Kerger, a 48-year-old executive with the Educational Broadcasting Corporation that licenses two New York area public television stations, replaces Pat Mitchell, who a year ago announced plans to step down after taking over in 2000, and will now head the Museum of Television & Radio.
“Paula is an irrepressible champion of public television — proud of its mission and confident of its future,” said Mary Bitterman, chairwoman of the PBS Board of Directors and head of the search committee. “Her demonstrated leadership, outstanding operational capabilities, and proven development skills will allow her to move into this very challenging role well prepared and well equipped to be the leader that PBS needs now and for the years ahead.”
The PBS board approved Kerger’s appointment as PBS’s sixth president unanimously in a special session in Dallas on Sunday.
“I firmly believe that public television’s greatest days lie ahead, and I am truly excited to be working with this wonderful organization and all the public television stations across America to realize the full promise of this medium,” Kerger said in a statement. “Now more than ever, Americans need a strong public television system. I am committed to doing all I can to ensure that they have it.”
One of Kerger’s primary challenges will be to unify a system comprised of 348 member stations at a time when viewers have hundreds of channel options.
“What makes it a complicated system — the fact that it’s all these local stations — is its great strength,” Kerger told the Associated Press. “In an era when there are almost no remaining locally owned and operated broadcast media, the importance of a strong public broadcasting system is critically important.”
Mitchell’s term as head of PBS was marked by several experiments in new programming aimed at increasing the diversity of the network’s audience as well as a series of well-publicized debates over content and possible political pressure from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
The Corporation for Public Broadcasting is a private nonprofit agency created and funded by Congress. This year it distributed $387 million in federal dollars to PBS, NPR, hundreds of public radio and TV stations around the nation, and some individual programs.
Throughout much of 2005, Kenneth Tomlinson, chairman of the CPB board, complained that PBS was not politically balanced in its programs and pushed Mitchell to air more conservative programming.
In the end, the CPB inspector general chastised Tomlinson, who left his post in September, for improperly supporting some programs as well as appearing to use “political tests” in his selection of the new president of CPB, former co-chairwoman of the Republican National Committee Patricia Harrison.
At the time, Mitchell also expressed concern over the appointment, saying, “PBS has had concerns about the appointment of a former political party chair to the position of president and CEO of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting — which must be nonpartisan in both appearance and execution. With that said, it is our hope and expectation that Ms. Harrison will execute her responsibilities with nonpartisan integrity.”
But Kerger, in interviews Monday, said she would stress the need to unify public broadcasting.
Success, she said, depends on “the ability to get the staff at PBS as well as the (station) leaders across the country to stand together. If I felt I couldn’t do that, I wouldn’t have taken the job.”