PBS’ plans for thematic programming will provide ‘cornerstones’ for station efforts

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — PBS Chief Programmer and General Manager Perry Simon unveiled several programming approaches at the PBS Annual Meeting Thursday, including thematic quarterly program initiatives planned up to several years in advance.

The initiatives “are curated collections of programs across all platforms built around specific content themes that are locked in and announced several months or even years in advance,” Simon said. They “will provide a cornerstone for station planning, development and engagement efforts, and will help you to stand out and compete in a crowded environment,” he said.

The announcement drew applause from the crowd of some 1,400 attendees, an Annual Meeting record according to PBS.

Another new approach Simon described is the presentation of annual “Beacon Events,” which will “shine a spotlight on PBS and your stations by galvanizing all our system resources,” he said. Simon said he’d like to build on the success of last season’s Great American Read, in which thousands of readers across America chose the country’s favorite novel.

“We need to ensure that at least once a year, PBS is a major part of the local and national conversation,” Simon said. Beacon Events “will also provide major rallying points for your engagement and development efforts,” so PBS is anticipating planning time of at least a year to ensure adequate coordination with stations, he said.

Simon said he also wants to focus on “recurring, affordable series that are personality-driven when possible” to complement icon programming. He cited Finding Your Roots, now in its sixth season, as a prime example. Host Henry Louis Gates Jr. “has truly become a bona fide face of PBS,” he said, and the show is one of PBS’ highest-rated. It also features a racially diverse range of guests.

“I can tell you from personal experience, establishing new series requires patience and faith,” Simon said. “It’s not for the faint of heart. But we can and we will get there.”

Simon also shared “a few fresh-eyed observations” on PBS content since his tenure began last September.

“Too much of our great programming gets lost amidst the clutter of consumer media choices,” he said. The network also needs to “LOL — no, not ‘laugh out loud,’ but ‘leverage our localism,’ and do it at every turn,” Simon said.

“We cannot out-market HBO,” he said. “We can never outspend Netflix. But we can out-localize anybody. Our budgets may be limited, but our mission is mighty. And our local engagement is our not-so-secret weapon.”

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