At PBS Board meeting, Kerger hints at Gates Foundation digital funding

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MIDDLEBURG, Va. — PBS is having “very significant conversations” with several major education funders about possible financial support, president Paula Kerger told the PBS Board Thursday.

Since announcing a reorganization in February to focus on education, PBS has been “specifically looking at how to expand and more deeply leverage our work in education,” she said.

Kerger noted that talks with the Gates Foundation “have come close” to agreement on Gates’ bolstering PBS’s digital work focused on education.

“This is an area not only of great opportunity” for financial partnerships, she added, “but also an area that very much ties to the core of our mission.”

Also, “legislators on both sides of the aisle agree that education is an important place for us to be spending more time,” Kerger said.

A major step in the educational space is PBS’s upcoming 24/7 kids’ channel, PBS’s first free streaming service, which will launch in January. The full board unanimously approved policies governing station use of the channel. The rules, proposed in April, include a grandfather clause accepting pre-existing local kids’ channels but forbidding PBS Kids content on new channels created by stations. Also, stations carrying the channel must air it 24/7.

But getting cable providers to place the multichannel alongside other children’s content such as Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel remains a daunting challenge locally and nationally.

Lesli Rotenberg, children’s media and education s.v.p. and g.m., told the the station services committee that evidence shows families concentrate viewing on that “neighborhood” of children’s channels. But getting those channel slots across the country “is not an easy thing to do,” Rotenberg said, because many cable companies defer to local cable companies for channel placement decisions.

Committee member Linda O’Bryan, president of South Carolina ETV, pointed out that stations need to notify local cable providers that the channel is coming. Kerger said PBS pushed the launch into January in part to give member stations time to work through that process.

Kerger noted that the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, which represents the U.S. cable industry, is “very happy” about the upcoming kids’ channel, because PBS is recognized as a quality educational television source. She said PBS will continue to work with America’s Public Television Stations at the national level on the issue of channel placement.

The board gathered Thursday and Friday at the Salamander Resort & Spa on 340 rolling acres in Virginia horse country. The luxury resort is owned by entrepreneur Sheila Johnson, a co-founder of Black Entertainment Television.

Kerger told Current that Johnson is very interested in independent film and recently left the board of Sundance Films. That presents PBS with an opportunity to possibly involve Johnson in its indie film work. And the resort “gave us a great deal,” Kerger added.

In other news, the board:

— Approved a $343.2 million budget for FY17 that contains a 1.5 percent hike in member station dues. A draft proposal was circulated among stations in April.

— Heard that filmmaker Ken Burns has extended his contract with PBS to 2030. “His connection with PBS is a real gift to America,” said Vice Chair Molly Corbett Broad.

— Agreed to a common-carriage waiver for WTVI in Charlotte, N.C., for the season beginning in September. WTVI will be allowed to shift some common-carriage programs to other times and evenings without penalty. The other two stations serving the market, South Carolina ETV in Columbia and UNC-TV in Research Triangle Park, N.C., supported WTVI’s request so station schedules will not overlap.

— Created a PBS Station Leadership Award that will honor general managers, former g.m.’s and other public television leaders. The board’s Station Services Committee delegated the nomination and selection process to PBS management.

— Adopted a resolution honoring NPR photographer David Gilkey, who was killed June 5 while on assignment in Afghanistan, for his “dedication and bravery.”

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