One of the underreported TV stories of the past few years—right along with the rise of Univision and Telemundo—has been the resurgence of PBS. Yes, reporters dutifully write about the big ratings Downton Abbey and Sherlock pull every time they surface on American TV, but they mostly ignore the channel’s other offerings, outside of the occasional Ken Burns documentary. And yet the network’s ratings are up by five percent across the board—and 25 percent on Sundays specifically. As PBS President Paula Kerger said at her executive session this morning at the Television Critics Association press tour, Downton can only account for so much of that. Yes, Downton and Sherlock drew massive amounts of viewers to the network, but those viewers stuck around. They’re checking out some of the network’s more modestly rated hits, like Call The Midwife and The Bletchley Circle (which will return in 2014). And they’re tuning in for the network’s stalwart programs like American Masters and Nova.
Now, to be sure, PBS’ ratings going up five percent doesn’t get it anywhere close to the range of The Walking Dead. But the slow steady build of the network has been weirdly heartening in a television culture where, more and more, that which is bland and without personality rockets to the top of the Nielsen charts. PBS’ programming certainly has a fair bit of sameness to it, but the network has still built its success on imported British dramas and documentaries about news, history, and science. Even its reality shows—programs like Antiques Roadshow and the upcoming semi-spinoff Genealogy Roadshow—are programs that use a reality framework to discuss topics of historical interest. PBS isn’t going to take over the world any time soon, but after a decade in which its need to exist has been called into question again and again, it’s heartening to see that it’s succeeding largely by sticking to its game plan.
To be sure, some of the reason the network can count itself as a success is because it doesn’t have to chase advertising dollars, thus meaning it can be just fine with an overall Nielsen households number, instead of chasing any specific demographics (though its demo numbers are also up). Anyone of any age could become a “viewer like you” and make a charitable donation to their local station or PBS as a whole, and successes like Downton make corporations more likely to jump in and underwrite some program or another. Both of these factors have surely contributed to the network’s recent successes, as has a political climate that’s at least marginally friendlier to the network. (Even if Republicans in Congress somehow succeeded in convincing the President to defund PBS, it wouldn’t stop the network’s programming but, rather, various local stations that are unable to be self-sufficient, mostly in rural, sparsely populated areas.) But the network is also helped by largely sticking to its plan. Downton or no Downton, things move slooooowly at PBS, and that means change comes only incrementally.
This also means that Kerger’s executive sessions tend to be rough spins on the same basic topics, over and over again. For instance, the subject of Downton Abbey airing day and date in the United States with its airing in the United Kingdom came up yet again, and Kerger yet again suggested this was unlikely to happen, because PBS has had such good fortune delaying the program to several months after. (When she said that the Downton third season finale aired on Christmas Day, there were audible gasps in the room, and it’s not completely certain whether they were gasps at the thought of a new show airing on Christmas—unusual in the U.S.—or at the thought of a finale filled with tragic events airing on the holiday.) Those who will torrent Downton will torrent it, and PBS seems to have accepted this as a cost of doing business, especially since the show has very nearly set ratings records for the network. Only The Civil War performed better. Kerger seemed slightly more open to airing Sherlock day and date with the U.K., but only slightly. At the very least, the question is still open, though Sherlock fans probably shouldn’t cross their fingers.
When it came to one other major bit of PBS controversy, Kerger had less to say. Independent Lens’ cancellation of an airing of the film Citizen Koch—which some have alleged was because of a donation to PBS on the part of the Koch brothers—was something she knew nothing about, thanks to how PBS is structured, with individual member stations and producers having more say over content than the national office, which mostly selects these programs for national rebroadcast, then airs them. All Kerger knew was that Citizen Koch had major differences between the film pitched to Independent Lens producers and the film that emerged from the filmmaking process. She could not further explain what those differences were.
There were bits and pieces of new information here and there. Kerger was pleased to announce the first all-female anchor team on NewsHour, with Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff settling in both as co-anchors and as managing editors for the program, which Kerger hopes will allow them greater autonomy over the program than some anchors have over their own news broadcasts. She also announced two major new documentary projects in Coming Back With Wes Moore, which will focus on returning veterans and their struggles to readjust to life back home with the help of the titular New York Times reporter and best-selling author, and How We Got To Now, hosted by science author Steven Johnson and exploring the history of “great ideas.” Both series will debut in 2014.
Kerger also dropped one tantalizing hint around the session’s midpoint: PBS might get back into producing its own original drama, instead of simply acquiring series from overseas to air here. What that would look like was another thing Kerger didn’t talk about, but she did cryptically say that the network was looking at spaces where other networks weren’t programming, that it saw some gaps where it might have the most effect and was considering programming toward those. PBS hasn’t produced original American drama in decades, but with recent successes—and the way that original dramas have helped so many other networks right their own courses—it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the network enter that space. But what could she mean? Anthology dramas? Westerns? Earnest musicals about zookeepers? Given how slowly things change at PBS, we may not know for another several years.