Paula Kerger unveils performance series, highlights LBJ’s vision for public TV as a public-private partnership

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Rahoul Ghose/PBS

PBS President Paula Kerger addresses TV critics during the 2017 Summer Press Tour.

PBS President Paula Kerger ushered in the opening day of the Television Critics Association emphasizing that PBS’ mission of educating and being inclusive remains paramount.

While for some press tours Kerger has had to to counter politicians’ threats to slash funding for public broadcasting, she didn’t dwell on that in her Wednesday virtual executive session. Fundraising is a constant concern, she said, and for some stations government funding makes up half of their budget.

“I never make the assumption that this isn’t something that we need to continually work at,” Kerger said, referring to federal funding for public broadcasting. 

President Lyndon Johnson, whose legacy includes passage of the Public Broadcasting Act, envisioned public broadcasting as a public-private partnership, where federal funding “would ensure that we have public television stations in communities across the country, and that this would not be limited just by the economics of those areas,” she said. “I would argue that it’s even more the case now than it was when public broadcasting was created.”

During the nearly six-hour sequence of presentations, what came through is that public television continues to deliver a variety of programming that no other broadcast network attempts – documentaries and British dramas, a daytime schedule full of children’s shows, concerts and news.

The seven panels started with Ken Burns’ latest documentary series about what America did — and didn’t do — during the Holocaust. The six-hour PBS series, The U.S. and the Holocaust, debuting Sept. 18, examines what Americans knew, when they knew it, and why the country did not act sooner or welcome more Jewish refugees.

Interviews, including with several concentration camp survivors, historical documents and photos, are woven throughout in Burns’ signature documentary style. The film teaches that American newspapers were publishing articles from the beginning of Hitler’s rise and that anti-Semitism ran deep in the United States. At the same time, President Franklin Roosevelt did what he could — but he still had to work with Congress.

“I will not work on a more important film,” Burns said during the panel with his co-directors and producers, Sarah Botstein and Lynn Novick.

Also on the panel was writer, professor and editor Daniel Mendelsohn, who reminded everyone that such hatred isn’t consigned to history. He cited a Rhode Island restaurant’s “joke”  from earlier this week, when it posted to Facebook a photo of Anne Frank and an offensive line about ovens. 

Not all of the history presented was grim. Chuck D’s session on how hip-hop affected culture globally followed the panel on the Holocaust series.   

“I wasn’t surprised that rap took America by storm,” Chuck D said, reflecting on the 50 years of the genre. “And I wasn’t really surprised that hip-hop and rap music — and the terms are defined very clearly in this series — took hold in the rest of the world. It opened up a Pandora’s box of a life that was, you know, kind of shunned to the side when we had limited media.”

Fight the Power: How Hip-Hop Changed the World will premiere Jan. 31.

Additional documentaries discussed by panels were “Hazing,” premiering on Independent Lens Sept. 12, on the horrors of hazing at fraternities, and the two-part American Experience series American Lens: Taken Hostage, airing Nov. 14–15, on the 444-day long Iran hostage crisis. PBS also presented an American Masters biography of Roberta Flack that features interviews with the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Yoko Ono and Angela Davis and debuts Jan. 24. Another panel discussed “Tony: A Year in the Life of Dr. Anthony Fauci,” which premieres next spring.  

PBS unveiled a new primetime series that will premiere Oct. 7. Next at the Kennedy Center features performances recorded live at the center and spotlights trailblazers such as Charles Mingus and Joni Mitchell and the artists they inspired.

Kerger and speakers on many of the panels planned to convene in person in Pasadena, Calif., where TCA hosted its biannual press tours prior to the pandemic. But the uptick in coronavirus infection rates forced the TCA to hold its fifth consecutive tour virtually.

“The fact that we were able to bring forward our work during a time when production was complicated is indeed a great accomplishment,” Kerger said from her office over Zoom. “Like every other organization, we are responding in real-time to shifts in this media environment. All our roots are firmly planted in broadcast. We have been evolving to meet audiences on the platforms that they prefer, no matter the platform.”

Evolving in real-time is what Mstyslav Chernov chronicles for Frontline in “Siege of Mariupol,” which doesn’t have an airdate yet. Chernov continues to report and live through the siege.

“We just hear the sirens about 30 seconds before the strike happens,” Chernov told critics over Zoom from his home. “You have just enough time to walk away from the window.”

During her executive session, Kerger also announced details about an upcoming performance special featuring Ukrainian musicians. “This September, in partnership with the Metropolitan Opera and the Kennedy Center, we will share a powerful performance from the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra,” she said. The newly formed ensemble comprises Ukrainian musicians who are refugees from the war and other European artists.

As PBS follows through on its promises to better reflect a diverse country, Kerger announced a second season of Native America. The four-hour series profiles Native Americans who are carrying Indigeneous values forward to “revitalize language and renew culture,” said series producer Daniel Golding (Quechan) in a press release. Providence Pictures will deliver the series for broadcast next year. 

Additional strides in inclusivity include the new animated children’s series, Rosie’s Rules, starring a bilingual Mexican-American girl growing up in Texas. The PBS Kids series, which debuts in October, will be presented Thursday. Panels will also discuss historical documentaries about the Black experience in America: A pair of films by Stanley Nelson and Nicole London, Becoming Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Tubman: Visions of Freedom; and Henry Louis Gates’ new four-part series, Making Black America: Through the Grapevine.

This article has been updated to identify American Lens: Taken Hostage as a presentation of American Experience.

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