PASADENA, Calif. — If GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney thinks you can sell ads on “Masterpiece Theatre” or “Sesame Street” and not wind up with “Masterpiece Pawn Stars,” he’s got a lot to learn about the TV industry. So said PBS CEO Paula Kerger on Wednesday, in the nicest way possible, at Winter TV Press Tour 2012.
It was a feisty start to the semiannual clambake, in which The Reporters Who Cover Television from across the country flock to Los Angeles and roost at a posh hotel for a couple of weeks, while TV networks take turns trotting out shows and suits for them to quiz.
Kerger’s comment came after one reporter asked what she thought of Romney’s plan for Big Bird.
A campaigning Romney last month told a crowd at a deli in Clinton, Iowa, that though he’s a fan of public broadcasting and has nothing against Big Bird, he — as president — would cut off federal funding of public broadcasting and tell PBS to sell ads to make up the difference.
“I like PBS. We subsidize PBS. I’m going to stop that. . . . PBS is going to have advertisements,” Romney said then, adding: “We’re not going to kill Big Bird, but Big Bird’s going to have advertisements, all right?”
“Well, I’m glad that he said he liked public broadcasting,” Kerger began sunnily, adding that she’s keenly aware that this country has to make tough decisions about what it can and cannot afford to continue funding.
But not so long ago, she reminded reporters, they were writing about such cable networks as A&E (which once actually stood for Arts & Entertainment) and History Channel having rendered PBS irrelevant by their becoming, in fact, commercial versions of public television. Back in those days, A&E was bidding against PBS for crunchy-gravel dramas like “Vanity Fair,” and History Channel was doing, well, history.
“There are a number of channels in the cable world that started out with really great ideas that they would be the commercial version of public television,” Kerger said.
“Many people on Capitol Hill would occasionally say: ‘Well, you know, there are cable operations, like History. Maybe we could learn from them, in terms of bringing in revenue.’
“But [History] found that the way to survive was to create a very different type of programming,” Kerger said. “And programming like ‘Pawn Stars’ and ‘American Pickers’ is not the same as ‘American Experience’ and Ken Burns.”
Yet PBS kicked off Winter TV Press Tour 2012 by announcing that it had ordered a new reality-TV competition series — a sort of spinoff of “Antiques Roadshow” from that show’s producers.
PBS’s first cross-country competition series, “Market Wars,” will pit professional antique dealers against the clock — and one another — as they scour the country’s flea markets and bric-a-brac shops, looking for antiques that will score the biggest profit in each episode’s final auction segment.
“I’m wondering if you can explain your thinking behind ‘Market Wars.’ What reasoning went into that?” one reporter asked Kerger, as if he meant it to sting.
“As we’ve seen with some of the world’s public broadcasters, like BBC and especially CBC in Canada, these reality shows can take on a life of their own and seize an entire network’s schedule,” the reporter sniffed. “And I’m just wondering: (a), what your reasoning was in doing a show; and (b), where you’re drawing the line going ahead.”
“I think it’s clear,” Kerger shot back with vim, “that reality shows have not taken over public television, but we think that there’s a place for smart reality programming.”
Here’s what she meant by “smart reality programming”:
“ ‘Antiques Roadshow’ continues to be such an important destination for so many of our viewers that we thought to expand upon that work a little bit on Monday nights and to give another opportunity for people to look a little behind the scenes at the antiques business — and to really learn from people that are doing great work around the country would be an extension of that.”
If you take that sentence and replace “Antiques Roadshow” with “Pawn Stars,” you’ve got History Channel’s announcement of its “Cajun Pawn Stars” spinoff, debuting Sunday.
And replace “Antiques Roadshow” with “American Pickers” and you’ve virtually reenacted History’s announcement of its plans for an “American Pickers” spinoff.
Kerger, moving on to other matters, is not worried that PBS late-night talk-show host Charlie Rose will be seduced by the glitz and glam of CBS News and leave public broadcasting in the dust. Rose is co-hosting CBS News’s latest stab at a morning infotainment show: “CBS This Morning” with Oprah Winfrey BFF Gayle King.
Rose, Kerger explained, has assured her that he thinks of his work in the morning as an “opportunity to expand his own presence on television and call some more attention to the work that he’s doing on public television.”
Well, she bought it, anyway.
“I have no concern that he’s going anywhere,” she told reporters.