Lunch with Paula Kerger
Paula Kerger, the president and CEO of PBS, was in town this week, and her host, Eugene Williams, decided that for lunch with a newspaper critic, local flavor was in order. So before they headed out to Topeka, where Williams is general manager of KTWU, he took his guest to Arthur Bryant's. Kerger sampled the brisket while yours truly plowed into the pulled pork.
In a way, Bryant's is the sandwich that public television would like to be someday: not just meaty but spicy and distinctive, a product that gets new folks in the door every year and turns them not into admirers so much as wildly enthusiastic fans.
“I am determined to try to break into the scheduling to get us to experiment with things,” she says. “One of the things we should be trying to do is new stuff.”
The HBO miniseries “John Adams,” she says, “was one of the best things on television this year. I wish we could have afforded to do it. I'm glad HBO did it.” But, she adds, “I wish more people could see it --not just people who get HBO.”
I have heard this refrain often, that much of what PBS wants to do, it can't. Every year it has to fight for an almost laughably low congressional appropriation; $430 million was allocated for the next fiscal year, far more than the Bush Administration wanted.
That's not to say Kerger isn't trying to be creative. “Carrier,” the recent PBS series on young men and women serving aboard an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf, was stylish and had a great soundtrack. It wouldn't have been out of place on Discovery or A&E, though I found its content more intelligent and less narrator-driven than a similar series on cable.
Kerger is refreshing the PBS daytime lineup of educational fare. She's added eight shows so far, including the upcoming Muppet production “Sid the Science Kid.” Two warhorses, “Masterpiece Theatre” and “Mystery!,” were rolled into a Sunday-night franchise earlier this year and given a younger host, Alan Cumming. Kerger ordered a pilot (viewable on YouTube) of “Your Week,” a fast-paced political show co-hosted by National Review's Rich Lowry and New Republic's Michelle Cottle, who both look like they're half John McLaughlin's age.
This week PBS debuted “Click and Clack's As the Wrench Turns,” an animated sitcom starring Ray and Tom Magliozzi, the wisecracking hosts of NPR's popular “Car Talk.” While the storylines involving Click and Clack (the brothers' alter ego) have a certain public-media sensibility to them -- e.g., outsourcing “Car Talk” to India, where the new hosts dispense much better car advice than they ever did-- in the end, it's a sitcom.
“The brothers refused to do a live program, but they were game to try something in cartoon form,” explains Kerger. “Look, it's an experiment. We haven't done anything like this before.”
PBS stations aren't required to air “As the Wrench Turns” when PBS wants them to, on Wednesday nights. KTWU is complying, but KCPT has stuck the show on Saturday afternoons.
“See, this is the challenge when we try to do new things, is getting stations to take the leap with us,” Kerger says.
She likes to talk about new media, and surely one reason is that PBS.org operates mostly independently of the stations. The website shows full episodes of “Wired Science”, “Carrier” and other shows. It draws web traffic that often exceeds NBC's and ABC's sites.
Above all, new media is a triumph for reality-TV economics: cheap to produce, it draws a young crowd. While Kerger foresees the TV audience for PBS shows remaining older, “the other audiences will reach us through video streaming,” she says.
Kerger came to Kansas to meet with KTWU's donors and staff and raise awareness about the switchover to digital TV next February. KTWU is already airing three channels with its digital signal, including a service called Enhance that includes much of its own content produced over the years. She was also supposed to meet with all the general managers of public TV serving Kansas, but when Victor Hogstrom unexpectedly departed from KCPT earlier this week, the station sent program director Mike Murphy to Topeka in his place.
Speaking of personnel, Kerger has had to do some crisis management on “NewsHour” lately. Anchor Jim Lehrer had heart surgery and was off the air for a short time. Then there was the New York Times story reporting that finances at PBS' nightly newscast were dire following the pullout of a major underwriter.
“During Jim's absence I anticipated we were going to get a lot more calls,” she says, somewhat cryptically, “and there were calls inquiring about his health, but I think the caliber of the reporting, particularly with Gwen [Ifill] and Judy [Woodruff], has been strong. I'm glad Jim's back and will be covering the conventions gavel-to-gavel.” As for money, Kerger says the Times story “provoked a lot of discussion” that she hopes will lead to new funding of the show.
“Donors, I think, have stepped back and realized the 'NewsHour' is something that's important,” she says.
Kerger says she has asked the PBS board to allow her to spend more time pursuing the Holy Grail of public television: a foundation that allows PBS to have money to create new shows without constantly going around hat in hand. A gift from philanthropist Joan Kroc allowed NPR to set up a foundation that has helped it expand.
As we were finishing off our barbecue, I asked Kerger about the PBS ombudsman, Michael Getler. He was appointed in late 2005, at the peak of a political crisis in which appointees to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting stepped up attacks on PBS as being too liberal.
At the time of Getler's hiring, I wondered why it took an antagonistic presence to get PBS to do something it should have done long ago. Getler, who served in the same role (an ombudsman is an internal critic) for the Washington Post, has been terrific. So I asked: Was he the best thing to come out of this whole mess?
“I don't know whether it was the best thing, but I am glad we have him,” says Kerger, who renewed Getler's contract last year. “With the web and all the ways that people can have their say, some might argue, 'Do you need a ombudsman?' But I think it is helpful to have someone who has a journalistic background to look objectively at the work we are doing. He's interesting. He and I obviously work in the same building, (but) I read his column more than I actually see him.”
Hey, I know a way to remedy that. It's called lunch.