TCA: PBS Unveils Premiere Dates, New Antiquing Competition Series ‘Market Wars’

Diane Haithman
is contributing to Deadline’s TCA coverage.

At the first day of the winter TCA in Pasadena, PBS president and CEO Paula Kerger found herself defending the mission of public broadcasting against comparisons to the mission of cable television — most notably HBO — particularly in light of PBS’ continued struggle to survive with dwindling public support. Prompting questions from journalists during the panel was a recent New York Times article that focused on PBS’ multiple-Emmy-winning Downton Abbey, which premiered on the “Masterpiece” anthology last January and has been widely compared to the type of programming one might view on HBO. PBS had launched an aggressive, network-style Emmy campaign for the series. Also fueling the discussion was PBS’ marketing campaign for Ken Burns’ Prohibition series, which piggybacked on the promotional blitz for HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, Martin Scorsese’s Prohibition-era drama series, by holding a joint roundtable discussion with PBS darling Burns and creators of the HBO series. Said Kerger: “I think what the article was talking about was, first, it was focused on Downton being a hit — it’s funny how many people have told me that PBS was cool again, I always thought it was cool, but that’s my opinion.” She said the only relevant comparison between HBO and today’s PBS is “we both produce quality programming.”

Kerger talked about how PBS, like cable and network TV, is becoming more aggressive in using social media and online resources to promote and brand programming, citing PBS web series that are being test-marketed online but may someday move to being shown on PBS. However, she bristled a bit at the suggestion that using marketing techniques embraced by commercial television dilutes the public broadcasting mission. “I’m not criticizing commercial television; I love TV, but I’m not in the same business as anyone else that will stand on this stage,” she said, referring to the ongoing TCA which in ensuing days will bring in executives from cable and broadcast networks. She referred to those networks as being driving by “Wall Street, not Main Street,” and noted that PBS is still ahead of the pack in offering quality arts, science and history programming.

Kerger also addressed a question about whether, Market Wars, a newly announced competition series developed out of the successful Antiques Roadshow franchise, means that PBS is selling out, so to speak, to reality television “ It’s clear that reality shows have not taken over PBS, but we think there is a place for smart, reality television,” she said.

Kerger also said that all of PBS news programs would offer expanded coverage of the 2012 presidential campaign. And she was called upon to address Republican hopeful Mitt Romney’s recent call to end federal funding for PBS — proposing that public broadcasting could make up for the cut by running ads. Kerger said bluntly that PBS could not survive without government funding, saying that in the aggregate federal funding represents about 15% of PBS funding. “I m glad that he said that he liked public broadcasting; we have always had bipartisan support,” she said. “[But] that money could not be made up. I hope what we hope to do is to make it clear to our officials that we have broad public support. The one group that elected officials listen to is our constituents.”