Paula Kerger, President and CEO, PBS Remarks at 2011 PBI Conference


2011 Public Broadcasters International Conference
Paula Kerger, President and CEO, PBS

Good morning.  I am pleased to attend my first PBI Conference and am especially honored to have been asked to give the keynote address.

All of us in this room share one commitment - to serve the people through the power of media.

It is clear that working together we can achieve a great deal in serving our countries.

As technology continues to shrink the globe, it’s this spirit of collaboration that will guide our steps forward.

I feel strongly that the future will belong to individuals and organizations that can collaborate across traditional boundaries to shine a light into new corners of our world.

I think we all saw that collaboration at work in media coverage of the Middle East this spring, where citizen journalists tweeted and shared their photos and videos on Facebook and YouTube, in many cases working collaboratively with professional journalists from news outlets around the globe.

At PBS we’ve recently worked with our counterparts in Brazil to share our expertise and experience in establishing new public broadcasting systems.

And for the first time we will be working outside the United States with the launch of a new PBS channel in the UK.

The new PBS UK channel will bring the best of American history, science, music, current affairs, arts and culture programming to the UK.

It is truly the last great TV archive to be opened up to UK viewers, and I hope that it will help bring even more shared understandings between our two nations.

But we’re not the only ones collaborating around the globe.

NHK continues to find partners worldwide to develop the next generation of high definition television.

And I look forward to the work being done by many of you in this room at the upcoming Future of Broadcast Television Summit in Shanghai, to try and develop common strategies for the future of broadcast television.

It’s this spirit of global cooperation and global vision that will guide the future of media.

Today I’d like to talk to you a little more about the future of public broadcasting, and the ways in which we at PBS have worked to redefine ourselves as a public media company.

But before I talk about where we’re going, permit me to talk a little bit about where we’ve been.

Unlike the BBC, or NHK, or many of your organizations, we do not own any stations or create any programming.  Our purpose is to aggregate and distribute programming to our member stations.

This goes back to the founding of a public broadcasting system in our country.

In 1938, key government decision makers had the foresight to push for a dedicated television spectrum that could be used for educational purposes.

In 1952 242 television stations were set aside for noncommercial, educational television.

But it wasn’t until 1967 that a system was put into place to provide federal funding and support for public broadcasting in our country.

The US President at that time set out some lofty goals.

He challenged public broadcasting to do more than entertain, but also:

• Educate,

• Illuminate, and

• Inspire.

In the last forty four years, from Sesame Street to NewsHour to Nova, we’ve shown that great TV can also expand people’s horizons and open the door to new ideas and opportunities.

But in some ways, things haven’t changed that much since the birth of public broadcasting.

Around the globe, we’re still facing debates about how much public funding to allocate to public broadcasting, how public broadcasting can and should utilize the power of the Internet, and whether or not our services are still necessary in this new digital age.

It’s time for the next generation of leaders to redefine the role of public media.

We live in a fundamentally different world than existed when public broadcasting was born.

Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google, has estimated that humans now create as much information in two days as we did from the appearance of homo sapiens until 2003. 

And Facebook, which did not exist until 2003, now reaches more people than all other major media outlets combined.

There are countless satellite television channels offering up countless variations of commercial programming.

There’s an increased reliance on the internet for entertainment.

Media consumption is up, but the percentage of young people consuming news is down.

In the United States between 2006 and 2009, daily newspapers cut their annual editorial spending by $1.6 billion dollars, or more than a quarter.

Television news staffs have declined by half from the late 1980’s.

In 2001-02, reality TV accounted for about 22% of the prime time TV audience.

By 2010-11, it accounted for about 56%, an increase of almost 155%.

Funding for public broadcasting is also at risk, or in the process of being cut for many of us around the world.

In the United States, our public funding just survived its closest call in recent memory.

For those who aren’t familiar with how we are organized, let me briefly explain.

Public broadcasting in the United States has always been a public-private partnership and the single largest source of revenue for public television is individual donors who support their local stations through membership contributions. 

The federal government contributes about 15% of our system’s revenues.

For every dollar in federal funding invested in member stations, they raise an additional $6.00 on their own, including contributions from millions of people who voluntarily support their community-based work.

Especially in this difficult economy, however, the loss of the vital seed money represented by the federal investment in public broadcasting would have a devastating effect and would be felt most strongly by rural stations. 

As many of you know, this year, our system faced the most serious threat in my memory to our federal funding.

Some elected leaders called public broadcasting a luxury that America could not afford.

But the American people said no.

More than 350,000 supporters sent nearly a half million emails and rang the phones off the hook at lawmakers’ offices.  They told lawmakers that public broadcasting was not a luxury and it was not expendable.

And those supporters were joined by opinion-makers, and celebrities, and champions in our legislature, who stood with us to declare that the media experiences we provide is an essential part of our democracy.

So while we won this round, we know this is not the end of it. 

In the face of this new landscape, the challenge to public media is this:

Can we re-create ourselves for the Digital Age and use media to help everyone – of every age and from every walk of life – reach their full potential?

Can we help our countries come together again and find the common ground that is so essential to solving our greatest problems?

Can we rise to the occasion – even in this time of limited resources – and empower every citizen to be more?

Can we be more?

I think we can.

In fact, I know we can.

But if we are to meet this challenge, then we must think anew about what it means to be public media.

Around the globe we must summon the courage to let go of old conventions and traditions and embrace:

    • New strategies.

    • New methods.

    • New approaches.

We can no longer be comfortable in our silos of television, or radio.

We must become public media companies- in every sense of the word.

To redefine public media for the digital age we must revitalize our content across platforms, stay on the cutting edge of technology and innovation, and ensure our economic sustainability.

First, let’s talk about content.

When I look out at the media landscape, I see many challenges.

But I also see unprecedented opportunity.

In the US, channels that were supposed to replace PBS by offering history, drama, and arts programming have increasingly turned to reality television- and the trend is only accelerating.

If the rest of the media continues on its current trajectory, PBS and our stations will be the only enterprise whose sole purpose is to provide content of consequence – both nationally and locally – to all Americans.

What do I mean by content of consequence?

It’s the best of children’s media, arts, drama, history, science, and news, the kind of programs that open up new vistas and expand people’s horizons.

This creates an exciting opportunity for public media to fill the niches left open by market failure.

One of the most obvious opportunities is in education.

This is a moment of transformational change for education in our country. 

Schools face shrinking financial resources, and a growing national appetite for tangible results. 

Parents in all walks of life want to give their children a healthy start and a chance to succeed in school.

And employers are demanding an array of skills not addressed in traditional schooling focused on reading, writing, and arithmetic. 

You might think it’s odd that I bring up education when talking about market failures- what does being a media company have to do with education?

But in fact, education has always been one of our key areas of impact.

Just look at what we’ve already done in the children’s educational space.

Until the 1960s in the United States, children’s television consisted of Saturday morning cartoons.

People thought that television couldn’t be both educational and entertaining.

Sesame Street changed that for children in the United States, and later around the world.

We showed that there could be educational programming for kids that was fun to watch, that would help kids get ready for school and for life, and that parents could enjoy too.

Since then, PBS has received more Emmy Awards in children’s programming than all of the broadcast and cable networks combined.

But we haven’t rested on our laurels.

Over the last five years we focused our attention on revitalizing our children’s content. 

We tied our TV shows to curriculum standards, and worked with educators and experts to create shows that could measurably improve literacy in children.  And we’ve begun to see the payoff.

Recent research by public media and the U.S. Government shows that children from disadvantaged families who interact with public media make significant gains in literacy.

Another study showed that children who played with the the PBS Martha Speaks iPad and iPhone App for 2 weeks had a 31% gain in the vocabulary tested.

We’ve done more than just focus on tying our kids content to educational standards.
We’ve also focused on growing our presence across multiple platforms in the kid’s space – and it worked. 

One hundred and fifteen million-streams-per-month later, worldwide we are now the number two source for children’s video online.

Our website had nearly nine million unique visitors in June, a 15% increase year over year.

And we’re growing our audiences in the traditional broadcast space.

We have four of the top ten kids programs on TV.

Our kids audience is up 33% for the current season among kids 4-8, And as a group, viewership of all PBS KIDS programs is up 23% among 2-11 year-olds, which means we are reaching approximately 127,000 more kids this season in an average minute of programming.  And among mom’s we have six of the top ten most watched kids shows.

So where do we go from here?

The answer, I think, lies in the classroom.

It’s time for public media to step up, and fill some of the gaps that exist in the classroom.

PBS and member stations are partnering with other publicly funded organizations to deliver unique, curriculum-based educational resources through PBS Learning Media.

This is a free service for all teachers, students and home-schooling families nationwide. 

It includes videos, interactive features, audio files, lesson plans, and worksheets to help students learn 21st century skills. 

We’re building on decades of expertise in producing and distributing educational media, and delivering it on a platform that will allow teachers to share ideas and innovate beyond a basic lesson plan. 

Teachers and school administrators can trust that we are treating today’s students as explorers and learners, not as a potential source for profit. 

And parents can trust us to deliver the same high quality content that’s expanded American’s horizons for generations.

I think it’s clear our kids’ content is on solid ground. 

But how can we carry this same spirit of innovation and service into the general audience sphere?

For decades, public broadcasting in America faced ever-shrinking, aging audiences.

As a case study, let me tell you a little bit about one of our flagship programs: MASTERPIECE.

MASTERPIECE is the longest running prime time drama series on American television, celebrating an astounding four decades this year—a remarkable achievement for a series built on works of literature, social history and culture.

In 2007, producer Rebecca Eaton felt that MASTERPIECE was growing stale: viewing was stagnant and she felt the series wasn’t “top of mind” as it once had been.

She undertook the delicate – and very public —art of re-branding MASTERPIECE.
In January 2008, the series re-launched with a new format to eye-popping success. MASTERPIECE broke viewing records and activated a new audience loyal to public television.

In the succeeding years, the series has been on a steady march of increased popularity: this year MASTERPIECE had increased its viewing by 54% from the previous year -- a truly remarkable feat in today’s fractured television world.

Now the challenge is to transfer that same magic to our other programs.

We’ll stay focused on what distinguishes PBS from other networks: the stories we tell and the topics we cover. 

I’m extremely proud of our recent work with ITVS’s on the Women and Girls Lead Project, which is a three year initiative which will spotlight women and girls around the world and start a real dialogue about the role of women in our society today. 

Using the power of media, Women and Girls Lead brings to life the stories of extraordinary people captured by the world’s best independent documentary filmmakers.

Films profiling Nobel Prize winners Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and her compatriot Leymah Gbowee are part of the Women and Girls Lead pipeline of documentaries.

Combining independent documentary film, television, new media, and global outreach partnerships, Women and Girls Lead amplifies the voices of women and girls acting as leaders, expands understanding of gender equity, and engages an international network of citizens and organizations to act locally and reach out globally.

But we can do more.

This is where the real magic comes in: it’s time to build on our unique line-up, by developing new shows that fill a need in the television landscape, especially in the arts. 

When I look out across the media landscape in the United States, I see a distinct lack of arts programming.

Many commercial networks that launched on the promise of arts and entertainment now focus on reality television that can hardly qualify as “art.”

But the crisis in the arts goes beyond the media.

Many people can’t afford a ticket to see a theatrical show, a concert or a dance performance. 

And this worries me greatly.

Why do I think the arts are so important?

The arts educate our children.

They increase creativity and innovation and foster civic engagement.

They bring people together and help break down barriers in language, geography, culture, and ideology—and promote an appreciation for diverse traditions.

The arts transport and transform us. They open us up to new worlds and new ways of thinking. They excite, inspire and move us.

At a time when funding for music and arts within our schools is being cut, PBS and its member stations are helping to keep the arts alive today and for generations to come. 

Last year, more than 94 million people tuned in for more than 500 hours of arts and cultural programming on PBS.

But there’s so much more great art out there that can be shared with our audiences.

That’s why this fall we’ve debuted the PBS Arts Festival, a nine-week nationwide celebration of the arts. 

The Festival highlights a wide variety of performing arts including rock concerts and Americana music, and a major new opera.

Nearly all the programs are accompanied by the national broadcast of a locally produced short feature about the cultural life in the areas where each program originates. 

Our education experts are using content from the Festival to build curriculum materials and classroom tools that will encourage teachers to incorporate more arts programming into their work.

In addition to this broadcast event, an exciting original web series is planned for PBS Arts online, allowing us to highlight an even broader array of the visual and performing arts that add context and meaning to our lives. 

I’d like to show one of those videos to you, to help you get a sense of our work.

That clip is the perfect segue to the second part of our mission to redefine ourselves as a public media company: because it showcases some of the “web only” content we’re producing.

As public broadcasters, we must innovate.

Now when most people hear the words public broadcasting, “innovation” may not be the first subject that springs to mind.

But the fact is, public broadcasting has been an engine of innovation from the beginning.

PBS was the first broadcaster in the United States to air live proceedings from our legislature.

The show we know today as the “PBS NewsHour” represents another breakthrough.

In the ’80s, it became American broadcast television’s first national 60-minute newscast.

Almost three decades later, it’s still the only 60-minute national newscast on broadcast television.

And while PBS didn’t invent the prime-time documentary, we’ve kept the genre alive with historical documentaries and innovative science programming. 

Then there are all the breakthroughs PBS has made behind-the-scenes.


• Pioneered closed-captioning for the hearing impaired,

• Launched broadcast television’s first satellite distribution network,

• And in 2002, our website became the world’s most popular “dot org.”

We haven’t stopped there.

We were the first media company to debut a full program episode on Facebook.

Last fiscal year we began an investment in mobile products that culminated in the launch of the iPad and iPhone app to rave reviews and heavy usage.

Since their debut, PBS apps have been downloaded more than two million times.

And we were the first to debut a full program episode on the iphone and ipad.

We’ve won a Webby award- the internet’s version of the Oscar’s- for our iPad app.

We now have six web-only series that run the gamut from arts programming to kids shows.

And in close collaboration with our colleagues at NHK in Japan, we are participating in laying the groundwork to bring the next generation of high definition to our audiences, leveraging their investment and commitment to technology for worldwide benefit.

This innovation has paid off.

Americans watched more than 154 million videos across all of PBS’s web and mobile platforms in June.

According to the leading internet measurement company PBS is the 15th most popular online property for video.

What’s most exciting about our online work is that we are able to reach a new and different audience.

Seventy-two percent of visitors watching videos are between the ages 18 to 49.

The average age of our online viewer is 35, compared to 62 for our broadcast audience.

And our online audience is very engaged: our viewers spend an average of 18 minutes per video, far above the industry average.

Up until now, our work in the digital sphere has focused on distribution: how we can get our content out to as many users as possible.

But as we go forward, we have to change our focus.

Rather than just using the internet as a platform to distribute our existing content, it’s time to use the internet to experiment, and push the boundaries of our work.

What do I mean by this?

That clip I just showed you is one example of how we’re using the web to test out new shows and new formats, some of which may be transferred to our broadcast schedule.

We’ve already had WORD GIRL, originally a web-only series, make the jump.

And we’ll continue to experiment with formats that aren’t suitable to broadcast, but further our mission to educate, engage, and inspire our audiences.

But I think the best example of how we can use the possibilities of new media to great effect is our new video games for children.

These are not video games in the traditional sense, but videos with games interspersed within the content.

Let me show you a clip.

[Show sample of video+game]

On our KIDS site, these video plus game combinations have an average ten times as many views as our other videos.

The transition to digital media has come with a cost, however.

We are being asked to spread our resources even more thinly than ever, in order to reflect the growing appetite for web related content.

We cannot accomplish a revitalization of our content, or continue to innovate, without addressing our system’s sustainability- the third pillar of our transition to a digital media company.

I began this speech by talking about the policy decisions that were made that paved the way for public broadcasting in the United States- farsighted decisions by leaders in our government to set aside and protect a space for public service media.

And I think that we have to talk about policy decisions first and foremost when talking about the economic sustainability of public media.

In addition to our ongoing effort to educate lawmakers about the value of public broadcasting, we are faced with a difficult political landscape when it comes to spectrum allocation.

The President and the government’s regulator for communications have proposed a voluntary spectrum auction, in order to make more spectrum available for broadband providers.

The ramifications of this proposed auction are many: from a threat to our promise of universal service to all citizens, to a potential source of additional revenue for our stations.

PBS worked with our member stations to articulate our system’s principles when it comes to spectrum reallocation.

We feel strongly that any plan to reallocate spectrum should:

Maintain free universal service;

Be entirely voluntary;

Should recognize and reflect the distinctions between public and commercial broadcasters, and take into account the ways that our public stations use multicasting to serve the public. 

And 100% of the proceeds from any auction of spectrum held by a public television station should remain within the public television system. 

There are many different legislative options that have been drafted, and it’s unclear at this point how things will proceed.

We will be monitoring the situation carefully as we move forward, to make sure that our stations best interests are taken into account.

But one thing is clear.

As the political winds shift, and inevitably shift again, it’s more important than ever that we look at ways to strengthen our revenue streams.

In order to do this for our system, I created a panel of external experts to come up with a set of recommendations for fundraising for our system.

Their recommendations coalesced around a few key themes:

Our system must work together, and aggregate common activities in order to better leverage local resources.

We must engage with the public on their terms.  This means strengthening primetime content to grow audiences and donors, and creating engaging online content.

We must maximize the value of our kids’ service and create opportunities for companies to support public television around topics that matter to them and that are core to our mission.

And we must look outside of our traditional models of fundraising, and our traditional ideas of membership.

I’m especially intrigued by the work of some of our member stations.

Our system has a rich tradition of “pledge” periods, when our stations ask their viewers directly for support.

This period goes on for about a month, a couple of times a year.

Some of our member stations are coming up with something new: if people donate, they can access their favorite public media content without being interrupted by pledge breaks.

When I think about new business models, I’m also intrigued by HBO GO, a new offering from the second largest pay television service provider in the United States.

In the US, they are best known for their original dramas like “The Sopranos,” “Boardwalk Empire,” and “True Blood,” many of which are distributed around the globe.

Their new idea is this: with paid membership, you get access to a full and deep archive of HBO’s content, so you can watch past episodes or series that are no longer on the air.

As we all re-evaluate our business models, I think that it’s important that we are open to new ideas, new strategies and new approaches.

We cannot allow complacency, or fear of doing things differently, to hold us back.  Especially now, when the future is barreling down like a freight train.

Content, Innovation, Sustainability.  That’s our recipe for the new age of public media in three words. 

But in each of these areas, we are building on our strengths.

I recently read Jim Collins’ new book “Great by Choice,” which examined why some companies thrive in uncertain times, while others simply got by.

His findings were surprising, but absolutely relevant to all of us in this room.

He found that the best leaders did not take more risks or have grander ambitions.

Instead, the companies that succeeded were led by people who were more disciplined, more empirical, and more paranoid.

And the companies that succeeded did not adapt more dramatically to their new circumstances.

In fact, they changed less in reaction to a radically changing world than their cohorts because they built on their areas of expertise.

That’s why I feel confident that by focusing on content, innovation, and sustainability we can recreate public media for the digital age.

All of us are experts in delivering unique content, staying ahead of the technological curve, and keeping our systems economically viable: the tools we need to redefine public media for the next generation.

This is more than just semantics.

Only by fully transitioning into media companies can we meet the challenges of the future, and fulfill the mandates of the past, to educate, engage, and inspire.

Just as we must focus on the “media” part of public media, we must also revisit our commitment to the “public.”

Fifty years ago, one of the giants of public broadcasting in our country, Newton Minow, gave a famous speech in which he decried the state of television in our country as a vast wasteland.

In the last fifty years, I think that public media has become an oasis in that wasteland.

But when I think about Minow’s most famous speech, ultimately, it’s not his vast wasteland comment that makes the biggest impression on me. 

What stays with me is his call to serve the “public interest.”

A lifetime ago, he challenged broadcasters to “put the people’s airwaves to the service of the people and the cause of freedom.”

Half a century later, we work together in that service and that cause.  Every hour of every day, we make that vision a reality for millions of people. 

Our work cannot be replaced or replicated by commercial outlets, because we exist to serve the people, not sell to them.  Our bottom line is the number of lives we touch, not the number of shareholders we enrich.

This year, I challenge us to come together to better serve our audiences. 

I challenge us to collaborate across boundaries to keep public broadcasting vibrant, innovative, and sound so it can serve the public and touch as many lives as possible.

And I challenge us as a global community to come together to put the people’s airwaves to the service of the people.

Touch their hearts and lift up their minds. 

Nurture their souls and spark their curiosity. 

Educate and inspire them. 

Of all the purveyors of media out there, we are the only ones charged with this honorable mission. 

We are the only ones who can truly put the people’s airwaves to the service of the people.

This is our time. 

Let’s step forward together into the future.  And let the journey begin today.  There’s no time like the present.

Thank you.

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