Whenever there’s a change in Congress, public broadcasters know it’s time to make their case again, and PBS president/CEO Paula Kerger tells reporters it’s something she’s once again pondering as a new Republican-led majority takes over the House of Representatives.
Funding for public TV actually goes through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and that federal appropriation goes directly to local broadcasters. But, as Kerger told reporters Monday at PBS’ portion of the Television Critics Assn. press tour, “every time there’s a change in Congress, we always try to imagine what will be the conversations that take place… The majority of that funding actually goes directly to stations and it benefits people all over the country and districts that have both Democratic and Republican representatives, or stations. I think we do an excellent job of making sure that legislators understand what the impact of that funding is for their stations.
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“For some stations, particularly smaller stations, a percentage of their operating budget that comes from the federal is significant. So for them, if that funding were to significantly significantly decline or even disappear, it would be an existential crisis. And so you know, legislators do pay attention to what happens in their own districts. And so a lot of the conversations are happening at that level. There are a number of new members of Congress in this in this freshman class coming in, and so making sure that they’re aware of the work that is underway within their stations as is a is a big priority.”
Funding is already set for this year, but discussions could become complicated for future years, she added. “I would hope that as people look at where dollars are spent, the federal Corporation for Public Broadcasting amounts to about $1.40 per person per year. It’s a really small amount of money that has such a tremendous impact in communities. We saw that during COVID… I think, as we’ve as you can see from the range of programs that we have here, we’re really very focused on a content that we hope is entertaining, engaging, but also impactful. And I think the more that we can really lean on our stations to make that case.”
Also during the panel, Kerger announced a new initiative for environmental and climate programming, including a second season of “American Outdoors with Baratunde Thurston,” a new PBS Kids series from Al Roker (“Weather Hunters”) and the series “Human Footprint.”
PBS’ “Nova” (from GBH) has launched the campaign “Climate Across America,” aiming to focus on the climate crisis and solutions. The series has partnered with 10 public media stations to distribute climate-related fare and will also premiere two new climate docs: “Weathering the Future,” premiering Wednesday, April 12, and “Chasing Carbon Zero,” premiering Wednesday, April 26.
“As we’ve seen in California over this last week, perhaps nothing is a greater threat than our changing climate,” Kerger said. “And so we’re called to act. Building on more than 200 hours of programming already available for streaming, we’re launching an unprecedented multi-year effort to focus on our changing environment.
“We’re looking at how humans impact the environment and the planet’s ecology,” she added. “But what makes our approach distinct is our focus on solutions. Across our programs, we examine how people can make a difference from conservation efforts to economic and technological innovations. But thinking globally, like highlighting local stories, we seek not just to educate our audiences, but also to inspire and empower them.”
Kerger was asked about PBS Passport, the streaming service that is offered to station subscribers — but it’s unclear what sort of impact it has had with audiences.
“We are spending a lot of time really wrestling with all the various ways to connect to viewers,” Kerger said. “Broadcast is important. We obviously are very focused on making sure that our stations retain a robust presence on cable and so forth. But the streaming platforms and the many ways that we can connect to audiences is also important. So what we have been working on is really making sure that our content sits in a multitude of places, including some of the early emerging FAST channels… the PBS app where there is a rich library of free content that is available, Passport itself, which is really sort of the contemporary way of when we used to send you a DVD if you became a member.”
“We are working to improve the interface [of Passport] so it’s easier for people to use, and then what we’re hoping to do is look at other ways that we can help our stations as the technology continues to evolve to be more omnipresent with where our content is, so it’s easier to find and and accessible.”
• PBS announced Ken Burns’ next docuseries, “The American Buffalo,” which launches Oct. 16 and 17. The series has been in production for four years and is described as “the biography of an improbable, shaggy beast that has found itself at the center of many of the country’s most mythic and heartbreaking tales.” The series “will take viewers on a journey through more than 10,000 years of North American history and across some of the continent’s most iconic landscapes, tracing the mammal’s evolution, its significance to the Great Plains and, most importantly, its relationship to the Indigenous People of North America.”
• John Leguizamo is behind the new three-part series “American Historia,” which premieres Aug. 29 on PBS. Co-created by Leguizamo and award-winning filmmaker Ben DeJesus, who also serves as director, the three-part series comes following Leguizamo’s Tony-nominated play “Latin History for Morons,” and is described as “a quest to discover lost Latino heroes throughout history.” The WNET Group, Latino Public Broadcasting and Latino digital media and entertainment company NGL Collective are behind the program.
• Season 2 of PBS’ “The Great American Recipe” will launch Monday, June 19, at 9 p.m. ET, and continue on Mondays through August 7. Alejandra Ramos returns as host and chefs Leah Cohen, Tiffany Derry and Graham Elliot are back as judges and mentors for Season 2.
“The first season of ‘The Great American Recipe’ was a multiplatform success, attracting younger and more diverse audiences to PBS,” Zara Frankel, Senior Director of Programming and Development, General Audience Programming at PBS, said in a statement. “Viewers rooted for and connected with our wonderful home cooks from around the country, and we are delighted to launch a new season of this fan favorite with fresh faces, new recipes and heartwarming stories.”
• PBS and “American Experience” will run two documentaries centering on the legacy of public shoot integration efforts in the 1970s. Both will premiere in fall 2023: “Boston School Battle” (working title), directed by Sharon Grimberg and Cyndee Readdean, will look at the class tensions and racial violence that met the city’s decision to use busing to end school segregation. “The Harvest” look at Leland, Mississippi’s attempts to desegregate its schools. The film is directed by Sam Pollard and Douglas A. Blackmon, one of the Leland students and the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II.” Both films are executive produced by Cameo George.
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