Kerger describes factionalism within pubTV as system’s greatest threat

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MIAMI BEACH, Fla. — PBS President Paula Kerger called for local public TV stations and PBS to move beyond their reputations as a “dysfunctional family” to embrace “the power of a collective system” to strengthen their public service.

PBS President Paula Kerger, speaking in Miami Beach. (Photo: PBS)

PBS President Paula Kerger, speaking in Miami Beach. (Photo: PBS)

In a keynote speech opening this year’s PBS Annual Meeting, Kerger said public television has reached an important moment in its history — one that she considers to be “the most important moment of my tenure” as PBS president. Kerger pointed to the outpouring of support for public TV when its federal funding came under attack during the fall presidential elections and the international attention and praise that accrued to PBS and stations following the blockbuster Masterpiece Classic hit Downton Abbey.

“We have the potential to accomplish great things,” Kerger said. “And while we face a lot of strategic decisions about our future, that is not the challenge that keeps me up at night. In fact, none of our external challenges worry me most. I think that some of our biggest challenges come from within our own system.”

Too often, she said, pubcasters see what is good for PBS as bad for stations and vice versa. “Sometimes there’s been a sense that our fates are not intertwined, that PBS could exist without local stations. Or that stations can go it alone,” Kerger said.

“But looking at the system as ‘us’ versus ‘them’ is exactly what has helped define our system as dysfunctional and could ultimately destroy us,” she said.

“If we are to be successful in today’s media landscape, we must find ways to work together and put aside some of the divisions that have plagued our system for too long,” Kerger said.

Kerger, who was a c.o.o. and a top fundraiser for New York’s WNET before she was appointed to the PBS presidency in 2006, said she is “passionately committed” to local stations and believes “just as passionately in the power of a collective system.”

Kerger didn’t elaborate on points of conflict between PBS and its member stations, but she signaled that PBS staff must also embrace her approach for bridging the divide. “[J]ust so I am clear, understand that my expectations of a singularly focused public media community extend within PBS as well as in the system,” she said. “I expect that every member of our team in Crystal City will focus their efforts to ensure that we are all working towards our common goal. Anyone that cannot be part of that vision will not be on the team.”

The pubcasting system has “an essential role to play in helping our country confront some of the most important issues of our times,” she said.

“If we don’t work together, if our system fails to thrive, I shudder to think about the impact this will have on our democracy,” Kerger said.

The meeting continues through Thursday at the Fontainebleau Hotel.

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