PBS, interrupted: Kerger’s walkover skids when ad breaks don’t appeal to critics

July 31, 2011

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 2011 at 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.

It just goes to show you that they all may be media brethren, 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 Capitol Hill. Oh, they’re aware of it, Kerger responded.

Yet just six months ago, public broadcasting seemed in imminent danger of losing federal funding.

“The American people reached out to their elected officials,” she said, “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.”

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-to-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.”

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 that PBS 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 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 an ad break. One of PBS’s big selling points has always been that its programming aired without interruption. Kerger insists that if the idea goes forward, it would be used only on programs that are “naturally segmented,” such as “Antiques Roadshow.”

PBS tested the idea at Nielsen’s facility in Las Vegas and is now doing the same 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 would mean viewers having to sit through an ad break . . . excuse me, corporate-sponsor shout-out break.

TV critics began to tweet their unhappiness.

New ‘Masterpiece’ sponsor

PBS’s “Masterpiece” has a national corporate sponsor for the first time since 2004, exec producer Rebecca Eaton announced gleefully at Summer TV Press Tour 2011.

Viking River Cruises, which floats down the rivers of Europe, Russia, China, Southeast Asia and Egypt, will take the title in the last quarter of 2011.

“Boy, am I glad to be here with you!” Eaton told TV critics attending the tour, at the Beverly Hills Hilton. “We have a hit!” she said of the period drama “Downton Abbey,” which clocked about 13 million viewers in its first season on PBS.

Exxon Mobil (formerly Mobil), which had funded the program since its 1971 debut, dropped its support at the end of 2004.

Viking River’s marketing senior director, Mark Brogger, told The TV Column that, by surveying customers, the cruise company had discovered that “Masterpiece” was one of their favorite shows. “Their demographic is our demographic,” he said.

The deal, he said, took two days to put together, start to finish. He declined to discuss the price tag.

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