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'Frontline' is on the Front Line of Where PBS Wants to Be During the Coming Year, PBS CEO Vows
February 9, 2021  | By Alex Strachan  | 11 comments

Just as there are known knowns and known unknowns, there are facts, and then there are non-facts.

And then there are alternative facts. Or are there?

Paula Kerger, president and CEO of PBS, struck a defiant note in a Zoom conference call this past week with TV critics. On the back of defining seasons for PBS news programs FrontlineWashington Week, and PBS NewsHour, Kerger insisted that public television was — and remains — an island in a sea of disinformation and, in some cases, outright misinformation.

"We are proud of our work to provide trusted, fact-based journalism leading up to an election and throughout the inauguration," Kerger said.

PBS's chief executive noted that the calm, measured approach of public broadcasting's flagship newscast, NewsHour, was particularly prominent during the Jan. 6 siege on the Capitol Building in Washington, DC.

"This commitment to editorial integrity is especially important in this climate of misinformation," Kerger said. "It's one of the reasons PBS and our member stations continue to be the most trusted national institution, for 18 years running."

Far from becoming irrelevant in the age of Netflix and other streaming services, public broadcasting is now more important to the public conversation than at any time in recent history, she insisted.

"As we reflect on the past year, there are lessons from this extraordinary time that inform public television's path forward," she said.

The key words are calm and measured. And an emphasis on facts rooted in verifiable truths.

"(We) have an important role to play in . . . creating a space for civil discourse, and sparking conversations about where we go from here."

Kerger noted one of the most critical challenges facing PBS during the coming year would revolve around "the national dialogue about race and racism."

Public television is in a unique position to effect meaningful change, she added. Upcoming programs include Voice of Freedom, the latest film in the American Experience showcase, premiering Feb. 15; The Black Church: This is Our Story, This is Our Song from Henry Louis Gates Jr. (top) on Feb. 16 and 17; and the contextual  Tulsa: The Fire and the Forgotten, about the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre viewed through the prism of other racial massacres and police killings, debuting in late May.

Kerger said these programs and others would focus on the discussion around the issues of bigotry, injustice, and inequality.

"When I look at Frontline, in particular, there are a lot of very hard-hitting documentaries coming up that are really asking the hard questions we need to address and wrestle with as a country.

"I don't worry about scheduling and (second-guessing) producers about programs and series like Frontline, because when you worry about government funding, I think if you start to go down that path, you're done."

Frontline is "the most important series that we have on our air," Kerger said.

"If you're asking hard questions during this complicated time in our history, a lot will come up. That's what we need to do, though: reflect on this time we're in and try to put it in a context that people can see as a first step, or even half-step, towards how we get together as a country and where we go from here.

"When you look at what's happened to investigative journalism in this country, Frontline is one of the last standing."

Kerger is PBS's longest-serving president and CEO, having first joined PBS in 2006. Far from being the weakest link in broadcasting during the age of streaming, under Kerger's tenure, PBS has vaulted to being the 7th most-watched network in the US, up from 14th place just a decade ago. More than 85% of US households tune into a PBS program at least once during the calendar year.

Americans now view an average of 255 million videos a month across PBS's network of online, mobile, and connected-device platforms, according to the broadcaster's figures.

As PBS's longest-serving CEO, it was inevitable that the question about her longevity would come up.

"I don't know," Kerger replied dryly. "Do you want me to go soon?

"Look, I have to tell you there is no one more surprised than I am that I've been at this job as long as I have. I remember, when I was first interviewing for this job, a board member at PBS asked me, 'Do you think you could do this job for ten years?' And I thought, 'There is no frigging way I am going to do this job for ten years.' And here it is, almost 15. "At any point that someone taps me on the shoulder and says, 'I think your time is up,' I would happily hang up my skates and pass the keys over to the next person, who I'm sure will do an even better job. Right now, though, I think this is an amazing time, and I feel so privileged to be part of this system."

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