PBS is running the show at TCA summer press tour for the next two days, which includes previews of a Richard Linklater-focused episode of American Masters and Ken Burns’ The Vietnam War documentary. There’s also plenty of non-documentary content, like the new season of Victoria and the second installment of the Anne Of Green Gables trilogy. But a shadow in the form of a baggy-suited, wannabe despot looms over the proceedings, for it was only six months ago that Donald Trump announced his plans to rid the world of the arts—sorry, the National Endowment For The Arts and the National Endowment For The Humanities—as well as privatize the Corporation For Public Broadcasting, the government entity from which NPR and PBS get some of their funding.
This was one of several topics of discussion during this morning’s executive session, which PBS president and CEO Paula Kerger addressed at length. When asked just how the federal cuts will affect programming and availability, Kerger didn’t sugarcoat anything, telling critics that local stations (and viewers like you) would feel the brunt of the cuts. The CEO called this an “existential crisis for those local stations, particularly in Alaska. 50% of their budget comes from federal appropriation.” Kerger said there’s a fundamental misunderstanding among Congressional members (and pundits) about how federal money, which has remained level at $450 million for the last several years, is apportioned. This is why local stations have ”made concerted efforts to reach out to legislators. It’s really a public-private partnership.” “It’s important to keep this funding strong,” Kerger said, while also noting that, despite the “liberal” reputation PBS has attained, viewership is very much bipartisan. The organization’s repeatedly been voted the “most trusted national institution,” and with 1 in 5 people in this country living without cable or satellite, PBS plays an important role in keeping the citizenry informed as well as entertained: “For roughly $1.35 per citizen, per year, we present content that cannot be found anywhere else on TV,” Kerger said.
Before making that passionate and well supported plea, Kerger said that the budget process is a “dynamic situation,” whose “outcome is uncertain. We were not included in the administration’s budget. The House appropriations committee approved most of our funding, while the budget committee recommended ending federal support.” The matter will be back on the agenda after the August recess, and while PBS remains hopeful—Kerger noted the organization has longstanding support on both sides of the aisle—there are some tough discussions ahead, should the cuts be executed. “In terms of the mix of programs, we will continue to provide some mix, but we’ll have to look very hard at what we’re able to afford to bring forward,” Kerger said. Whether this means fewer dramas or documentaries is unknown at this time, but “if our resources are diminished, we’ll have to make hard decisions of what we’ll be able to do,” Kerger admitted.