trying to find revenue streams from the surprising success of their digital streaming and download operations.

In a rapidly changing, highly divisive, and supercharged digital age, Kerger believes public broadcasting can continue to make gains with educational and entertaining content of consequence that serves the public – their mission for nearly 50 years.

She believes people will increasingly recognize their mission, their faithfulness, as they continue to watch once purely educational operations like The Learning Channel and The History Channel bow to pop culture pressures.

“I believe if the current media landscape continues on its current trajectory,” she told the crowd, “we will be the only media providers consistently providing content of consequence.”

Public broadcasting is not a job, she said. “It’s a calling.”