PBS President says no major retooling needed for public TV, but mulls adding pay-TV service

PBS President Paula Kerger said today she disagreed with Bill Moyers’ call for a national meeting to reconsider and re-define U.S. public broadcasting.

Moyers called for a “constitutional convention” to spur a “rebirth” of public television and radio, in a speech this month to public TV executives.

“The core problem,” said Moyers, “is that we still don’t have an expansive national vision of what we’re about, where we want to go and what we want to become. Until we are able to say clearly and comprehensively what it is we really want to do, how much it will cost, and how we intend to get there, we can’t blame Congress, the White House or even the foundations for not supporting us more fully.”

But PBS’ president, speaking today on KQED Radio, did not support Moyers’ call to action.

“I’m not sure I agree with him,” Kerger said.

But at the end of the program, Kerger said that to raise money, PBS is considering a “subscription model” that would enable paying subscribers to have access to “a larger library” of archived material.

And just as viewers now pay monthly fees to receive HBO or Showtime, Kerger said some new PBS programs might be available “for a fee,” which she said was similar to PBS selling DVDs of its programs.

Most immediately, Kerger said she wants to focus on financial problems faced by rural stations.

“We run the risk of stations going off the air,” said Kerger. “The station in Flint, Michigan, went bankrupt. The station in Waco, Texas, went bankrupt.”

PBS stations in major cities receive only a small percentage of revenue from government funding, she said, but rural stations may rely on the government for half of their operating budget.

“Those communities would not be able to replace that money,” she said, if government funding disappeared. And while most discussion is focused on federal support, many states have cut funding for public broadcasting, reducing or eliminating local service in their communities.

At the same time, Kerger said public TV faces declining support from foundations and corporations, because of the difficult economy.

“Corporate underwriting has been strained,” Kerger said, specifically noting Chevron’s decision to withdraw $2 million in support to the News Hour.

“Is there a role for the rest of the system?” she asked, suggesting larger, richer stations might help to save rural service.

Listeners calling into the KQED program were highly critical of fundraising drives and of underwriting announcements that seem indistinguishable from advertisements on commercial TV.

“We wrestle with this all the time,” she said. “But that kind of support is what it takes to bring programs to air.”