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Paula Kerger, President and CEO, PBS
Remarks to National Press Club
May 23, 2006
Good afternoon. I'd like to thank the National Press Club and the Speakers Committee for inviting me today. It's a great honor to be here and I'm delighted to have this opportunity to share with you some of my perspectives, just 10 weeks into this job, on the future of public television.
I like to say that public television, or public media as I often describe it, is part of who I am. My grandfather helped found a public radio station in Baltimore and my entire career has been devoted to public service.
From an early age, I can remember sitting close to my grandfather at night, listening to radio programs transmitted from far away. To a little girl, it felt like magic. Indeed it was.
My grandfather's classical radio station - with its mix of orchestras, operas and chamber ensembles - were part of my childhood. I also grew up with TV shows like GREAT PERFORMANCES, UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS and I, CLAUDIUS, so I've always had a deep appreciation for public media and the valuable role it plays in our culture.
I've often thought about all that my grandfather saw during the course of his lifetime and recently have had the same sensation of living through a time of great change.
The digital revolution is one that is reshaping our world, and nowhere are its effects being felt more profoundly than in our broad industry.
Television, radio, newspapers - the media that have been our sources of information about the world for many decades - in the case of newspapers, centuries! - are being reinvented and re-imagined right before our eyes at the speed of light.
In many respects, we are privileged. After all, not every generation gets to live through this kind of watershed. We are seeing history being made. And we are experiencing the same kind of disorientation that inevitably afflicts people who live through such a time.
I remember reading about how people experienced something similar during the Industrial Revolution. Some adapted. Others fell by the wayside. But nearly everyone was profoundly affected. This time, though, it's all happening so fast, that it seems we are going to have the unusual ability to compare how the world was before the digital revolution and after.
John Scully, the former chairman of Apple computer, not surprisingly, had a keen sense of the big picture some time ago. He said, "The Information Age is a revolution. It's a revolution that's global in scope, with few safe harbors for isolationists."
And it's true. The digital revolution cannot be ignored. And it is asking a lot of us. It's forcing us to rethink many long-held notions of how to go about our business. And it's calling on us to reinvent ourselves, seemingly on a daily basis.
As we go about our work, we are necessarily participants in a giant experiment. All this amazing technology is suddenly at our beck and call. We can try out things that we only dreamed of - some of them straight out of science fiction.
To tell stories and deliver information in entirely new ways is exciting and it can be incredibly liberating. For the first time in history, the media are on the verge of being virtually unmediated. We can communicate to mass audiences as though we were talking to an individual.
At the same time, individual members of our audience can dialogue with us, participate in our work, and even become media purveyors themselves. That directness is empowering and offers fantastic possibilities - for us professionals and for our audiences.
As we negotiate this largely undefined frontier, we are called upon to remember our time-honored responsibilities. After all, our work exists to serve the public. As technology evolves and grows out in many directions, it is our duty to remember the people we serve. In their interest, we must make an intense effort to remain true to our purpose.
We cannot let the dazzling gadgets and the latest methods for delivering information overwhelm us or deter us from our collective mission, which is to deal with the public honestly, truthfully, sincerely, and fairly. Even as technology gives us wings, we must work hard to remain grounded, relevant and real.
Obviously, I can speak in broad strokes about the media in general. But my area of expertise is television - specifically public television. And it is on that medium that I would like to concentrate today.
In the same breath, however, I should qualify that statement. It's probably more correct for me to say that, up until now, I have been working what has traditionally been known as television.
In the television business, the task has been to create programs according to well-established conventions, and to put them out there over a single channel for viewers to watch according to a set schedule. But I probably don't have to tell you that, with each passing day, that paradigm is fading into the past. Now we are entering a time when the viewers are becoming the programmers, choosing what they want to watch, when they want to watch, using an astonishing array of media - Tivo and DVRs, On Demand services, podcasts, cell phones and PDAs, streaming video over the Internet, and who knows what fantastic new device will be announced next week.
Some 50 million U.S. households now have broadband Internet service. Almost 200 million have cell phones. By one estimate, some 10 percent of those cell phones are now video equipped, but that percentage is expected to grow exponentially in the coming years. Of course, the iPod is practically a standard accessory for many Americans these days.
Over the past several months, the commercial and cable networks have been relentlessly revamping their business models to take advantage of the new multi-platform world we live in.
You're probably aware of many of the recent developments.
Apple's announcement last October that it would sell episodes of "Lost" and "Desperate Housewives" on iTunes.
Disney's decision last month to start streaming those same shows on its Web site.
Just last week Discovery also announced a deal to offer some of its programming on iTunes, as well.
NBC Universal has added video players to its homepage and is creating Web-only programs.
Next week, Amazon.com - until now, an online retailer - will introduce a Bill Maher-hosted talk show that consumers can watch on the site.
NewsCorp recently acquired the social networking phenomenon MySpace.com and last week announced that it will distribute Fox's popular series "24" through the site.
That announcement followed on the heels of CBS launching a broadband channel called Innertube, which will include series created for the Web, as well as material that CBS has already broadcast on TV.
When Innertube was announced, the president of CBS Paramount Network Television, Nancy Tellem, was quoted as saying ''We want our content to be all the places our viewers are - and they are certainly on the Internet."
Indeed they are - often at wildly popular sites like YouTube, Friendster, Facebook, and the aforementioned MySpace, many of which incorporate streaming video as a means of building communities of like-minded individuals. At the same time, the big corporate Internet players - Yahoo, AOL and Microsoft - are all rolling out their own Web-TV services.
This is the revolution. And, with apologies to Gil Scott-Heron, it is being televised.
It's a bewildering time. It's hard to keep up with it all, but, mark my words, it is full of promise for us.
John Scully continued the thought I quoted earlier by stating that this revolution is one "in which winning organizations will be those that give individuals the chance to personally make a difference."
That's a notion that I find extremely encouraging. Because if ever there were a medium fundamentally equipped to empower individuals, it is the one to which I - and thousands of other Americans - are dedicated. Public television. Or, what would be better called at this juncture, public media.
And for those of us in public media - who are now, like you, caught up in this whirlwind of change - I think the one thing we must do is keep our sights set on that which anchors us - our mission to use the media as a tool for education and growth, for the betterment of individuals and our society.
When I first started my career in public television 13 years ago at WNET, I was shown a video of Edward R. Murrow inaugurating the station, which was then called WNDT, for New Dimensions in Television.
Sitting there before the camera in a basic studio - taped in black and white - the legendary journalist told the audience "The only thing this channel will sell is the lure of learning, the only product they will push is the node of knowledge."
Today, the behemoth black-and-white cameras have been replaced by miniature HD wonders, and public stations are sending out multiple digital streams from automated master controls into the 500-channel universe, but Murrow's eloquent words still guide us. Even as the technological future comes rushing at us at dizzying speed, our traditional mission, half a century old, is the constant star by which we continue to set our course.
So our task now is to take our essential, vital mission and carry it into this electric future taking shape around us. Because, frankly, nobody else out there is going to play the special role that we play in the media landscape.
I could tell you so many stories of people's lives that have been changed by public television. Accomplished artists who were inspired by the one and only place on the airwaves that provides real time for performance programming. I could read you letters from teachers, full of gratitude, who have used public television programming and resources to bring new energy to their classrooms. I could tell you about adults who have discovered new interests and new perspectives from public television series, and still others who have learned to read through public television's adult literacy services. I could point you to countless viewers who thank public television for providing a respite from the raucous clamor that characterizes so much of our commercial media today. These people cherish public television. I have met and heard from so many of them over the years. And I have to believe that those I know about are just a small percentage of the great numbers that are out there - all across America.
It is these people that I want to focus on in my new position. It is these people that I am trying to evoke as I work alongside my colleagues at PBS and the management and staff of our member stations around the country.
They transcend the technological revolution, and it is in their interest that I and my colleagues must figure out how to transition the mission of public television into the era of new media.
So, how might we do this? I think it's logical that we start by focusing on our strengths and our unique differences - those things that public television offers that sets it apart from all other media purveyors out there.
Foremost among those characteristics is a local connection. Localism is our calling card. Cut to the heart of who we are and what you have is localism. At a time of unprecedented media consolidation real media localism rests in our hands.
So, for viewers in Los Angeles, PBS station KCET's recent documentary about how climate change is affecting California's water supply is a uniquely valuable local contribution. Or when Maryland Public Television's weekly "Direct Connection" presents a documentary on Baltimore area Holocaust survivors, as it did last month, it offers uncommon insight into the Baltimore community.
But I'm not just talking about local productions. I'm also talking the ability of each public station to choose the national programming that best fits the needs of the viewers it serves.
In Tucson, for example, where the University of Arizona is the city's major employer, PBS station KUAT airs two episodes of "Nova" each Tuesday to help quench that community's thirst for science programming.
Here in Washington, WETA serves politically minded citizens with a Friday evening lineup that includes THE NEWSHOUR, WASHINGTON WEEK, INSIDE WASHINGTON and "NOW.
Each station, in its own way, gives its community what it needs. Public television stations can do this because in many communities they are the last locally owned-and-operated media operation in this country. They are the only media that live in their communities that exist not to profit from their neighbors but to serve them.
That's a great responsibility. It's one that I take very seriously - and I know that my colleagues at America's public television stations do as well. It's a responsibility that I believe will be well-served by the amazing technological changes we are witnessing. In other words, instead of worrying or fearing that the digital revolution is going to make us obsolete or marginal - It will not! - we need to fully realize that the capabilities of digital technology will actually allow us to take our service to a new level, to become even more relevant and appreciated by our constituents. Or as one of my colleagues often says, "Technology has finally caught up with the mission of public broadcasting."
As you may know, the digital bandwidth allows stations to offer several programming streams or sub-channels over a single digital frequency. Many stations have already begun to explore the possibilities of these digital channels, offering services that focus on specific audience segments and that let stations get more programming out there.
The digital services World and Create from WNET and WGBH - the PBS stations in New York and Boston - are perfect examples.
Create is a channel that focuses on personal interest series about such pursuits as cooking, travel, gardening, painting, and more.
World is a channel that brings together news and public affairs, science and nature and documentary programming. This past January, the American Public Television distribution service launched Create as a national service and a large number of public stations have begun to offer it in to their viewers in communities from coast to coast. And I'm pleased to announce that early next year, PBS will launch World as a national service as well.
Also, this fall, PBS will introduce PBS KIDS GO!, a digital channel aimed at 5-to-8-year-olds. And later this year we will see the launch of VIVA! - a 24-hour Spanish-language public television channel.
Of course, I should also mention the success of the recently launched PBS KIDS Sprout and PBS KIDS Sprout On Demand, cable and satellite services offered through a number of stations through the partnership of PBS, Comcast, Sesame Workshop and HIT Entertainment.
Last year, the Association of Public Television Stations, PBS and the National Cable Television Association reached an historic agreement that guarantees every major cable system in the country will carry both the analog channel and as many as four digital streams from at least one public television station.
Now PBS and APTS are attempting to negotiate a similar arrangement with the American Cable Association as well as with satellite and telecommunications providers.
I am hopeful we will succeed, because with those agreements in place, public broadcasters will be positioned to make the most of their digital multi-cast assets to provide a new level of service to their viewers.
So offering new program services over digital spectrum is one way that digital technology is helping us enhance our mission in the 21st century.
Another way that we are creating new opportunities is through Video On Demand. I am pleased to announce that PBS and WGBH are launching a major national initiative in partnership with Cable Positive to offer up the four-hour "Frontline" special "The Age of Aids" as a national Video On Demand offering to coincide with the broadcast premiere next week.
Thanks to VOD, we are estimating the series will be available to tens of millions of viewers - a great public service contribution, indeed.
I am also pleased to announce, that local public television stations will now have the option to expand local content now being offered on VOD with the following series: THE NEWSHOUR, FRONTLINE, ANTIQUES ROADSHOW, NATURE, POV, NIGHTLY BUSINESS REPORT, TAVIS SMILEY, WASHINGTON WEEK, NOW and WIDE ANGLE.
If, as I believe, quality is going to be the determining factor for how people choose what to watch in a universe of virtually unlimited options, well we are going to ensure that he quality is there - with our greatest programming available On Demand.
But this won't be just an attraction for the general public. I expect it will be a truly valuable resource for educators, students and lifelong learners.
That is why I'm also very excited about the licensing partnership we announced last week between PBS and Discovery Education. Through this partnership we have licensed hundreds of hours from our most acclaimed PBS series and specials for distribution to schools through Discovery Education's digital learning services.
This kind of offering is key to our mission. And now, more than ever before, I believe it is an area of our work we must foster. Until recently, where educational children's television was concerned we were the only players sitting at the table. But now, commercial and cable media providers have realized that kids are consumers, practically from the moment they emerge from the womb. And the reality is that younger and younger kids are becoming users of technology. So commercial programmers are piling on to feed them content -and, not incidentally, sell them products - over multiple platforms.
So we have an obligation to provide them - and their parents - with a viable educational alternative in a multi-platform world. Children's television is the birth right of PBS, and parents, teachers and caregivers are looking to us to build upon our heritage as a safe haven for kids. We have the quality. The recent truckload of daytime Emmys we pulled in is testament to that. Now we need to ensure that we have the reach.
Last fall, PBS announced the five-year PBS KIDS Next Generation Media initiative. With this effort, we have revised the children's schedule to better meet the developmental needs of children, and premiered IT'S A BIG, BIG WORLD, which introduces geography and science to preschoolers.
Last month we convened the Media Advisory Board for the initiative, consisting of distinguished leaders in education, child development, child care, media, technology, and other fields.
This month we're premiering FETCH!, focusing on hands-on science for elementary school children.
Later this year, we will launch the PBS KIDS multi-platform environment and the PBS KIDS GO! 24-hour multicast service, which I mentioned earlier.
We'll also be premiering CURIOUS GEORGE, which gets preschoolers involved with math and engineering concepts. And on the Internet, pbskids.org, pbskidsgo.org and pbsparents.org are all expanding their offerings.
All told, this is a powerful and comprehensive project to maximize the power of public television for young people today.
But I believe our commitment to education must go beyond the television and computer screen. PBS has always set itself apart from commercial media by taking its programming into the community.
Our partnerships with teachers, schools and educators aren't just theoretical. They are real, human connections. And, as we look for ways to reinforce our relevance and strengthen the unique character of our institution, we must continue to enhance those relationships in ways that serve today's educational climate.
One fabulous example of this was the recent Celebration of Teaching and Learning that WNET and WLIW held in New York City in March. The event brought together thousands of educators, teachers, parents and students for two days of professional development and community building.
Not only did it greatly benefit the participants and contribute to a stronger educational environment in the New York tri-state area, it resulted in wonderful visibility for the educational services provided by public television. It's the kind of an event that could take place in any community nationwide.
Finally, let me talk about PBS' national programming. At the risk of sounding contradictory, I want to be clear that our broadcast air and, especially our primetime efforts, remain central to our work.
Even as media evolve in myriad directions, our legacy broadcast business will continue to be dominant for some time to come. So it will be necessary for us to lend equal attention to both sides of the emerging equation, in a delicate balance between old and new.
For the foreseeable future, our primetime programming remains the backbone of our medium. It's the programming that reaches the most people and leaves the most widespread impression. And it's the area of our work that brings out our contradictions. On the one hand, we do not exist to chase ratings.
As the inimitable Bill Moyers put it, we're the one channel "that measures success not by the numbers who watch but by the imprint left on those who do." At the same time, we are a mass media enterprise and we do need an audience.
So it's encouraging that our numbers are holding their own. PBS's primetime ratings continue to be competitive and outpace almost every cable network. Moving forward, we will seek not only to maintain that trend, but build new audiences - not just as measured by Nielsen - but across all these new platforms about which I've been speaking.
In this regard, as we look to focus and bolster our national programming, we need to cultivate our inherent strengths. We need to focus our efforts on creating defining work for public television.
In my early days in this job I have been often asked about my own personal thoughts about our program service. And, while I am not the Chief Programming Executive for PBS, I do have my own personal opinions about the areas of our schedule that I believe are truly unique. And to my mind the standouts are public affairs and the arts.
As far as news and public affairs go, we have a sterling reputation. The widely cited Roper poll showed that for the third year in a row, PBS remains the most trusted institution in the U.S. above even the government and courts of law.
Academy-award winning actor Richard Dreyfuss, a great friend of public television, recently went on the record as critical of the trends in public affairs media today.
"There is no room to pause, no room to think," he said. He lamented a media that seems obsessed with "delivering instantaneous news and images" but that "provides too little context for audiences to reflect and understand what is happening in the world."
The antidote for that, of course, is public broadcasting. As the news media become ever more frantic and sensational, we have an increased duty to hold our ground and provide the calm, reasoned, objective alternative.
As for the arts, this is an area where we have no rivals. When viewers look for philharmonic concerts, ballet, opera, drama, recitals, discussions of the fine and visual arts, they have exactly one choice: public television.
This is highly valuable stock we own. We must take advantage of our uncontested leadership position in providing arts and performance programming to America. We have the power to build audiences for the wonderful material coming out of America's theaters and concert halls.
And, indeed, in many ways, America's artists and artistic institutions are depending on us to fulfill this role. So we will be looking hard at ways to strengthen our arts programming.
Of course, we will continue to maintain our enviably high standards for history, nature and science content as well, as that is among our most popular programming.
Now, creating great content and delivering it over multiple platforms is not going to be cheap. The initiatives I've mentioned and others to come carry a price tag. How are we going to pay for them?
Last year I was one of founding directors involved in the launch of the PBS Foundation. I am pleased to announce that we have raised just over $14 million so far and I am hopeful that little by little we will build up the resources to finance our exciting push into the digital age.
Perhaps our most significant source of funding is the money we receive from the federal government. I am working closely with Patricia Harrison at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, John Lawson at APTS, and NPR's Kevin Klose to make the most effective case possible for federal funding for public broadcasting.
There has probably never been a more important time for these four organizations to be aligned, and I am encouraged about our prospects for working together to keep our funding base strong.
It's been said that "We can't walk backward into the future." That is true for public media today. We are looking forward with confidence in our mission - as we must. Above all I believe we must continue to have hope about our ability to make a difference in a startlingly new world.
The great reformer, Vaclav Havel, a man who knew revolution all too well, said that "Either we have hope within us or we don't. It is a dimension of the soul, and it's not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation... Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed...."
The enterprise of public broadcasting has always been about that kind of hope. Those of us who work in this business do so because it is good. It is necessary. And our country is better for it. But I am confident that we will succeed as well. If we just keep our eyes on the prize.
Living in an age of revolution is tough. It's a constant challenge. For everyone. But especially for those of us who are committed to an enduring and timeless mission - like the one that Ed Murrow declared for us nearly half a century ago when our enterprise was in its infancy.
We may no longer be public television - at least not in the conventional sense. Now it may be better for us to think of ourselves as public media. But whatever we call ourselves, the public will continue to come first in our name, and in all that we do.
Now, I'll be happy to take some questions.