TV network stands alone as competitors go low-brow Rebirth of PBS

By David Bauder

AP Television Writer


Honey Boo Boo, the management at PBS wants to thank you.

You, too, real housewives. And naked castaways, Long Island princesses, breakaway Amish, storage warriors, pawn stars and pickers. People at public television may not want to watch you, but they are happy to see you.

When Discovery, The Learning Channel, History, Bravo, A&E and similar networks emerged, there was a real fear it could lead to the death of PBS. Each specialized network would pick off a portion of PBS’ audience for programs on science, nature, history and the arts. Founded as an alternative to commercial TV, PBS was losing what made it unique.

Yet in the past few years, these cable networks discovered that it was much more profitable to create reality TV stars. PBS’ path was cleared, and it is making the most of its new chance.

“It is now once again something that the viewer can’t get anywhere else,” said Beth Hoppe, PBS’ programming chief.

PBS’ viewership slipped steadily starting in 1993, which hardly made it unusual in a world with an ever-increasing number of choices. Since 2009, that trend has reversed. PBS’ average prime-time audience has ticked back up from 1.9 million four years ago to 2.1 million now, with the growth faster among young people. Certainly the sensation of “Downton Abbey” is a key factor, but the growth isn’t just on Sunday.

Western Reserve Public Media, which serves Northeast Ohio, including the Mahoning Valley, has also noticed the increase in viewership. Average half-hour household viewership has been steadily increasing since 2008, according to Don Freeman, programmer for the stations. The stations’ weekly cumulative numbers rose by 2 percent from 2008 to 2009, and 3.8 percent from 2009 to February of 2013.

Household viewing grew nearly 9 percent from broadcast year 2012 to broadcast year 2013.

“Just looking at a single month — February — between 2012 and 2013, our number of viewers has increased approximately 11 percent to over 370,000,” said Freeman, who added that weekly children’s programming grew 28 percent between those months.

Hoppe is trying to infuse PBS with new energy, make its projects more timely and get her colleagues to treat it as a television network instead of just a public service.

Hoppe worked at PBS stations in New Hampshire, Boston and New York City and remembers well the worries when new cable networks started.

“We were concerned that people would consider us irrelevant because we were no longer providing a service, or that we would no longer be perceived as providing a service that people couldn’t get anywhere else,” she said. Maybe PBS’ programs were better, but that might not matter, she said.

She left PBS to join the new wave, taking a job at Discovery to produce science programming for its networks. She knew it was time for something else when an executive asked her to go to Los Angeles to “add sex and celebrities” to the “Curiosity” series she was working on. Hoppe talked to old friend Paula Kerger, the president and CEO of the Public Broadcasting Service, to see if there was room for her if she returned.

There was, and by last December, she was made responsible for PBS’ programming department.

Hoppe cites Animal Planet’s mermaids shows as examples of something PBS would never do. “Mermaids: The Body Found” played like a documentary but was an admitted fake and was a huge success, spawning a sequel.

PBS, meanwhile, is a Snookie-free zone.

“It’s not that the programming is bad,” Kerger said. “It’s just different, that’s all. They’re in a different business.”

Hoppe has tried to make PBS more topical, ordering a lengthy examination of guns in America that ran a month after the Newtown, Conn., school shooting. She pushed PBS producers for programs looking at the Boston Marathon bombing, the meteorite that exploded over Russia in February and Superstorm Sandy.

“She comes to her job with a filmmaker’s sensibility,” said John Bredar, vice president of national programming at Boston’s WGBH, the largest supplier of PBS programming. “She understands things from the ground up as a producer, as opposed to someone who just commissions work. She’s someone who has a visceral understanding of what the market is like.”

In October, PBS’ “Frontline” is collaborating with ESPN for “Concussion Watch,” an investigation into health issues caused by violent collisions in the National Football League.

PBS will aggressively mine anniversaries as programming hooks. This fall brings an “American Masters” special on Billie Jean King 40 years after her “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match with Bobby Riggs and a show on “War of the Worlds” 75 years after the radio program incited panic. As with other networks, the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination will be given attention.

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