Beverly Hills -- You know who really loves Bravo’s “Real Housewives of New Jersey,” A&E’s “Gene Simmons Family Jewels” and History channel’s “Swamp People”?
PBS president Paula Kerger, that’s who.
“Channels that were supposed to replace PBS by offering history, drama, and arts programming have increasingly turned to reality television and the trend is only accelerating,” she reported happily to TV critics attending Summer TV Press Tour 2011at the Beverly Hills Hilton.
“If the rest of the media continues on its current trajectory, PBS and our stations will be the only enterprise whose sole purpose is to provide content of consequence both nationally and locally to all Americans.”
Critics jumped on board, telling her there was a time when they too thought these cable networks would squeeze out PBS with documentaries, history, and arts programming. It was quite the love fest.
“Please don’t get me wrong. I think there is a lot of good television that’s being produced both for cable and broadcast,” Kerger said generously.
“I am particularly interested in seeing the increase, frankly, in some of the scripted dramas, some of which I think are extraordinarily well done.”
It all just goes to show you that the all may be media bretheren, but PBS is in so many ways so different, she said.
“Our shareholders aren’t on Wall Street; they’re on Main Street. And when you set out to do work that is focused on the needs of people in communities, it takes you down a different path than if you’re a commercial business focused most specifically on the bottom line.”
One critic wondered why PBS wasn’t shouting this stuff from the mountaintop – or at least on the Hill.
“Shouldn’t you be naming names and being more aggressive maybe in positioning yourself as the alternative to them, in any arguments before Congress or people that want to take your money from you?” that critic asked.
Oh, they’re aware of it, Kerger responded:
“Most people are aware that what started out, for many of these other [networks], as an attempt to copy some of the work of public broadcasting, that they’ve not been able to sustain that and they’ve actually shifted,” she said.
Gone, she said, are the bad old days, “when I sat down and talked to various stakeholders about public broadcasting, [and] people would say, well, you used to be the only one providing this kind of content, but there are now other opportunities.”
And yet, just six months ago, when Kerger appeared at Winter TV Press Tour 2011, public broadcasting seemed in imminent danger of losing federal funding.
“This past six months has underscored the importance of our work to the American people,” Kerger said.
“At this critical moment, the American people reached out to their elected officials and were responsible for preserving federal funding for public broadcasting. We recognize that these are difficult times and Congress is faced with extraordinary choices, but we will continue to make our case for support,” she said.
To that end, Kerger pointed out that PBS viewing is up 7 percent over last year, and PBS Kids is up 23 percent with 2-11 year olds.
“Japan’s Killer Quake” was watched by 7 million viewers -- “Nova’s” largest audience for an original in five years. And ratings for “Masterpiece” are up 44 percent this year, owing to crunchy gravel dramas “Upstairs, Downstairs” and “Downton Abbey.”
Plus, PBS was nominated for a collective 121 Emmy across the Primetime, the News and Docu and the Daytime Emmy Awards competitions which, Kerger said, is a record for public television.
And, just when you thought this Q&A session was going to be a walkover for Kerger, someone brought up PBS’s research into adding “breaks” during programming.
At the annual meeting of PBS suits in April, Kerger suggested they experiment with putting those things that look for all the world like ad breaks, only of course they’re not – they’re sponsor shout-outs – in the middle of its programs, rather than between shows.
“We have started looking at how we’re aligning programs up, one against each other,” Kerger acknowledged to aghast critics.
Commercial television networks have discovered that fans of a really popular show are more likely to stick around to sample the show that follows if they don’t have to slog through a long ad break between the two programs. You may have noticed other networks going straight from one show into another, without ad break.
On the other hand, one of PBS’s big selling points has always been that its programming it aired without interruption. Kerger insists that if the idea goes forward, it would only be used on programs that are already “naturally segmented” – you know, like “Antiques Roadshow.”
PBS did some testing of the idea at Nielsen’s facility in Las Vegas – so located because the town attracts a cross-section of the American public. Now, it’s doing more focus-group testing in four other markets.
“We’ve had this same structure for 40 years, and so it just feels like it’s at least worth asking the question: Is this, in fact, the best way to present programming, and is there another way that we can try to improve that experience for the viewers so that they do have the opportunity to see what’s coming up next,” Kerger explained. Of course “improving” the experience for viewers would mean sitting though an ad break…excuse me, corporate sponsor shout-out break.
TV critics began to tweet their unhappiness.