It’s a question Idaho legislators have asked periodically over the years: Why do we need public TV, when there are now hundreds of channels available out on the private, commercial TV market? Paula Kerger, president and CEO of the Public Broadcasting Service, who was in Boise today visiting Idaho Public Television, has a ready answer: The programming on public TV is “just different work” from what’s on cable or the networks.
“I’m not for a moment maligning the work that happens on cable or commercial TV,” she said. “There’s great programs there. Bravo, which started out as an arts channel, has shifted their focus – their top programs are Project Runway and Top Chef and things that spin off from that. I think they’re tremendously creative shows, I like them very much – but they’re a little different than the work that we do.”
Public TV, Kerger said, is known for its quality children’s programming, arts programming, and news and public affairs. “I think the difference is that when you start your work with the premise that you need to deliver a profit to a stockholder, it’ll take you down a slightly different path,” she said. “So even a channel like Discovery, which is in some respects probably the closest to what public television does, you know, they have a really big focus on things like ‘Shark Week.’ For us, we think very carefully about our stockholders, and our stockholders are really the American public. And so when you start there as your premise of trying to serve that interest, you find yourself doing a very different type of programming. And I think that even with 500 channels, there is still a profound difference between the work that we do and the work that others do.”
The arts are a prime example, she said. “I challenge you to find real arts programming anywhere else. There is ‘Dancing with the Stars’ and ‘American Idol,’ and those are interesting arts programs, and I think are bringing people to appreciate dance and a range of music styles, which I think is good. But it’s not opera, it’s not classical music, it’s not visual arts, which clearly you don’t find anywhere else. You don’t find a lot of theater anywhere else besides public television. So I think that’s one category of programs that we do singularly.”
Public television is facing big challenges, Kerger said, ranging from funding, to the shift to digital broadcasting (“less than 500 days” away), to a changing media landscape. It has had a large Internet presence for years, with 10 million hits a month on its website, and has expanded into online games that supplement its children’s educational programming; podcasts and other on-demand broadcasts, including making the past four years of “Frontline” available online for viewing any time; and experiments with new ways to interact with viewers. Public TV stations are run by viewer donations, some state and federal funding, and grants. Many are deeply involved in local programming, an area that’s of little interest to the growing number of specialized, national cable networks.
“At the end of the day, our goal is not to figure out how to make money on all this,” Kerger said. “We do operate on a break-even basis. … We look at these initiatives as public service initiatives. … I think that does give us license to try things that other wouldn’t do.”