How PBS remains fearless in an era of rapid change in the digital media landscape

By Linda Strowbridge

Photography by Rachel Smith and courtesy of PBS

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Read Paula Kerger’s cover story in our digital magazine edition

It started with a trippy, auto-tuned video, featuring quaint scenes of puppets, gardens, musicians, model trains and, of course, an iconic cardigan.

Garden of Your Mind was the very first release from the newly formed PBS Digital Studios in 2012. The three-minute production set a remix of scenes from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood to music. The clipped, auto-tuned and ever-smiling Fred Rogers gently sang “it’s good to be curious about many things” because “you can grow ideas in the garden of your mind.”

“It was one of those things that felt so odd, but it was wonderful,” says Paula Kerger, president and CEO of PBS.

Kerger had recently launched PBS into an exploratory effort to find a suitable place for the venerable broadcaster in the emerging digital media world. She admits that public reaction to Garden of Your Mind was “a big surprise.”

“It immediately went viral,” Kerger says. “People at the time wrote, ‘This is not your parents’ PBS.’ But it was anchored in the core of who we are at PBS, and it hit a chord.”PBS_1

For Kerger, that one, short video, which has since registered nearly 12 million views on YouTube, ended up embodying a core principle for successful change management: Embrace and master new opportunities, but never let them separate your organization from its essence.

It is a principle that Kerger has exercised vigorously during her 10 years at the helm of PBS. In a decade packed with changes and challenges for all media outlets, Kerger has contended with the creation of game-changing digital platforms, the rise of reality TV and inflammatory political broadcasts, politicians who pledged to defund Big Bird, economic downturns that hurt PBS’s donor base, and an explosion of new viewing options that threatened PBS member stations.

Yet in those same years, Kerger has established PBS as a critically acclaimed player in the digital media space, expanded the broadcaster’s service to educators and children, leveraged social media to facilitate thoughtful debates about some of America’s deepest problems, improved relationships and heightened collaboration with member stations, and tapped new sources of funding and resources. Bolstered by some razor-sharp programming decisions, Kerger has also seen PBS rise from America’s 11th most watched channel in primetime to the fifth.

“Paula is the most effective media executive I have worked with in my nearly 30 years in media,” says Don Baer, chairman of the PBS board of directors, worldwide chair and CEO of the strategic communications firm Burson-Marsteller, a former senior executive vice president at Discovery Communications, and a former senior White House advisor to President Bill Clinton.

According to Baer and others, Kerger’s success has stemmed from her sharp vision, change management skills and an extraordinary ability to juggle the desires of diverse stakeholders with professionalism and grace.


A former executive with WNET/New York Public Media, Kerger joined PBS in March 2006 as just the sixth president and CEO in PBS’s history.

“It was daunting,” Kerger says. “This is an extraordinarily important institution with a great legacy … So I think you always feel a higher obligation not to muddle it up.”

In 2006, the digital revolution of the media industry was just beginning. The concept of streaming shows to computers (or smaller devices) was in its infancy, Kerger recalls, so the most striking development at the time was iTunes’ announcement that it would start selling episodes of Desperate Housewives for $1.99.

Under Kerger, PBS became an early player in the digital realm. The broadcaster scoured YouTube to find talented individuals who were creating intriguing content, and enticed some of them to come work for PBS.

“The ability to bring in people who work in the digital world, and put them alongside people who work in television, represented one of the most significant cultural experiments of my professional life,” Kerger says.

PBS television producers tended to labor over shows frame by frame in efforts to present audiences with near-perfect content. Digital producers, on the other hand, had embraced a more freewheeling practice of creating rapidly, posting draft content online, gathering reactions, then refining productions and reposting them.

“The idea of having those two perspectives in one organization, all touching content at the same time, was a little scary,” says Kerger. Digital producers “came to work in shorts in the wintertime, and you just worried that they were going to get killed by the perfectionists.”

At first, Kerger opted to keep those two populations separate. PBS formed a skunkworks group to focus solely on digital opportunities and conduct small experiments on a wide array of platforms. (PBS Digital Studios was among the products of this skunkworks effort.)
“Not making really big bets comes from that old Jim Collins adage of firing lots of shots until you hear something ping off the boat, and then you aim your missile,” Kerger says.

Although rooted in military tactics, that approach became an ideal model for risk management at a public broadcaster.

“Risk taking, particularly in a nonprofit organization, is really difficult because you are getting philanthropic support and you feel like you are always judged if you are not successful in everything you touch, and you worry the grants aren’t going to continue,” Kerger says. “But you have got to be willing to free up some money and experiment, encourage people to try things, not judge people if things don’t work, and share what doesn’t work so everyone can learn. All of that has been part of our culture.”

PBS_3Within the metrics-driven organization, PBS’s former head of digital even revised his performance review standards “to include a metric that measured the risk that employees were taking and encouraged them to demonstrate they had taken risk,” Kerger says. “He encouraged them to try things that were not necessarily going to succeed and then share the outcome.”

The overall approach to branching into digital media proved to be “hugely powerful,” Kerger says, and, for a while, made PBS the largest dot-org in the world. With the Mister Rogers-inspired tagline of “stay curious,” PBS Digital Studios grew into a large, innovative producer of original internet series for “people who never want to stop learning.” Today, more than 8 million people — 80 percent of them under the age of 34 — subscribe to PBS Digital Studios through YouTube.

Beginning with Frontline, PBS television producers began leveraging digital platforms to deliver expanded content, elicit feedback from viewers, attract whole new audience segments, and host deep conversations about difficult issues, including the Ferguson riots and racism in America. Meanwhile, PBS rolled out mobile apps, which have been downloaded nearly 44 million times to date, and forged partnerships with Comcast, Netflix, Amazon and other industry giants to facilitate streaming of its programs.

Ultimately, digital media developments both posed the greatest challenge to PBS over the last decade and provided its greatest opportunities for growth.


When your organization includes 349 member stations, 158 licensees, 83 community organizations, 52 colleges and universities, 19 state authorities and four local authorities, a central change-management strategy (no matter how brilliant) will never be enough.

Managing relationships with all the local entities that comprise PBS “is always an interesting dance,” Kerger says.

And it is a dance that hasn’t always flowed smoothly.

Kerger’s two predecessors at PBS came from commercial media and the Federal Communications Commission “and they had more challenges navigating that relationship because they didn’t fully understand that this is a media organization and a membership organization, and you have got to love both sides,” she says.

As a former executive of a PBS member station, Kerger recognized the value in the grassroots operations, community connections and local programming of member stations. Furthermore, she had lived the daily challenges of trying to fund local stations, deliver local content and deal with the national perspective and requirements of the PBS system. So she set out to improve communication and collaboration with local stations, and find new ways to support their operations.

When asked how often he hears from the head of PBS, Maryland Public Television (MPT) president and CEO Larry Unger snaps a deadpan reply: “I haven’t seen her since yesterday morning.”

Kerger, he says, “seems to be everywhere and she is always visiting local stations. She has probably been to every station in the system.”

Always approachable and eager to hear other people’s perspectives, Kerger has visited MPT multiple times to meet with management, the board and staff members, Unger says. She regularly takes time to attend fundraisers by member stations and travels to meetings of subgroups within the PBS system, such as the major-market stations, small-market stations and the Organization of State Broadcasting Executives.

“There used to be some disconnect between the stations and PBS before Paula became CEO. I credit her with curing that and making PBS a more station-centric organization,” Unger says. “Now, if PBS is thinking of trying something new, they are thinking, how does it impact the stations, how does it help the stations? That makes a huge difference.”

That kind of thinking has resulted in developments that have delivered tangible benefits to local stations. The broadcaster created PBS Passport — a member benefit that gives donors to local stations extended access to an on-demand library of PBS programs. PBS has also tailored its website to identify the location of visitors and direct them to the site of their local station. It has developed digital infrastructure and tools to enable local stations to create and distribute online content. It has also facilitated discussions among local station managers and digital content innovators so they can share both best practices and lessons learned from failed ones.

At a recent annual meeting, PBS leaders placed station general managers and members of its Young Professionals Workshop, a group of PBS digital innovators, together in a room for a visioning session.

“It was great,” Kerger says. “You heard a whole different level of conversation than you would have heard if you were just talking to the presidents of our stations. The room buzzed.”


Through all those changes, however, Kerger has held tight to the core mission of PBS.

“In this 10-year journey, I continue to learn things day by day by day,” Kerger says. “One of the most important lessons has been really understanding how to seed change and innovation at the same time as understanding what has to stay precious and whole, and making sure that you are managing around that.”PBS_5

Since the founding of PBS in 1969, that precious core has revolved around the delivery of high-quality programming that helps viewers learn new things, broaden their personal horizons and be informed citizens.

PBS, Kerger says, didn’t want to become “the Spinach Channel.” But it also didn’t want to follow recent trends of devoting more airtime to shock jocks, reality TV and political coverage that features screaming spin doctors.

“One of the biggest challenges has been, how do we continue to appeal to the widest number of people in the country while maintaining the quality of our content, not engaging in the race to the bottom and producing content that feels cheap, but respecting the audience’s intelligence and continuing to bring the country the very best there is on television,” Baer says.

Kerger’s clear vision and fierce devotion to the PBS mission has helped the broadcaster continue to produce top-quality content, Baer says. But so have her core management skills. Over the last 10 years, Kerger has tapped new sources of funding, forged new partnerships and found ways to efficiently, productively utilize resources.

During her tenure, the addition of Downton Abbey to the primetime lineup drew hordes of new viewers and additional dollars to PBS. Meanwhile, upgrades to the PBS News Hour, expanded arts programming, the hugely popular Ken Burns documentary series The Roosevelts, and the addition of historical dramas, such as Mercy Street, to the PBS roster impressed quality-seeking viewers.

In addition, PBS redoubled its commitment to a cornerstone of its work — children’s programming.

“Teachers are huge users of public television,” Kerger says. “For years, teachers have gone out and bought VHS tapes of PBS shows, and we have tried to send them beautiful, fold-out posters from our shows in hopes of reaching the right teacher at the right time in the year.”

Determined to provide a richer and more convenient stream of content, the public broadcaster created PBS Learning Media. A broadband pipeline to classrooms, Learning Media delivers on-demand more than 100,000 digital productions from PBS and its 205 partners, such as the Library of Congress, on topics aligned to standard curriculum and tailored to different grade levels.

In addition, PBS is currently preparing to debut 24/7 children’s services in early 2017. Provided by local stations, the free services include a new TV channel and a live stream on digital platforms.

“We are building in interactive games so that kids can watch the stream on their computer or tablet, then pause and play games,” Kerger says. “For kids, that is important. This kind of interactivity automatically increases the educational value of the content.”PBS_4

Kerger’s commitment to quality has paid off. Over the course of the 2014-2015 broadcast season, PBS was the fifth most watched channel in America. That season, its audience was significantly larger than some of its flashy competitors — 133 percent larger than the audience for Bravo, 120 percent larger than A&E, 79 percent larger than HBO, and 109 percent larger than CNN. According to Nielsen ratings, nearly 100 million people watch their local PBS station each month, and 71 percent of all kids aged two to eight watched PBS during 2014-2015. Online, pbskids.org is more heavily viewed than any other source of kids’ content and accounts for 47 percent of all time spent watching children’s videos, according to comScore Video Metrix.

Those signs of success, however, still don’t afford Kerger with much time for luxuries like sleep. She offers some advice to other CEOs who are facing a period of profound change.

“First, be brave. This is not always for the faint of heart,” she says. “You have to embrace change because there is no question that every industry is touched by it … You have to be willing to make the small bets and begin to piece your way forward. At the same time, you have to really understand the core of what you have to hold on to and not change. I think organizations get themselves into trouble on both sides. They lurch to a whole new direction because they feel that is where the tide is taking them, and they lose what made them unique to begin with. On the other side, you have organizations that are paralyzed by the amount of change and they just try to dig in. That’s also not going to end well.” CEO

Linda Strowbridge is a freelance writer based in Owings Mills, MD. Contact us at editorial@smartceo.com.


Over the years, PBS has been home to some legendary creative and journalistic forces: Ken Burns, Jim Lehrer, Julia Child, not to mention Big Bird.

But how, on a nonprofit broadcaster’s budget and amid all the pressures from donors, politicians and local stations, do you attract and retain the top talent needed to create distinctive, quality programming?

PBS president and CEO Paula Kerger shared a few effective practices.

Focus on mission

“The CEOs who are most successful in nonprofits are the ones who are able to create a sense of common purpose … and create a culture where everyone feels they are part of the team and striving to achieve the same goal and vision,” Kerger says.

PBS’s branding and internal communications consistently and enthusiastically convey its “essential mission to the American public” to provide the most trusted programming in the nation, to treat its “audience as citizens, not simply consumers,” to facilitate education, and to “invite everyone to explore new ideas and broaden personal horizons.”

Clear the road

“The other thing that is really important for a CEO is to clear the brush and make sure that people have the opportunity to do their best possible work,” Kerger says.

To create those opportunities, business leaders need to embrace a range of initiatives and behaviors. Leadership needs to stay open to new opportunities and take risks with emerging ventures, such as the multitude of small experiments that PBS embarked on to launch Digital Studios. Leaders need to re-examine corporate structures and look for opportunities to foster dynamic, inspiring groups that can surpass the limits of conventional thinking. PBS, for example, created a DigitalInnovators Group to explore leading-edge opportunities. It has also started forming cross-disciplinary teams to tackle big issues with fresh and diverse viewpoints.

And leaders have to be willing to break some rules to facilitate excellent work.

PBS, Kerger says, is “privileged to work alongside someone like Ken Burns… We allow him to do work, whether it has a huge audience or not, and manage his work so that if a program goes to 18 hours when we thought it was going to be 12, that’s okay.”

Embrace metrics

“We are a very metrics-driven organization,” Kerger says. “Every year, when we put together our goals and objectives, we try to pick a few areas where we are going to measure performance so that we can not just feel that we are doing something good, but see how we are moving the needle.”

PBS leadership, she adds, tailors those metrics so they “cascade throughout the organization” and so that all employees can clearly see how their work contributes to the success of the entire business.

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