TCA: PBS Chief Paula Kerger Plays Defense Over Programming
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Diane Haithman is contributing to Deadline’s TCA coverage.

What’s a liberal political activist Hollywood producer to do when the sitting president is a Democrat and the big news is dueling Republican hopefuls? Deadline asked producer Harry Thomason at today’s TCA in Pasadena, which focused on PBS. “I think it is well-known that most people in Hollywood are left-leaning,” said Thomason, who was here to participate on a panel about the miniseries Clinton. “They are concerned with getting Obama re-elected, and that means doing whatever they have to do.” Two decades ago, Thomason and wife Linda Bloodworth-Thomason (Designing Women) were Hollywood’s premiere FOBs – that is, Friends of Bill Clinton. The producers advised Clinton on his media image and produced The Man from Hope campaign film that was shown at the 1992 Democratic National Convention. Thomason says of the role of Hollywood in 2012: “I really think that Hollywood always has an effect on politics, because there is so much money here.”

Thomason declined to discuss the effect of Washington politics on public funding for always-beleaguered PBS. But another producer here for a panel wasn’t so shy. Said Henry Louis Gates Jr. of Finding Your Roots With Henry Louis Gates, Jr., “I would hope that the Congress would realize what a disaster it would be if there were any further cuts to Public Broadcasting,” adding, “I think it’s shameful, and I would hope that corporations would step up and fill the vacuum left by the government. My series wouldn’t exist without public financing.” And during Gates’ panel, at which he shared the stage with musician Branford Marsalis and WNET’s VP of programming Stephen Segaller, Gates said research for his show, which tracks genealogy, had uncovered a “Neanderthal test” for DNA. “We should do that for some of the politicians.”

During this first day of TCA, taking place in the wake of the Iowa caucus, the heat of Election 2012 was cranked up to high. Panels included the Clinton discussion (joining Thomason were Clinton biographer David Maraniss, filmmaker Barak Goodman and series exec producer Mark Samels) and a morning panel on PBS planned election coverage. Earlier in the day, PBS president and CEO Paula Kerger had stressed that all PBS news shows would be expanding their political coverage in 2012. The very large election coverage panel included Raney Aronson-Rath of Frontline, Jeff Greenfield of Need To Know, frequent debate monitor Gwen Ifill (Washington Week and PBS Newshour), Hari Sreenivasan (PBS Newshour), Ray Suarez (PBS Newshour and Need to Know) and John Wilson, senior vice president and chief TV programming executive. The fact that the campaign has indeed begun was emphasized by the fact that Woodruff was appearing via satellite, fresh from the Iowa caucus, and Ifill was phoning in from a Manchester high school where she was following Republican hopeful Mitt Romney.

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A main topic of discussion for the group was how media coverage has, and will, affect the 2012 presidential campaign. Said Woodruff: “I have Iowa dust on my shoes. I just left Des Moines about four hours ago. I do think the debate schedule drove this to a large degree. And there’s no question that the Internet, social media, the fact that people can now click on a website and learn about a candidate is truly transforming American politics.” Greenfield acknowledged that social media is perhaps the new “coffee shop” where the people shake hands with their candidates, but many on the panel agreed that the emergence of the Super PAC in campaign funding and advertising is the “single most consequential change in our political process in 2012. Aronson-Rath agreed, and added she believes that PBS has the news franchises that can provide much needed in-depth coverage of the Super PAC. “Who are the people who are running the Super PACs?” she asked rhetorically. “What is the money flow? That’s what should we be looking at. We’re not going to compete with the networks, but we can look deeper into some of these questions.”