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PBS President Paula Kerger talks 24-hour children’s TV, proposed Trump budget cuts and latest Ken Burns documentary in Spokane visit

PBS President Paula Kerger talks about the  future of PBS during an interview at the station in Spokane on Friday, April 21, 2017. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
PBS President Paula Kerger talks about the future of PBS during an interview at the station in Spokane on Friday, April 21, 2017. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

When Paula Kerger took over as president and chief executive officer of PBS in 2006, Netflix was a year away from introducing streaming shows and Facebook was only available to college and high school students.

After 11 years at the helm, she’s become the public broadcaster’s longest-serving president and spearheaded new partnerships to make PBS available via online streaming services. Early in her tenure, she remembered Apple began offering its first television episodes in the iTunes store, selling “Desperate Housewives” for $1.99 per episode.

“It just sounded so strange, but it was the beginning of what was a new direction,” she said.

Now, PBS shows can be found on Amazon Prime, Hulu and Netflix, among others.

“It’s important for us as an organization that really cares about serving the public that we’re in the places where the public is looking for content,” she said.

Kerger spent several days in Spokane this week as local affiliate KSPS celebrated its 50th anniversary, which is Monday. KSPS is actually older than PBS: The latter was founded in 1970, after a number of local TV stations saw the need for a national distributor of content.

“All of our stations do not report to me. I report to them,” Kerger said.

Local affiliates pay PBS in exchange for receiving national content, like “Sesame Street” and “Frontline.” PBS in turn shares advertising revenue with the stations.

Kerger said KSPS is one of the older stations in the network, and guessed fewer than one-quarter of PBS’s nearly 350 affiliates have hit the half-century mark. She praised the station’s focus on adopting new technology quickly, including a new broadband system to receive programming.

KSPS also has focused on creating its own content, including “Health Matters,” a health-focused talk show, and a number of documentaries, including a recent feature on civil rights lawyer Carl Maxey.

“Our documentaries have always been a hallmark of what we do here,” station General Manager Gary Stokes said.

“We do have some stations that are content to be just the pass-through for national programming, but that’s not KSPS,” Kerger said.

Nationally, PBS has seen increased viewership in recent years as it has transitioned onto new platforms. Traditionally, much of its audience has been younger than 5 or older than 50, but that’s changed.

“The next 10 years for media are going to be as important as the last 10. We’ve seen such an enormous sea change,” she said.

Broadcasting British hits like “Downton Abbey” has helped, Kerger said, but no single show has been responsible.

Viewership of “PBS NewsHour” has increased since the election, which Kerger credits to the show’s emphasis on providing context and remaining neutral, rather than sensationalizing the news.

“I think people are hungry for serious news,” she said.

PBS and local member stations receive significant government funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, something President Donald Trump has proposed ending in his budget.

Kerger said the political climate is a bit different now, but PBS has been threatened with budget cuts before and always has had good support on both sides of the aisle. That’s true in Congress, where the budget is actually passed, and among viewers, she said.

“We score very high marks across Democrats, independents and Republicans,” she said.

Federal funding largely goes directly to member stations. Across the PBS system, it makes up about 15 percent of their funding, but that number is much greater for smaller and more rural stations. For some Alaska affiliates, government funding is about 60 percent of their budgets.

“What it really translated into is service into communities and particularly rural communities,” she said. PBS estimates 86 stations would be at risk of going off the air without that funding.

Spokane gets about 18 percent of its funding from the federal government, Stokes said.

About a year ago, “Sesame Street,” which is created by an independent nonprofit, decided to air new episodes on HBO while providing older episodes to air on PBS.

Kerger said the decision caused some concern, but it seems to be working well for them. New characters, like the autistic Muppet, Julia, who recently debuted, have been available on both platforms, she said.

This fall, PBS will air a Ken Burns documentary series on the Vietnam War, exploring the experiences of soldiers, Vietnamese people in both halves of the country and the anti-war movement in the U.S. An exhibit of the Wall that Heals, a Vietnam veterans memorial, will be in Spokane in August in conjunction with the new series.

Moving forward, PBS is expanding its focus on children. In January, they launched a 24-hour kids’ channel, PBS Kids. It’s available in Spokane only on Comcast channel 19 for now, but Stokes said the goal is to make it more widely available.

Kerger said data showed kids watch TV most during prime time and on the weekends, but those times were usually set aside for adult programming. Having dedicated programs for kids all day allows PBS to reach more children.

Children’s shows are developed to improve literacy, math and science abilities and emotional skills, especially for children who “might be in homes without books or computers,” Kerger said.

The channel is on 24 hours a day because of feedback from children’s hospitals and other institutions where children might be awake in the middle of the night. Over the years, Kerger has heard that there’s nothing on TV for children then and she wanted to fill the gap.

“I don’t care if I’m only reaching a small number of children in the overnights, if I know that we’re making a difference of some kids’ lives. To me, that’s mission,” she said.

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