PBS President and CEO Paula Kerger (Credit: Rahoul Ghose/PBS)

TCA17: PBS’ Kerger Takes Threat to Budget ‘Very Seriously’

Exec talks budget battle, spectrum and loss of Gwen Ifill

Complete Coverage: 2017 TCA Summer Press Tour

PBS President and CEO Paula Kerger takes the threat that the public broadcaster could lose funding “very seriously.”

“This has been an extraordinary year on so many different levels, and I think that we need to be quite vigilant that, as Congress now debates our funding, we don’t assume that people remember the impact that we have in communities,” said Kerger Sunday during PBS’ 2017 TCA summer press tour executive session.

The budget battle began earlier this year when President Donald Trump attempted to pull funding for PBS parent the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Earlier in July, however, the House Labor Subcommittee recommended that CPB receive full funding ($445 million). That bill did not include, though, the $55 million CPB had asked for for interconnection.

The bill still needs to make its way through the rest of the budget process, which includes moving to the Senate. But that won’t happen until after Congress’s August recess.

Kerger said that PBS stations across the U.S. have reached out to their respective legislators so they understand the consequences of a significant cut in funding. They’ve also encouraged community members to talk to legislators about the importance of PBS.

The exec was asked to explain just what makes PBS so important with all of the other cable networks and programming out there.

“I think that the content itself is distinctive, but also, the reach that we have is just very different,” she said. “It’s wonderful that there are all of these cable opportunities, particularly the kids’ content and other things, but they are completely inaccessible to a significant part of the country. One in five don’t have cable or satellite, some by choice, some by economic necessity, and some by geography.”

If Congress does defund CPB, Kerger said PBS itself would stay but many stations serving rural areas would have to shut their doors.

“If you are a station for whom 40 percent of your funding or 50 percent of your funding or 30 percent of your funding is suddenly pulled away, there’s no way that you can make up that money,” she said, adding that for those stations there isn’t a “plan B” for loss of funding.

Also top of mind for PBS has been the FCC’s spectrum auction, which recently concluded. Kerger said that as a result a few stations will go off the air but those were in overlapped markets.

“We are still mapping to make sure that when the whole repack and the reframing post auction takes place, that we don’t lose pieces of the country,” she said. “So we are following that pretty carefully and doing some modeling.”

Kerger also fielded a question about the fate of PBS Newshour, which lost anchor Gwen Ifill to cancer in November 2016.

“I think that Gwen Ifill’s loss was extraordinary,” said Kerger. “And I think that as we look to figure out a permanent second seat in that anchor chair, we have encouraged Sara Just and Judy Woodruff and the team there to take their time and to think very carefully about who that right person is.”

She added that she is hopeful a new anchor will be announced in the next few months.

Other PBS news from their first TCA day include:

—In spring 2018, PBS will premiere The Great American Read (w.t.), an eight-part series that will ask readers to vote for “America’s Best-Loved Book.”

—Also in spring 2018, the network will air the PBS and BBC coproduction, Civilizations. Civilizations is a nine-part series that looks at art from the beginning of human history to today.

Luna Around the World, a new PBS Kids series will premiere in fall 2018. The animated series will help foster global citizenship and social skills in kids ages 4-7.

—Animated canine host Ruff Ruffman will return to the PBS with The Ruff Ruffman Show, which aims to help kids ages 4-8 learn science concepts. The WGBH Boston series will premiere on PBS Kids digital platforms Sept. 28.