Conversation: PBS President Paula Kerger Making a Push for More Arts Programming

BY Tom LeGro  April 23, 2010 at 4:37 PM EDT

The Public Broadcasting Service — our home — has a long tradition of showcasing the arts. But it’s also true that programs featuring performances and exhibitions are not as pervasive and prominent on the nightly schedule as in the past.

Recently, PBS President Paula Kerger announced plans to renew and expand that presence. I talked to her about those plans:

(Read a full transcript after the jump.)

JEFFREY BROWN: The Public Broadcasting Service, our home, has a long tradition of showcasing the arts, of course. But it’s also true that programs featuring performances and exhibitions are not as pervasive and prominent on the nightly schedule as in the past. Recently, PBS President Paula Kerger announced plans to renew and expand that presence. She joins us now to talk about it. Welcome to you.

PAULA KERGER: Great, it’s wonderful to be here.

JEFFREY BROWN: Describe the current situation that you see. You said in a recent speech, “To be candid, over the last years, we haven’t done as good a job as we could.”

PAULA KERGER: Well, I think if you look at public television’s history, there is wonderful legacy of extraordinary arts programming. But over the course of the last few years the regular, sustained presence of the arts has diminished somewhat, and that’s largely been due to the fact that the financing of arts programming is at a level that makes it difficult to keep a robust presence. But I think that as I look around the broadcast schedule — I look at commercial broadcasters, I look at cable — you really don’t see a lot of arts programming anymore. You have whole cable services that were created with the great vision of creating a showplace for the arts. A&E was originally arts and entertainment. Bravo was originally conceived as a service for arts programming. And I think in part they changed their program strategy because it was more lucrative to have another content plan, which is fine — they’re commercial broadcasters, that’s really their job.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right, that’s what they are in business for.

PAULA KERGER: That’s their job. And so for us, we shouldn’t let the challenges of financing dictate the fact that we don’t have as much arts programming as we could and should. So that’s why it’s a focus for me.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me come back to the problems of financing, because you’re still going to have to deal with that, right? But what is it that you want to do? Describe the plan.

PAULA KERGER: So, what we want to do in the arts is really in three different pieces. The first piece, which we are actually launching this spring, is going to be online, and we’re creating a space not only to put video and we’re going to launch with probably about 20 to 30 programs in the inter video player. So if you go on your local station site, you’ll be able to access a range of arts programming. But then we also want to be able to use the platform as a way to experiment, and we have a few projects that will roll out in a sort of a soft way this spring. And we’ll give — in one circumstance we have a well-known performer that’s going to conduct a master class, and we’ll do some other things to really begin to experiment with the potential of the platform.

JEFFREY BROWN: And soft means no big announcements, no hoopla — you’re just going to put it out there and —

PAULA KERGER: That’s right. And I’m assuming that people that are watching this video are going to be exactly the people that we hope will log on and look at what we’re doing and give us feedback. Because what we’d like to do is begin to build this out with really a lot of viewer feedback and input. So that’s the online piece. The second piece is on air. We’re already doing a fair amount of arts programming, and really all throughout our schedule. I mean, there is the work that you do, Charlie Rose has certainly profiled the arts. We have performance, we have cultural documentaries. Being able to put some of that work together in a single place and curate it better, probably hosted, I think, makes a lot of sense so that people can find it. Because the biggest challenge, you know, from my perspective, is we do great programming and no one knows it’s there.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yeah, you know, I was telling you before we started, I went to Austin City Limits this year. I did a segment for the show on its anniversary. Wonderful program, but all over the map in terms of its on in different places or even whether it’s carried in a lot of cities.

PAULA KERGER: Well, we are going to pick a night a week and we’re going to have a series of arts programming that night. We’re going to try to host it , so that I think what we are hoping to do is to create a showcase for art that would draw you in so that if you are someone that loves dance or music, clearly you are going to come to this space, but also we want to bring new audiences in. I think that’s part of the excitement about doing this is creating a place where people can come and experiment with different art for the first time.

JEFFREY BROWN: And there is always this question of how do you — I mean, do you only showcase, you know, what people refer to as safe arts, the big names? How do you get the breadth and depth of the arts all over the country and not only the big names, but new names?

PAULA KERGER: New names. I think if we’re not cutting edge, then we haven’t done our job. I think that obviously we want to have a place where the familiar — I mean, I think about it almost the way that a music director in a wonderful symphony thinks about putting together a schedule. You want to have the Beethoven that brings the audiences, but you also want to have something that is, you know, John Cage, something that is a little different, or something that is a little more challenging for viewers to experiment with. So what we’re hoping to do is a range of arts, and Austin City Limits — certainly that kind of music would fit in. A lot of contemporary music fits in. American songbook, even a lot of rock doesn’t have a place on television anymore, so I wanted to sort of figure out how to piece that together in a way that makes sense for the viewer.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, back to barriers.

PAULA KERGER: Money. So money is the big one. So we got a challenge grant from the NEA and a grant from a trust that helped us launch the online piece, so that’s what’s gotten us rolling on that side. And I am now spending a chunk of my time on the road trying to talk to people about funding for this initiative — Why is this important now more than ever? And this is part of the argument that I’m making to potential funders, is that during this last economic downturn we saw a lot of arts organizations go away. I was just talking to someone yesterday who was lamenting the death of the Baltimore Opera. So I think that you saw organizations that disappeared. You also saw a lot of organizations really challenged to meet their budgets and so began cutting in areas such as promotion and marketing. And so I think that we can serve an important role of generating new audiences for the arts across the country, of helping to shine a bright light on some of the great work that’s going on, not just in New York but across the country. Obviously, New York is important but there is great art everywhere. And so if there is a basic goal for this project is that I want to make the arts accessible to everyone no matter where you live and what your economic means. And I also want to be able to bring the art from around this country to the country, and so as we begin to get more and more money in, we’ll be able to produce more and hopefully achieve that.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you have to — just for people who don’t understand how PBS works — but you have to sell this to the system as well, right? Around the country to all the local stations and —

PAULA KERGER: Yeah, convince the stations this is a good idea. The good news is that I have been talking to the stations over the course of the last year as we’ve been beginning to map this project out, and most of the stations I would say — I would say almost all the stations really understand that this is tremendously important work, because as you look at the state of the arts today and also if you think about arts education, for I’m afraid a lot of people this will be their exposure to the arts.

JEFFREY BROWN: Certainly what I hear as I travel around, too.

PAULA KERGER: And I also think that this gives our stations an opportunity, because many of them are doing local arts projects. Some of them are arts journals. Some of them are taping local arts performances. And so if we do this right, I’m hoping that we’ll be able to bring the work that’s being generated at the local level together with the work that’s happening at the national level and really create a rich experience for our viewers.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ok, and you said the online portal this spring, and in your dreams or hopes when would the television —

PAULA KERGER: In my dreams, if I’m successful with raising some money, pretty quickly. Then hopefully next fall we will roll out the on-air part. And then the third piece is we really want to begin developing some work for the classroom as well.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Paula Kerger, President of PBS. Thanks so much.

PAULA KERGER: Thank you so much.