This Wonder Woman is one and the same. She is that young girl practicing her news report in her bedroom mirror, using a hairbrush as a microphone.
She is that woman being honored as a distinguished alumna at her alma mater on the same day she is set to talk with a reporter about her revolutionary efforts to drive change in the public broadcasting industry.
She is a Wonder Woman who, as a young girl in southern Virginia, realized the pillars of diversity, inclusion and community engagement were the pathway forward. Those are the essentials Sylvia Bugg was raised with; those are the ambitions she brought with her when she first began working at PBS in the early 1990s. And those are the priorities Bugg now brings to her role as chief programming executive and general manager of general audience programming of PBS.
“Throughout my formative years, I was exposed to diversity across geography, community, race/ethnicity and points of view,” Bugg said. She absorbed life lessons from a lineage of female relatives who radiated self-empowerment and resilience. “I wanted a career that would allow me to serve audiences through programming where people from all backgrounds could see themselves reflected.”
That’s because everyone has a story, she said. That stint with a microphone/hairbrush was just the first step in hers.
One who always enjoyed public speaking, Bugg went on to earn an undergraduate degree in communications with an emphasis in radio and television at Old Dominion University. She then started at PBS as an administrative assistant in the programming department.
It was there she garnered a great deal about program evaluation, as well as how to
package and deliver a show and to work cross-departmentally within an organization. At PBS, she found a kindred home where the development of unique programming strategies was encouraged and supported. As she puts it: PBS manages to “meet the moment” in a way that can only be found at PBS.
Along the way, she earned an MBA from the University of Maryland and a master’s in journalism from American University. After working in programming at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and for several Discovery networks, Bugg is now conceptualizing multiplatform content and producing programs like Unresolved, which includes a film, a podcast, a mobile art installation and an interactive website that examines the nation’s effort to grapple with America’s legacy of racist killings.
“She has led the way in ensuring that we share diverse, distinctive and impactful stories that represent and reflect our audiences, and she is tireless in her work to elevate new voices and perspectives,” PBS president and CEO Paula Kerger said.
Unresolved is an ideal example of Bugg’s core philosophy when it comes to understanding content: creating programming that meets the moment and resonates with an audience.
“She is a Wonder Woman because of the way she embodies PBS’s core values of living the mission, valuing the team, leading by example and embracing possibilities,” said Cecilia B. Loving, senior VP of diversity, equity & inclusion at PBS.
Bugg has called for initiatives that focus on opportunities to amplify diversity both behind and in front of the camera. In 2022 alone, Bugg helped unveil a new fellowship program for rising filmmakers, announced a call for film submissions from diverse/BIPOC producers and revealed the funding of a $3.6 million program to support mid-career nonfiction filmmakers.
Driving for More Diversity
Supporting new, diverse voices is paramount, Bugg said. “One question our editorial team poses every day is, ‘Why now and why on PBS?’ That is our mantra,” she said. “Public media provides a place for informed discussion and dialogue.”
Mentorship is one of her priorities, especially for other rising women leaders.
“A significant part of my leadership style is that of being a servant leader,” she said. “Many mentors supported and encouraged me along the way, so I must continue to pay it forward.”
Those who know her are not surprised by that generosity. She’s called courageous, humble, visionary, compassionate. “Sylvia is the epitome of fierce female realness,” said PBS VP of marketing Amy Wigler.
She is wise but also gracious: A trailblazer whose impact as a Black woman driving change encapsulates the definition of a Wonder Woman. ▪️
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Susan Ashworth is the former editor of TV Technology and a longtime contributor to Radio World. In addition to her work covering the broadcast television industry, she has served as editor-in-chief of two housing finance magazines and written about topics as varied as education, chess, music, sports and the connected home environment. She lives in the Bay Area to be close to the San Francisco 49ers and the fog.