2013 PBS Annual Meeting
Paula Kerger, President and CEO, PBS
Thank you John and Rick for that warm introduction. It is a great pleasure to be together in beautiful Miami, which I especially appreciate given our long, cold spring at home.
This is the seventh year I’ve spoken at our Annual Meeting.
In that time a great deal has shifted in the media landscape.
When I began as CEO of PBS:
- Analog television was still on the air;
- The iPhone didn’t exist;
- YouTube was a new idea, with only free content;
- Netflix had only 6 million subscribers and you got it by getting DVDs in the mail;
It’s safe to say that a lot has changed since 2006.
But one thing hasn’t changed. Every year we come together, and use this occasion to celebrate the accomplishments of the last year, and reflect on the lessons of the past as we navigate our system forward. Indeed, Great Starts Here!
Building on that theme, last year in Denver, Jim Collins spoke at length about luck, and the role it played in organization’s success.
He said that “luck” wasn’t good or bad; instead, he looked at it as an event that was out of the control of the organization, and had the potential to make a significant impact, whether good or bad.
In his research, he found that successful companies didn’t have more “good” luck.
Instead, they were able to get a high “return on luck” no matter what, because they were able to capitalize on “good luck,” and respond to “bad luck” with creativity and clearheaded action.
Resilience, not luck, he said, is the signature of greatness.
Over the last year we’ve certainly had bad luck and good luck.
Our bad luck was the threat to our funding announced on national television by a Presidential candidate.
Our good luck was “Downton Abbey,” the highest rated drama in PBS history.
But by Jim Collins’ metrics, what matters isn’t what happened to us, but how we responded, and in that light, I think everyone in this room deserves a round of applause.
When our funding was threatened, our system came together to activate the tremendous public support that exists for public broadcasting.
The voice of one presidential candidate was drowned out by the millions more who said “don’t mess with PBS.” And to those millions we owe a great debt of thanks as well as the responsibility to fully live up to their high expectations of us.
With the success of Downton Abbey, we didn’t ease up and congratulate ourselves on an amazing bit of luck.
Instead, we have actively worked to use Downton as an avenue to connect with new audiences and invest in new content.
I believe that as an industry, and as a system, we are at an inflection point. Together, we have very important choices to make in the coming year, about how we will build on our success.
This is an important moment in our system’s history. In fact, I think that this is the most important moment of my tenure.
We have the potential to accomplish great things.
And while we face a lot of strategic decisions about our future, that is not the challenge that keeps me up at night.
In fact, none of our external challenges are what worry me most.
I think that some of our biggest challenges come from within our own system.
When I began my term as CEO, this system described itself jokingly as a “dysfunctional family.”
In fact, I may have shared that opinion.
I now feel strongly that if we cannot find a way to join together as a strong whole, I will have failed to achieve one of my chief objectives when taking this job, to fully realize the potential of public broadcasting.
Too often we are tempted to look at issues as zero sum - what is good for “PBS” is bad for “stations,” what is good on the local level is incompatible with what is good for the national system.
Sometimes there’s been a sense that our fates are not intertwined, that “PBS” could exist without local stations.
Or that stations can go it alone.
But looking at the system as “us” vs. “them” is exactly what has helped define our system as dysfunctional and could ultimately destroy us.
What makes us strong is our diversity.
I am passionately committed to local stations- many of whom are the last locally owned and operated media organizations within communities.
I also believe just as passionately in the power of a collective system. That is, in fact, why PBS was formed.
And just so I am clear, understand that my expectations of a singularly focused public media community extend within PBS as well as in the system. I expect that every member of our team in Crystal City will focus their efforts to ensure that we are all working towards our common goal.
Anyone that cannot be part of that vision will not be on the team.
If we are to be successful in today’s media landscape, we must find new ways to work together and put aside some of the divisions that have plagued our system for too long.
We cannot continue to operate as if our local and national interests are at odds, or that stations are competing against each other.
We must find new synergies, and new ways to use the power of our collective system to strengthen all stations.
The stakes cannot be higher- the country needs us to come together.
We’ve seen the dangers of fragmentation in our country’s politics.
And while we can’t solve our nation’s political problems, we have an essential role to play in helping our country confront some of the most important issues of our times.
If we don’t work together, if our system fails to thrive, I shudder to think about the impact this will have on our democracy.
Our most significant impact comes when we are able to leverage our collective assets to make a difference in local communities.
At our country’s moments of greatest need, we have been there to help put events in context and begin healing. A most recent example is the week of programming created in response to the Newtown tragedy, which had a significant impact both nationally and locally.
The country needed us. And we responded. In all, the After Newtown specials reached 11.9 million viewers.
But the impact of this work goes well beyond ratings. One example. After the broadcast, the FBI reached out to ask for copies of these programs for use in their trainings.
And in local communities, stations were able to use the After Newtown programming to convene important conversations about public safety and mental health.
WNET organized a national call-in show the week of the tragedy and in Indianapolis, WFYI recorded a robust TV studio discussion, expanded coverage on radio and convened further engagement on social media.
This is the way of the future: harnessing every single resource, both local and national, and every single platform, to serve the American people with quality content.
In addition to being core to our mission, there is a tremendous competitive advantage to focusing on quality content. Consider the fact that 56% of television programming is reality shows.
Despite the fact that viewers can choose from among 800 channels, public broadcasting is the only one committed to providing content of consequence, programming that opens up new horizons, and inspires viewers to learn more about the world around them.
If you need a powerful example, look no further than the Discovery Channel, which has announced Weed Wednesdays to go up against our own science night, what I like to think of as the smartest night on TV.
While we are programming important science and natural history stories on Nature, NOVA and specials, they are running Pot Cops and Weed Country. A different type of heady television.
Meanwhile, the History Channel is running wall to wall Pawn Stars.
We have an opportunity, an obligation really, to provide the kind of content viewers can’t find anywhere else.
In the coming year, we are going to redouble our efforts to offer the best science, natural history, history, news and public affairs, and drama to fill the void left by the rest of the television landscape.
All of this will help us not just maintain, but build on the work that we’ve done to revitalize and refresh our primetime schedule.
But these days, we can’t just be satisfied by reaching people over our airwaves.
We run the risk of becoming diminished if we don’t also expand our work on multiple platforms.
If we fail to take advantage of these opportunities, we’ll go the way of Kodak, who invented the digital camera in 1975, but was slow to adapt to the digital age.
Digital photography has flourished- there are an estimated 300 million digital photos uploaded to Facebook every day.
But Kodak, that ground breaking company, has slipped away because they failed to embrace the fundamental shift that happened in the landscape.
I recognize that the prospect of embracing new platforms has been scary to some and has provoked a great deal of discussion, and occasionally friction, when it was perceived that PBS was operating independently of stations.
Let me be clear that my vision for our system in this new space is one that leverages the true power of stations operating within communities, with the work we have been able to build at scale on behalf of the whole. I recognize that we have not done as good a job as we could in communicating our work in this new area, but with the support of station leaders, we are now on a solid path and absolutely committed to building out the infrastructure together to help our entire system flourish in this new space.
The future of PBS lies in new models of programming which straddle the divide between our on-air content and our online capabilities, and our local and national strengths.
Perhaps nothing is a better example of this than our work for children.
We don’t accept any proposals for new children’s programming that fail to take a transmedia approach: to create a whole world of characters that’s consistent across games, apps, online and on-air programming.
This has been quite an evolution as we have leveraged the power of working collectively to develop the most educational, groundbreaking children’s media that spans platforms and genres.
We most fully realize our potential when we combine local and national assets:
When I was in Tacoma, Washington I met with the head of the Housing Authority, the Assistant Superintendent of Schools and the Principal of an elementary school where half of the school’s population comes from homeless families.
Those three organizations, working in partnership with KBTC, are engaged in a powerful five year project to stabilize the housing of 50 families and hopefully give the children a solid foundation in school as well as impacting the overall school.
In fact, just one year into the project, they are already seeing results in a number of areas including the formation of the school’s first PTA, organized by some of the parents of the families in the project.
As I was leaving Tacoma, the Housing Authority head said to me that KBTC has played a critical role in not only providing educational content, but through their participation are helping to keep all of the partners at the table.
He then went on to say that public television is making a critical difference in the life of their community and thanked us for doing what no other media organization would ever do for them.
Because of the years of collective investment our system has made, our work for children is some of our most essential and important; not only because of its impact, but because of how it distinguishes us from everyone else.
But there is a greater need to be met as many community leaders, as well as our President, have issued a call to action in support of early childhood education.
We are uniquely suited to answer this call, because of our decades of experience, as well as our local and national resources.
Our work also extends into the classroom as we give K-12 teachers the resources they need to open children’s imaginations and inspire learning using video and digitized objects offered through PBS LearningMedia.
When I look at our collective KIDS work, I think it’s an excellent story of how new technology has helped us fulfill our mission, and how we’ve been able to revitalize our content to meet the needs of today’s kids.
And, I think it’s the best example of how we’ve come together as a system to support groundbreaking work.
While I believe that our content and the technology of various media platforms offer us unlimited possibilities, our major challenge is developing the business model to sustain us.
We are looking at new ways to use our existing models to expand revenue, to refresh and revitalize our fundraising practices, and explore new strategies.
At the national level, the PBS Foundation is playing an increasingly important role in funding content, infrastructure and new station sustainability efforts like the Planned Giving initiative.
The important part of this entire vision is that the system works as one to reach our full potential.
We all share this treasured name of PBS, as we share the same powerful legacy. We know the special place our name is held in the hearts and minds of the public.
In February we received the results of our annual “Trust Poll.” For the 10th consecutive year, PBS and member stations were recognized as America’s most trusted institution and an “excellent” use of tax dollars.
And, PBS was recognized as a TV Network Brand of the Year, in the annual Harris Poll EquiTrend® survey.
Our name is our most precious asset and we cannot afford to diminish it in any way. Instead, we must build on our legacy, together.
Above all else, we must recognize that “PBS” is not a place in Crystal City but lives and breathes in each and every station across this country.
In fact, to the American people, we are one and the same. Actually, they also believe we are part of our public radio community. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been introduced as the President of NPR, or been thanked for the great work being done at “All Things Considered.” I used to correct them, but now I accept the praise and feel pride for the entire public media community.
Gary- you can take credit for “Downton Abbey.”
The reason I don’t mind is that no matter the distinction between NPR and PBS- what people are saying is- “we matter.”
In fact, we matter a great deal to the American people. As one final example, I’d like to share a story with you as a reminder of that trust we hold with the public.
An older man, wearing a sweatshirt and baseball cap came into public television station one day with a check.
It was clear that this man was not wealthy, but in his hands he held a check for $2,000.
The General Manager of the station thanked him for the check, and asked him what prompted such a generous donation.
The man said that he’d just lost his wife of fifty three years. One of the last things she’d said was “sell my wedding ring, and give the money to WXXI.”
After she passed, the man felt some hesitation about selling her ring. He called his daughter, to get her opinion. She said, “Do what mom wanted you to do.”
So the man went to three different jewelers, in order to get the best price for the rings.
And then he came to the station, to fulfill his wife’s dying wish.
I got goose bumps the first time I heard that story. Because for that couple, we were more than just a television station.
For so many families across the country, we are a window to the world, a path to the future, and a trusted part of their community.
I am humbled by the great love so many share for PBS and, like you, feel truly blessed to have the opportunity to serve as a caretaker for an organization to which many have devoted their lives.
In closing I would like to share a quote with you from the great Anna Deavere Smith. She’s talking about art, but I think that you can easily substitute in PBS: "Art convenes. It is not just inspirational. It pricks the walls of our compartmentalized minds, opens our hearts and makes us brave. And that's what we need most in our country today."
Indeed. We face many challenges and uncertainties, but if we all move forward together, PBS and stations, management and volunteers, there is no limit to what we can achieve. We have our rich history to prove it.
Thank you for all that you do, and I look forward to working with each of you to make our system even stronger.
Our country is counting on us.