PBS president and CEO Paula Kerger on Friday at the TCA Winter Press Tour focused on the celebration of the public broadcaster’s 50th anniversary and creators like Carl Sagan, Julia Child, Fred Rogers, Gwen Ifil, Ken Burns and Skip Gates who have helped build its legacy as she looked to the future.
“The future of PBS is multi-platform and experiential, guided by mission and storytelling,” she said in the pubcaster’s executive session. “Everyone should be able to see the diversity of their perspectives reflected on the screen. You want to be able to talk about where that takes you moving forward: looking at our legacy, at our history and how it informs what we’ll do moving forward.”
One of the most ambitious projects for PBS is “American Portrait,” which Kerger described as “a digital-first, national storytelling project that invites everyone into the conversation.” PBS “will gather video and written submissions from the public digitally and will use them for a 2021 special to create a first-person portrait of America,” she said.
Kerger also touched on the upcoming presidential campaign, which she acknowledged may be the nastiest in history. But she said PBS intends to remain focused on the issues.
“Part of what we learned out of the last election coverage, in addition to the animosity of this particular presidential race, is the fact that so much of the coverage was tied to polls and not really based on conversations with people around the country,” she said. “We need to make sure we’re talking to people around the country and make sure we understand what issues are important to them.”
As for PBS’ role in presidential debates, Kerger said,the pubcaster was happy to host. “We hope to be part of future debates. What we tried to do with debate coverage is get at the issues and get them in front of the public and I think that’s the best we can do,” she said.
Kerger also expanded on how PBS is building partnerships, building out the PBS app and working on search and discovery to make sure the pubcaster’s content is easily findable. To this end, PBS is also refreshing its branding. Kerger said.
“We looked at our brand and how it’s represented around the country and on various platforms. The blue is new, the typeface is different, now many stations have incorporated it into their logo. The big driver was making sure that no matter where you see that logo, you know it’s PBS and it really does connect to the stations themselves.”
Also key to PBS’ continuing evolution, Kerger said, is new leadership at local stations. “There’s a big shift in public television,” she said. “There are a lot of new faces. It’s very different to run these stations now than it was 10 or 15 years ago. The people who run them now are very excited about how the stations function as part of the community. They have to be willing to take some risks.
“That’s hard for nonprofit organizations in particular because taking risks means you’re going to fail,” she continued, “but it’s how you develop new ideas. If we’re going to continue to be relevant, we have to look forward and understand our north star, quality of content, and be a community-based organization,” she said.