When Paula Kerger took the helm at PBS in 2006, becoming the broadcaster’s second female CEO and president, television was on the cusp of a seismic shift. “My first big speech at PBS, I talked about the fact that Apple was going to be selling episodes of Desperate Housewives for $1.99,” she recalls over the phone from PBS’s Arlington, Virginia, headquarters. “It felt like such a strange idea, but also the beginning of something significant.” Netflix would launch its streaming service one year later, followed by Hulu’s in 2008 and PBS’s own online video portal in 2009. That spirit of innovation has characterized Kerger’s 14-year tenure, during which PBS has become the seventh most-watched network in prime time, up from 14th, with 86 percent of all television-owning American households (about 230 million people) tuning in each year. She’s achieved this jump through a combination of strategic changes in distribution—including a new streaming partnership with YouTube TV and a 24-hour kids channel—and content, developing series that remain true to the network’s education-meets-entertainment ethos while resonating with the cultural zeitgeist, from Downton Abbey to Ken Burns’s Country Music. She’s also steered the organization through recent social and political upheavals, decisively navigating sexual misconduct allegations against Charlie Rose and Tavis Smiley and deftly fending off proposed budget cuts (a perennial challenge that has intensified in recent years) to the federally funded Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which supports PBS and its more than 330 member stations. And she’s never lost sight of the institution’s original mission. In an age of entertainment when, as Kerger puts it, “the control is in the hands of the consumer,” PBS finds some of its oldest programming enjoying a cultural moment. Sesame Street recently became the first TV show to receive a Kennedy Center Honor, and public media icons like Mr. Rogers, Bob Ross, and Julia Child continue to find new audiences. “As you look out over the next 50 years, I think the through line will be the same as when Lyndon Johnson first signed the Public Broadcasting Act,” Kerger says. “This idea that a piece of media could be used to uplift, inspire, and bring us together—not just entertain.”
The media landscape has changed dramatically in the last 14 years. How has PBS managed to stay true to itself ?
I think it’s important to establish your North Star, or, as our head of programming, Perry Simon, likes to say, “set up guard rails.” You can try different formats and different genres, but you have to stay true to who you are. For us, part of that is around the integrity of the work. The other piece is that we are inherently local; we have a local presence in every city that Amtrak serves. As you look at what feels like a dichotomy—this explosion of media options but then a collapsing of local media organizations—I think public broadcasting is an interesting bridge. In many of the communities I visit, we’re the last remaining locally owned, operated, and governed [station]. I think that it matters that we’re anchored in community. A lot of our work comes to us through our local stations. We’re able to capture a very different perspective of America because our storytellers come from across America.
You’ve visited member stations in all 50 states. Why do you feel that’s important?
We’re a media organization, but we’re also a membership association. Our stations are all independent, but we maintain the infrastructure that allows stations to receive and share content. I felt I needed not only to meet with the station staff, but also with people in communities; to talk to them about what they’re excited about, what keeps them up at night. To run a national organization, you really have to have a national presence.
When you were making the shift toward a multi-platform approach, was there a decisive change in strategy that you can point to?
One of the great experiments that I thought was a real shift was Ken Burns. A few years ago, he did a documentary project on the Roosevelts. We talked Ken into letting us stream the entire series on the night that we broadcast the first episodes. This was a big project for him, and we were asking him to take big risks with us, but he was willing to do it. There was some small group, 20,000 people or something, who watched the entire series in one 24-hour period. But most people used [the streaming] to stay current—to catch up to the broadcast. Our stations saw that actually it didn’t destroy the number of people who were watching on broadcast television—it complemented it. The conversation then became “What is the multi-platform distribution strategy alongside the broadcast strategy?” They weren’t looked at as separate.
Were there also shifts in your content strategy?
We shifted our broadcast schedule around so that we made it easier for people to find stuff. We created a science night on Wednesdays, a history night on Tuesdays, a sort of personal discovery night on Mondays with Antiques Roadshow and Finding Your Roots. NewsHour went through a big effort to have the coanchor team of Judy Woodruff and Gwen Ifill, which succeeded Jim Lehrer, and it has brought in a whole generation of younger correspondents. We did a reinvention of Masterpiece Theatre. Then we had the great surprise of Downton Abbey, which I think brought a lot of people into public broadcasting. At the time, there was the explosion of reality shows, and we were decidedly not that. So we invested in good drama.
Tell me about the success of Downton Abbey. Did you know it was going to be such a hit?
Downton Abbey surprised everyone. The year that we were looking at Downton Abbey as a possibility, we were already committed to bringing back Upstairs Downstairs. But we knew that Julian Fellowes was involved. We knew it would be popular with a core Masterpiece audience. But what really surprised us was how many people, as I traveled around the country, would say: “I love Downton Abbey. I love the fact that I can watch it with my kids—in some cases, my grand- kids.” It touched a cultural zeitgeist in a way that I think really took a lot of people by surprise. Ralph Lauren was designing Downton Abbey clothes. It was just so much larger than we had anticipated.
What are the core components of a PBS program?
When we’re thinking about drama, we tend not to have a lot of dark antiheroes. For history, we’re always interested in finding stories that are not well told or not well understood, or that are profoundly resonant for today. Henry Louis Gates just did a series on Reconstruction, which is a period of our country’s history that I think most people are not well informed about and that actually has implications for the time that we’re in now. We look for stories that are significant, that really capture our American story. And I think the best example of that recently is Country Music, which is very much about country music, but also very much about our own history.
Lately, there’s been a renewed interest in several of your legacy figures—Mr. Rogers especially. Why is that?
We’ve spent a lot of time talking about the future, and one of the things that I think about a lot is that this is an organization with an extraordinary 50-year legacy. We have the great benefit of our kids programming built on the shoulders of two giants, Jim Henson and Fred Rogers. Fred Rogers is certainly having an enormous moment right now. He had an enormous impact on a lot of people. I think that we are craving to find our better selves; I think people are hungering for that. Bob Ross is having his own interesting resurgence. Bob believed there was creativity in everyone—if you made mistakes, you just incorporated it into what you were painting. There’s a documentary now coming out about Julia Child. These are icons of public broadcasting history.
A lot of those figures were considered very progressive and daring at the time. Do you think it’s possible to have a Fred Rogers anymore? Are you still able to take the risks that PBS was taking with its kids programming in the ’70s?
Yes, and I think we’ve continued to do so. We work with a wonderful filmmaker, Angela Santomero, who is probably best known for her work on Blue’s Clues. She did some work with Fred Rogers—he was a mentor of hers. She reimagined Mr. Rogers as Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, which is our top-rated children’s show. Is there another Fred Rogers? You cannot copy the man, but you can copy his spirit. And that’s what she did. Probably the kids project that I’m proudest of this year is Molly of Denali. Molly is a little girl growing up at the Denali Trading Post. The series is about helping kids figure out how to read maps and look up information, but it’s also about Native culture. It was produced in partnership with Native writers, story creators, artists, and actors. The people whose story we were attempting to tell created the story, which seems so simple, but, frankly, is fairly radical. I think that if we are to find common ground, we have to figure out ways to do that authentically.
In 2017, when sexual misconduct allegations surfaced against Charlie Rose and Tavis Smiley, PBS swiftly terminated their contracts. Did you feel any added pressure dealing with this as a woman in your leadership role?
Both of those stories happened within two days of each other, the week of Thanksgiving. As an organization that is based on trust, you have to move very quickly. And we did. PBS is a place where we work very hard to get the best possible talent. We can’t compete with commercial media in many ways. But one way that we can compete is we can give people interesting work to do, and we can create an environment where they can do their best work. Respecting the way people are treated is a very big piece of that. Ultimately, with circumstances like this, the buck stops with me. So I think that the fact that I’m a woman perhaps got me more attention or these decisions more attention.
In that vein, we live in a time of contested realities, when media can be used as a kind of ammunition in the culture wars. How do you maintain public trust?
In our news work, we try to stay focused on the news. We try to separate opinion and point of view from news. I think one of the things that people assume is that the public television audience must look a certain way or be of a certain political persuasion. And it’s actually not true. Our audiences reflect the country. We have a lot of people who are conservative who watch. We have a lot of people who are more progressive who watch. I know that because I get letters from all [of them]. Look, historically, we’re sometimes accused of being too serious, too ponderous. We just focus on the journalism itself. And by putting the facts out there, we don’t attempt to tell you what to think. Gwen Ifill, who was an extraordinary woman on so many levels, used to say, “Our goal is to bring light, not heat.” I really take that line to heart. It’s tempting, during charged times, to cross the line. I think for public television to do its work well, we just need to stay focused on the facts.
Did you always have your sight set on leading an organization like this?
Lord, no [laughs] .... No one could be more surprised that I’m in this job than me. My husband, who was probably the biggest feminist in my life, always believed that I could do more. His dad died when he was young, and he watched his mom raise six kids. He always tells a story of when he was visiting her—he handled all of her finances toward the end of her life—and he saw that she had a credit card with his name on it. He said, “Did you get a credit card for me, Mom?” And she said, “No, don’t you remember?” When he was 10 years old, she was trying to get her first credit card, and the bank wouldn’t give it to her because she was a woman. He co-signed his 45-year-old mother’s credit card. He always has believed in the power of women. He saw mediocre men rise above exceptional women. So he’s always pushed me harder than anyone to go for it.