PBS President Cautions on Ad Expansion


New PBS President Paula Kerger is a fundraising whiz, having motorwomaned a campaign for her former digs, WNET New York, that raised more than $70 million, the most ever by a noncom station.

In a speech to the Media Institute in Washington, the first address in her five-week tenure, Kerger said that "at the end of the day, some amount of public support will be important to carry us forward," but also said broadcasters have to be careful.

With some noncom stations taking ads on their Web sites, Kerger said that the Internet might give stations "the ability to experiment a little more on the advertising side than we do with broadcast," but she said that her concern is that "if we go to far, we become commercial television. Part of the reason that public television exists is to do the things that are not sustainable in a corporate environment."

Kerger pointed out that the ads public broadcasting runs have a lot of content restrictions, but they are still more commercial than when "we used to run a slide to thank Paine Webber for their generosity."

She called it a difficult line to walk, with the Web providing a little more room to maneuver. But she also said that PBS would "look at some of the guidelines we have followed in broadcast as we think about how we are going to navigate through the Web space," as well as being mindful of the "level, volume and content" of any ads they take, Web or broadcast."

Kerger did not seem daunted by the cat-herding nature of the PBS service (our phrase, not hers), which she emphasized was not a network but a collection of 348 separate TV stations with their own autonomous boards. Instead, she called that PBS' "greatest strength," saying it is what made the local noncom stations truly local and responsive to their communities.

Kerger said that "in many markets, the public television station is the only locally owned and operated station in that community." She ticked off the commercial network shows available Monday night anywhere in the country, including Deal or No Deal on NBC, the CBS sitcom lineup,  24 on Fox, or Honey, We're Killing the Kids on The Learning Channel. By contrast, she said, if you live in L.A., you can also watch a documentary on the local public TV station about how climate change is affecting the California water supply, or, in Boston, a special on the successes and failures of city's school superintendent.

She said localism didn't just mean just locally produced programming. It also meant the ability to choose what national programming to air in their markets, pointing to the Washington shows, Washington Week in Review, Inside Washington, on WETA Washington, run by her colleague and friend Sharon Rockefeller, who was in the audience for Kerger's inaugural address.

Kerger said PBS was mulling how  best to become a multiplatform player, including more free VOD, expanding its Web presence, and perhaps creating a digital archive of shows like Nova, Nature or Frontline for kids doing last-minute research (is there any other kind, she suggested) for schoolwork.

Elsewhere on the digital front, she said that John Lawson, president of noncom advocacy group America's Public Television Stations, was in talks with the American Cable Association and satellite groups to try and strike the same digital carriage deal struck last year with the National Cable & Telecommunications Association. In that agreement, the major cable operators--ACA represents mid-sized and smaller systems--agreed to carry at least four multicast channels from public broadcasters.
Kerger said she thought PBS would flourish in a digital age where public media, a term she prefers to "public broadcasting, " on providing "whatever you want, whenever you want," because "quality" will stand out. She cited a Roper poll that found public broadcasting is viewed as "the most trusted institution in America, above either the courts of law or [others in] government," though, she added in a zing to the current members of those institutions, "maybe that's not so meaningful right now."