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PBS President/CEO Paula Kerger Gives Public Broadcasting Budget Update and Explains Its Unique Streaming Setup

It’s a semi-annual tradition during the PBS executive session at the Television Critics Assn.: Asking president/CEO Paula Kerger about the state of funding for the public broadcaster. And so it went on Monday, during the public broadcaster’s portion of the winter 2024 press tour — and despite the ongoing gridlock in Washington, Kerger said things, at least for now, are going “OK.”

“We are advanced funded, and that we always have been,” Kerger told reporters. “And the idea behind it is that you need to know that when you finish a project, you’re going to actually have the funds for it. So we we actually know what our funding is right now. Now, that’s not to say someone can come in and try to rescind some of the funding, and that happened to us some years back.”

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Some years, the political climate is bleak enough that there’s a real threat to government appropriation — most of which, she reminds everyone, goes to local TV stations to cover operational costs, with very little going to programming.

“But right now, where our funding sits in Congress is that if it just moves forward and continuing resolution, we will be OK,” she said. “Now, I say that with the deep recognition that I never take the federal appropriation for granted and I don’t think any of our stations do. These are difficult times. There are many calls on federal funds. And I believe that it is up to us to demonstrate the importance of the work we do, the content that we provide, the presence that we have in communities.

“Remember the federal appropriation largely goes to fund our stations and their operations. It’s not necessarily going to fund the programming that we’re talking about here on the stage. That’s not to say there isn’t some government money in it, but the lion’s share of the money actually goes to the to the stations.”

Kerger noted that local media continues to shrink — particularly in print. “As we look at a great contraction in local media outlets, I think our stations have done a good job in talking to elected officials and demonstrating the role that we play, what we attempt to do,” she said. “And so we’ll continue to make that case, and hopefully we do have friends on both sides of the aisle.”

On the streaming front, Kerger detailed the somewhat complicated nature of streaming PBS shows — there’s not just one streamer, but several. PBS streams some free shows on its app, but also has PBS Passport, provided to PBS donors for $5 a month and featuring most of the service’s programs. Amazon Channels, meanwhile, has PBS Masterpiece and PBS Documentaries for subscription. (And PBS has in the past sold library content to Netflix.)

“As people’s viewing habits changed, we have tried to be very attuned to making sure that our content is where they are,” Kerger said. “We are also trying to balance the economics of our stations and our producing partners. For producers on public television, in the past part of their revenue has to come from VHS and DVD sales. Moving forward into streaming, we did some early work with some of the other streamers like Netflix. We developed a relationship with Amazon that enables us to pay royalties to our producers… That’s why we have been very aggressive in the way that we have built out the work that we do that’s available in our free app that is distributed in many places, including on smart TVs. We try to organize all this windowing in a way that is not in conflict but that it supports each other. Some people love to have their Passport membership, which is a really good deal. It’s less expensive than frankly the Amazon, which you buy as an add on in addition to having an Amazon subscription.”

Asked about the impact of the Hollywood strikes on PBS, Kerger echoed what Variety wrote last fall: That PBS’ separate contract with the guilds was not affected by the work stoppage. “Where we were impacted more was COVID,” she said.

And Kerger had no news to share on the state of Warner Bros. Discovery’s licensing agreement with “Sesame Street,” which is set to expire in 2025, and how that might impact the show’s secondary run on PBS. Kerger did say she believed the upcoming format change on “Sesame Street” — which will turn into two 11-minute segments with a bridge in between, will fit more seamlessly with the format of PBS’ other preschool series. “We’ve very much been in discussions with them in terms of the format change,” she said.

Also at the tour, in other announcements::

• Kerger announced that “Leonardo da Vinci,” Ken Burns’ next project — and his first that isn’t about an American subject — will air Nov. 18 and Nov. 19 at 8 p.m. ET. The two-part, four-hour documentary was directed by Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon, and explores the life and work of the 15th century artist. According to PBS, it also marks “a significant change in the team’s filmmaking style, which includes using split screens with images, video, and sound from different periods to further contextualize Leonardo’s art and scientific explorations.” Burns and his team are also behind “The American Revolution,” a six-part series set for 2025 and timed to the 250th anniversary of United States independence.

• PBS will take on disco with the three-part docuseries “Disco: Soundtrack of a Revolution,” which will air this summer. Per PBS, “the docuseries captures the story of disco: its rise, its fall, and its legacy.” BBC Studios is being the production, which premieres Tuesday, June 18.

• PBS’ environmental and climate programming initiative will next center on ocean-focused programming. That includes new and returning series including “Hope in the Water,” “Nature: Patrick and the Whale,” “Dynamic Planet,” “Independent Lens: One with the Whale,” “Changing Planet,” “Sea Change” and “Weathered.” “In a critical year for ocean science and health, PBS is intensifying its commitment, complementing the multiyear climate initiative, and marking a crucial step towards enhancing awareness and tackling the urgent challenges our oceans face,” the programming service said in a statement.

• PBS is celebrating the 50th anniversary of two of its programming staple: “Nova” and “Austin City Limits.” “Nova,” produced by Boston’s WGBH, will celebrate its 50th anniversary with new specials, content and other initiatives this year. The series first debuted on March 3, 1974. As for “Austin City Limits,” which is the longest running music series in television history, “our year-long celebration of this anniversary will feature the release of gems from the archives and an all star lineup and new concerts,” Kerger said. Willie Nelson headlined the pilot episode in 1974.

• “Great Performances” has added Broadway’s “Purlie Victorious,” starring Tony winner Leslie Odom, Jr. , to its lineup on Friday, May 24, at 9 p.m. ET.

• PBS Kids is launching a civics content initiative this year, which the service said “will span across a range of both new and existing series aimed at encouraging viewers to get involved in their communities and learn more about what’s happening around them.” That includes a second season of “City Island” and two new music video series: “City Island Sings” and “Together We Can,” created with Sesame Workshop. PBS Kids is also working on a live action shorts series about civic engagement with Time Studios.

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