PBS is preparing to celebrate its 50th anniversary in a time of unprecedented change in the TV industry. And while the public television broadcaster tries to adapt to that new world, it is careful to focus even more on what is already great about its brand, rather than the changes it needs to make in order to keep pace with rivals.
“The more important question is, rather than what changes, is what needs to stay the same,” PBS president and CEO Paula Kerger said at the Television Critic Association’s summer press tour in Los Angeles.
“Where so many organizations lose their way is that they forget about what their organization represents; they forget about what the brand represents,” she continued. “And it’s tempting to get into new areas, and I’m not suggesting for a moment that we’re not always thinking about how to push the envelope. But as [PBS programming chief] Perry [Simon] often says, you have to understand where the guardrails are. You have to understand, what are the things that really define a public broadcasting brand, and I think that’s around content that matters, content with quality and integrity and authenticity.”
To that end, Kerger said that she has signed a five-year extension to continue leading PBS.
“I believe so strongly in the purpose and power of public television,” said Kerger. “I believe our work has never been more important.”
Kerger, who has been in the role since 2006, added that “you always wrestle with the question ‘how long is long enough.’” However, “I want to make sure when I do finally hang up those skates, I have done everything to make public television is on as sound a foundation as possible.”
In addition to solidifying the PBS brand, Kerger is also pushing it into other platforms, like YouTube TV, which will be first virtual MVPD to carry PBS and its member stations. It’s the first digital partnership of its kind for PBS.
Kerger said PBS is tougher to work with than other content providers “because I want to put my  local stations up there” and some streamers only want a single PBS feed. However, “our goal is to have content in multiple places … YouTube is just the first.”
Cable and streaming rivals have recently leaned heavily into genres that have been PBS staples for years, including British drama and natural history.
“It’s become much more competitive,” but “I think there is definitely room for all of us,” said Kerger. For starters, PBS is free compared to those others, and while networks dip in and out of airing various genres, “we will be there for the long haul.”
The PBS chief also commented about President Trump’s ongoing efforts to stop federally funding public television.
“Federal funding remains a vital force,” though “it only represents 15% of the annual revenue into our system,” with the rest coming from “strong public-private partnerships,” said Kerger. But federal funding accounts for as much as half of the budgets for PBS’ smaller stations; without it, “those stations would go off the air.”
She said “it’s disappointing when the administration recommends zero funding,” and noted that the energy that goes into lobbying for funding as a result of those efforts “is not insignificant. … It takes time and energy to do that, time and energy that could go into creating content.”
Kerger said the debate over funding public television is not “about Big Bird being unemployed.” Instead, “it’s an issue of local stations playing an outsize role in health and vitality of local communities.”