Hoppe’s PBS legacy includes ratings jump, innovative production deals

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Scott Henrichsen/PBS

Hoppe said collaborating with filmmaker Ken Burns was among her favorite memories of working at PBS.

The chief programmer who pulled PBS from 12th place to sixth in primetime ratings, and brought high-profile BBC documentaries and American drama back to public TV, is leaving for ABC News next week.

Beth Hoppe, PBS chief program executive since 2012, said the job offer to oversee all long-form programming at ABC News was too good to turn down.

Station programmers and general managers expressed surprise at Hoppe’s sudden departure. An advisory group of programmers had just wrapped up two days of meetings at PBS headquarters Feb. 9 when the network announced that Hoppe will join ABC News as SVP for long-form programming within weeks. Some were bereft by PBS’s loss.

For Hoppe, the new job is “a big stage, a big job” and an opportunity to return to the nitty-gritty of production, she said.

That’s how she first started making waves at PBS, recalled Alan Foster of Executive Program Services, a former colleague.  As a producer for New York’s WNET, Hoppe built the popular historical reality shows Colonial House and Frontier House.

PBS is like “a giant supertanker,” he said. As PBS’s chief programmer, Hoppe was able “to turn it, to change direction.”

The job is one of the highest-ranked and most influential positions in public television, and Hoppe excelled at it.

“We would have liked the opportunity to have acknowledged that, and to have said, ‘Thank you and good luck and goodbye,’” said Sherri Walton, program manager at Idaho Public TV, who was heading home from the PBS meeting when she learned that Hoppe would depart on Feb. 28.

“I have always appreciated Beth,” Walton added. “She is very approachable. I’ll miss her humor and candor. And her very great eye for quality and for what people want.”

For her second stint in public TV, Hoppe joined PBS in 2011 after working at Discovery as an executive producer. She was well known to programmers and producers, and her assignment was to assist with a revamp of the prime time schedule. A year later, she was promoted to chief program executive, where her production experience, fat Rolodex and willingness to take risks fueled PBS ratings growth.

Even those observers who questioned some of Hoppe’s choices as top programmer acknowledge PBS has a tall order in recruiting her successor. The job increasingly involves complex balancing of traditional broadcast distribution with digital streaming rights, of satisfying competitive demands for the most compelling high-profile content and the ambitions of producers seeking a national audience through PBS.

Questions about how those tensions are playing out within PBS — and whether a battle with PBS Digital was behind Hoppe’s decision to leave — intensified hand-wringing about her exit.

Hoppe denied any infighting and said the speculation likely reflects “system-wide anxiety about how those things work together. “

“I work really closely with the digital folks. That is kind of surprising for me to hear,” she said.

Rahoul Ghose/PBS

Hoppe, who is passionate about science programming, speaks with Capt. Scott Kelly and astronaut Jessica Meir about PBS’ Beyond a Year in Space at the Television Critics Association press tour in July 2017.

Still, she acknowledged challenges in “breaking down the silos” and her own “strong feelings” on the role of digital. She views the dynamics in practical terms. “I don’t see digital as some magical realm where wizards and unicorns exist. I think it is an amazing world for distribution and where you can experiment with new types of formats,” she said.

“When there are limited resources, everybody is tense about having enough to do what they need to do,” Hoppe said. “Our budget process is very transparent.” The National Program Service budget that she oversees is much larger than PBS’s digital expenditures, and there’s been no change in that during her tenure.

PBS’s content budget this fiscal year provides $147 million for general audience programming including the NPS, according to a document circulated to stations last spring. Hoppe manages around $110 million of the general audience budget, according to a PBS spokesperson, and the digital team oversees a smaller portion that supports digital content and promotion.

Digital product development and support, such as the PBS Passport streaming service and the recent redesign of PBS.org, are funded through a separate digital budget of $23.8 million.

PBS President Paula Kerger described Hoppe as “a great partner” of PBS Digital chief Ira Rubenstein. “They worked beautifully together,” she said.

Kerger hasn’t hired a search firm to recruit Hoppe’s successor, but expects to choose one “sooner rather than later,” she said. “It’s a critical position.” She’s already hearing directly from media execs who are interested in the position.

Kerger’s looking for programmer who understands the TV business and how digital streaming is transforming it, she said. The successful candidate has to realize that the job “is not just scheduling Mondays at 8, but how to work together with digital to build something bigger.”

“But I also really want someone who understands PBS and our system,” Kerger added. “Someone who embraces our way of connecting with the public. They need the right energy, creativity and vision.”

During the transition, Kerger and COO Jonathan Barzilay will work with the programming team, with her deputy taking on a bigger role. Barzilay is not in the running for the position, Kerger said.  “He already has a big job.”

‘I love a big audience’

In the newly created position of ABC News SVP for long-form content, which Hoppe starts March 5, she will negotiate the world of TV programming and distribution strategies from a different vantage point. The job opportunity came up “completely unexpectedly,” she said.

A former colleague who works at ABC News had urged Hoppe to apply.  “I didn’t pay too much attention. I have a great job,” she said. But then a recruiter called.

“The job sounded fantastic,” Hoppe said. “It’s an amazing opportunity. I love a big audience,” she said. “It is well compensated and exciting. It was an embarrassment of riches.”

She’ll be overseeing all long-form programming, including Lincoln Square Productions, 20/20 and digital features. Lincoln Square produces documentary series, specials, live events and scripted dramas for ABC and outside networks including VH1, NatGeo, Netflix, Hulu, Travel Channel, HGTV and Discovery, where Hoppe has worked before.

There is pretty much no bigger sandbox than ABC parent Walt Disney Co.

Disney’s Marvel division just saw Black Panther earn a cool $200 million on opening weekend at the North American box office. Hoppe noted that Disney recently agreed to buy most assets of 21st Century Fox for $52.4 billion.

“They are really trying to figure out their future in streaming,” she said. “So it’s such an interesting time to join that company.”

In announcing Hoppe’s arrival, ABC News President James Goldston called her “a brilliant producer and exceptional storyteller, who has led PBS to new creative heights and commercial success.”

Hoppe said she also jumped at a chance to return to her roots in production.

“If there was something I missed [at PBS] it was being in the edit room, really getting into the nitty-gritty of content. While this is a big job, I will be closer to it and will be building a studio,” she said.

Hoppe has been commuting between PBS headquarters in Arlington, Va., and New Hampshire, where she and her husband bought a house three years ago. They’ll move to a one-bedroom apartment near Central Park. “I lived in the New York area for 17 years,” she said. “That was another big attraction” of the ABC job.

Hoppe’s legacy

Erik Heinila/PBS

Hoppe backed the Civil War series Mercy Street, a rare scripted drama on PBS.

At PBS, Hoppe described her proudest achievements as the 2015 co-production deal with the BBC; production of Mercy Street, the network’s foray into original American drama; and working with Ken Burns on innovative rollout strategies for The Roosevelts and The Vietnam War.

“Those would be my three tops,” she said.

The BBC deal revived a long-term partnership disrupted in the late 1990s when the British pubcaster entered an exclusive first-look relationship with Discovery. When that expired, Hoppe moved in. In 2015, she struck a deal to acquire 20 hours of nonfiction programming annually, involving eight to 10 new series or specials, for PBS. It includes the nine-part global series Civilizations premiering this spring.

Craig Cornwell, the recently retired head of programming of Kentucky Educational Television, called the BBC deal “really innovative.” It strengthened the PBS lineup with programs such as Big Blue Live, celebrating California’s Monterey Bay marine sanctuary, Wild Alaska Live and specials for Nature.

Kerger described Big Blue Live as the best example of Hoppe’s willingness to take risks. “That was live TV,” she said. “We were just hoping that whales would show up.”

Produced from the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary and a nearby aquarium in 2015 using innovative film technologies, the multi-platform event brought scientists, animal behaviorists together for three nights of live programming on the migration of marine creatures along the coast of California.

Harald Bachmann

Chris Kratt of the PBS Kids show Wild Kratts co-stars with a regal bald eagle in Wild Alaska Live, a PBS co-production with the BBC.

Foster, who worked with Hoppe when she was a producer at Boston’s WGBH, credited her with improving PBS’s ability to respond to timely events. When she arrived, in 2011, PBS programmers worked on extremely long lead times, he said. A documentary about Apple CEO Steve Jobs, which was in the production pipeline when the tech pioneer died, was put on a fast track under her direction. Steve Jobs: One Last Thing debuted two weeks later, a turnaround that until then was “just unheard of,” he said.

Hoppe also set a higher bar for producers to deliver engaging programs, Foster said, noting a previous willingness at PBS to accept any “dusty show about the Middle East” and pass it off as interesting.

Kelly Luoma, a program manager at consultancy TRAC Media Services, said Hoppe focused on how content resonated with viewers and opened PBS to all kinds of producers. She also “brought programmers back into the conversation” about PBS scheduling strategies, listening and responding to their gripes.

When stations asked PBS to push Tuesday repeats of The Vietnam War to from 8 to 9 p.m. — a move that involved complex juggling — Hoppe got it done, Luoma said.  “That was the beauty of Beth and her team … conversation and responsiveness,” said Luoma.

During Hoppe’s five seasons as PBS chief programmer, primetime ratings were 10 percent higher on average than before her 2012 promotion into the job, Luoma said, citing TRAC’s audience research. Hoppe managed to grow audiences at a time when broadcasters and cable were seeing double-digit declines.

The increase extended beyond the success of Downton Abbey, the Masterpiece blockbuster that concluded its six-season run in 2016, she said. “It wasn’t just Downton Abbey,” Luoma said.

Hoppe drilled down into the nuts and bolts of the primetime schedule, looking at every night and every genre, Luoma said. “She put pressure on producers to think about their series. And she was someone who has sat in their shoes.”

GMs offered less enthusiastic reviews. Steve Bass, CEO of Oregon Public Broadcasting, wants PBS to invest more in its homegrown producers.

“There’s a shortage of money, and a lot of the money is going outside of the system,” he said, citing the contraction of stations producing national programs for PBS. “Thirty years ago there were a dozen producing stations,” he said. (OPB was among them.) Now there are three: WGBH, WNET and WETA in Washington, D.C.

PBS goes through cycles of being “more open to content being produced by stations” and looking less favorably on their projects, said Ron Pisaneschi, GM of Idaho Public Television. Under Hoppe, it became harder for stations to sell their ideas to PBS, he said. The focus on fewer higher-profile titles with bigger promotion and marketing budgets involved riskier investments than most stations could afford.

Luoma attributed the decline in station-produced programs to the costs of national content and the challenge of finding underwriters — “not by anyone closing the door.”

In Pisaneschi’s view, Hoppe brought special knowledge and experience to the chief programmer’s job. She understands the economics and relationships of public television and knows where the talent is, he said. That combination of skills will be hard to replace.

Station programmers are anxious for PBS to initiate a search.

“We’ll soon be announcing our summer schedule and putting in the final pieces of what I hope will be our fall schedule,” said Luoma. Hoppe’s successor “needs to be put in place quickly. I hope it’s not a long, drawn-out process.”

Unified windowing strategy

For her successor to move PBS forward, Hoppe said, managing program releases for broadcast and digital will be key. “The most important things we have to work on is our windowing strategy,” she said. “It has to be unified strategy across platforms.” Balancing revenue “to coordinate our release of content … is a system-wide challenge.”

Pisaneschi also described digital rights management as a challenge for the next chief programmer. Pledge needs to become “a cohesive whole,” he said, meaning that PBS must get better at pledging regularly scheduled shows.

And PBS will have to rethink how much longer a schedule, in the traditional sense, will matter. “People are watching stuff when they want,” Pisaneschi said. “So is it interesting to have promotion coalescing around a debut on, say, a Tuesday night? Appointment television will be with us a little bit longer, but how important is it?”

“It’s a tough job in many ways because you don’t control all the levers,” said Bass. He thinks PBS’s next program chief should concentrate on news and journalism, finding a way to bridge national and local news like NPR does with All Things Considered and Morning Edition.

If she had stayed at PBS, Hoppe said, she would want to focus on programs that build on connections with local stations, such as the multiplatform project The Great American Read that launches in May. It includes an eight-part PBS series, digital content and social media campaign, and offers local tie-ins with stations and local partners.

“We have, I believe, invested pretty well and have a good robust pipeline coming, so I hope there is an opportunity for someone to take a breath and listen and get to know the corners of our system,” said Hoppe.

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