PBS’s Paula Kerger Talks New Congress and Its Impact on Funding: TCA

Paula Kerger, president and CEO, PBS
(Image credit: Rahoul Ghose/PBS)

PASADENA, Calif. — Paula Kerger, president and CEO of PBS, addressed the new Congress Monday and its potential effect on funding for the organization and its member stations.

“Our stations I think do an excellent job of making sure that legislators understand what the impact of that funding is for their stations,’ Kerger told a ballroom of reporters during PBS’s Television Critics Association press tour session.

Some stations, particularly smaller ones, receive a significant amount of federal funding. Though PBS is forward-funded to insulate it from politics, it has been a hot-button issue with some Republican legislators accusing PBS stations of being too liberal. Former President Donald Trump during his term even threatened to zero out the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the agency formed in the 1960s to distribute funds to PBS stations. (CPB’s 2023 budget was approved in 2020.)

If that funding were to disappear or decline, Kerger said, “it would be an existential crisis.”

“The federal appropriation for public broadcasting amounts to about $1.40 per person per year,” she said. “It’s a really small amount of money that has a tremendous impact on communities.’

Kerger also addressed the changing media landscape. She said PBS stations still reach a significant portion of their audience through broadcast. But as technology continues to evolve, she said, PBS is looking at other ways it can help member stations.

“We are spending a lot of time really wrestling with all the various ways to connect to viewers,” she said. “And so I wasn’t embellishing at the beginning when I said this is such a great time to be in media because I think the opportunities are huge. But the challenges are also significant.

”What we have been working on is really making sure that our content sits in a multitude of places, including some of the early emerging FAST channels,” she added.

Off-broadcast, viewers can find PBS content on Amazon Prime Video Channels and the PBS app.

The longtime organization chief was asked about what PBS learned from COVID-19.

“I‘ll tell you what the biggest learning was: the number of kids who do not have access to broadband and that have been left behind,“ she said. “I think we are aware as a country that again not everyone has access.”

Bridging the broadband gap is a big topic for the new Congress. President Joe Biden’s broadband billions will likely be the subject of GOP-led House oversight hearings.

Other news from the PBS executive session included:

  • PBS is launching a multiyear climate initiative. Of the effort, Kerger said, “We’re looking at how humans impact the environment and our planet’s ecology. What makes our approach distinct is our focus on solutions.”
  • NOVA is launching “Climate Across America,” which will look at the effects of climate change across the U.S. The initiative includes two, one-hour documentaries: Weathering the Future and Chasing Carbon Zero.
  • American Historia with John Leguizamo premieres on PBS August 29. The three-part series builds on Leguizamo’s play “Latin History for Morons” and looks to explore the history and contributions of Latino people. Ben DeJesus co-created the series with Leguizamo. DeJesus also directs.
  • Ken Burns will be back on PBS October 16 and 17 with documentary American Buffalo. The two-part four-hour series looks at the big beast’s history in North America. Burns directed. Dayton Duncan wrote the series and also authored a companion book that will be published along with the series’ premiere. Julie Dunfey served as producer on the series with Julianna Brannum working as consulting producer and W. Richard West, Jr. as senior advisor.
  • American Experience and PBS announced two documentaries that will look at the efforts to integrate American public schools in the 1970s. “Boston School Battle” (w.t.) and “The Harvest” will premiere in Fall 2023.
  • PBS Kids will get two new series: Al Roker animated STEM series Weather Hunters and animated series Lyla in the Loop. Weather Hunters is aimed at kids ages 5-8 and comes from Al Roker Entertainment. The series follows 8-year-old weather detective Lily Hunter. Lyla in the Loop is from Mighty Picnic and Pipeline Studios and is geared toward kids 4-8. The series features 7-year-old Lyla and her sidekick Stu and looks to spotlight problem-solving skills and collaboration. 
Jessika Walsten

Jessika is content engagement director of Broadcasting + Cable, Multichannel News and NextTV. She has been with the brands in various roles since 2013. In her current role, she works primarily behind the screen, keeping an eye on the website and fixing any site bugs. A graduate of USC Annenberg, Jessika has edited and reported on a variety of subjects for NextTV, including profiles on industry leaders and breaking news.