TCA: PBS Chief Touts Potent Dramas, Documentary Strength and News Chops

PBS president and CEO Paula Kerger painted a vibrant picture of the broadcaster Tuesday, highlighting recent drama wins and strength in documentaries and news during her executive session on the second-to-last day of the TCA summer press tour in Beverly Hills, Calif.

“The public hungers for content,” she said. “That’s why we were created to begin with, to address market failure.”

PBS has seen ratings surge due in large part to shifts in the competitive landscape, Kerger maintained. “When History Channel began to pivot and move in a different direction, it left a hole for historical documentaries,” for example, she said. “Content of consequence: there is an audience for that.”

Downton Abbey, which returns for a fourth season on Jan. 5, dominated the 40-minute session. Kerger said the show’s success has forced her to consider an array of issues around TV consumption trends, especially given the international nature of the show.

One feature of the Downton landscape that won’t be changing soon is the three-plus-month window between its U.K. and U.S. premieres.

“It’s one of a handful of programs that people want to have a collective experience around,” Kerger said, describing costumed viewing parties and Twitter tributes. “We look at how we can get promotion. It is the highest rated scripted program we’ve ever had and the second highest of any kind after the Civil War. You kind of don’t want to mess with that if it’s working.”

Along with Downton, there was plenty of other news during the morning, the midway point of PBS’s three-day program that concludes TCA. Among the other PBS announcements:

  • Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff have been named co-anchors and co-managing editors at NewsHour, the first time a duo has anchored a nightly U.S. newscast
  • NewsHour’s expansion to Saturday and Sunday editions addresses what “felt like a big hole” between Friday and Monday, Kerger said. “Talking with GMs and stations, many felt the same way.” Weekend NewsHour, anchored by Hari Sreenivasan, will begin Sept. 7 and be slotted in between 5 and 8 p.m. at stations’ discretion
  • The Bletchley Circle will return for a second season, with a four-part outing slated for spring 2014
  • Two major non-fiction titles for 2014 will be Coming Back with Wes Moore, a three-part series about returning veterans airing in May; and How We Got to Now with Steven Johnson, a six-parter about “the power and legacy of great ideas” set for fall.

In addition to snagging imports, typically British, Kerger said PBS is seeding its own original dramas but that effort is at a very preliminary stage due to the expense involved in drama. The broadcaster also needs to pick its spots given the competitive and budgetary challenges. “If we go down this path, I wouldn’t want to do something that everyone is doing,” she said.