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Public TV Lifer Programs a New Direction for PBS

When Beth Hoppe was promoted to chief programming executive and general manager of general audience programming for PBS last December, one of her stated goals was to build on the network’s assets by pulling its resources together.

Hoppe had an opportunity to do just that three days after her promotion, with the Dec. 14 shootings tragedy in Newtown, Conn. PBS pulled together Nova, Frontline, Washington Week and NewsHour and turned around a special that aired a week later. “The work that we [did] around Newtown is a good example of where we’re heading,” says Hoppe.

Hoppe’s performance in just a few months has already impressed PBS COO Michael Jones. “Beth has been instrumental in implementing PBS’ primetime strategy [and] building on our strengths,” Jones says.

Building around those strengths and combining related programming is a big initiative for Hoppe, who looked to break PBS from its rigid schedule. One of the things she did was move Nova from its usual Tuesday slot to lead out of Nature and into science programming on Wednesdays. “We’ve seen tremendous flow between those programs where we keep the audience,” Hoppe says.

Hoppe has helped apply that same ideal to PBS’ scripted fare by building off the success of its long-running Masterpiece brand, citing drama Call the Midwife (which returns March 31) as a recent example.

She also happily credits the success of Downton Abbey for broadening Masterpiece’s audience. “[It] has had this tremendous growth over the last couple of years with Downton and [British drama hit] Sherlock,” says Hoppe. “It’s not just [for] Anglophiles anymore.”

Hoppe is also looking to Mr. Selfridge, which debuts March 31, to further broaden PBS’ audience, because of its American influence. The early 20th century British period piece features an American title character played by Jeremy Piven of Entourage. While British dramas will always have a place at PBS, Hoppe is hopeful that one day PBS will have the resources to expand into American historical stories. “We actively have a couple of American historical projects in development,” she says.

One difficulty of airing overseas imports is that the programs air on PBS months after their initial U.K. runs. In today’s ever-connected world, that can make avoiding spoilers difficult. “We have absolutely talked about it,” says Hoppe of airing series closer to their U.K. airdate.

Hoppe notes that the success of Downton Abbey—a record 8.2 million viewers tuned in for the Feb. 18 third-season finale—means the series will probably continue its current January/ February run: “It’s unlikely that we would move Downton,” Hoppe says.

A public television lifer, Hoppe got her start in production in 1984 at New Hampshire Public Television, where she floor-managed Granite State Challenge (hosted by Tom Bergeron) and ran camera for her alma mater, the University of New Hampshire’s hockey team.

Actually, her first taste of public television came during the 1984 Democratic presidential debate at Dartmouth College, when she was a UNH senior interning for NHPTV, where the event was carried live. “I got a shot of adrenaline like nothing I’ve ever had in my life,” Hoppe recalls. “I was hooked.”

Hoppe eventually left New Hampshire and worked at two other PBS stations—legendary WGBH in Boston and equally acclaimed WNET in New York, where she executive produced Frontier House and Colonial House.

In 2004, Hoppe left to head up Optomen Productions, a New York-based production company known for science, reality and factual programming. While she was there, Optomen produced programs for Discovery Channel, Animal Planet, Travel Channel, PBS and the Food Network. Hoppe has also worked as an executive producer for Discovery Studios.

While Hoppe credits her seven-year sabbatical from public television with giving her perspective from that side of the business, she began to appreciate the focus on quality—not having to please advertisers—that only public television affords. “I realized that I was kind of alone, trying to put this content into these channels,” says Hoppe, who was “thrilled out of my mind” to come back to PBS in 2011.

“There’s a lot of great product on commercial TV, but it comes down to the DNA of the place,” she says. “PBS is just a perfect "t for me.”

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