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Posted at 6:10 PM ET, 01/ 9/2011

PBS to new Congress: Americans think public TV is second best use of tax dollars

By Lisa de Moraes

PBS days at a TV press tour can be pretty controversial. This year, for instance, there was much debate as to whether PBS president Paula Kerger, during her Q&A, would be first asked:

a) Are you worried about federal funding, with a new GOP-controlled Congress coming in and all that backlash over National Public Radio's firing of Juan Williams over an appearance on Fox News Channel?

or

b) With public TV station KCET in Los Angeles - the country's second largest TV market - going rogue, are you worried other PBS member stations might follow suit?

If you put your money on a) you win - congratulations.

"With the new Congress coming in, and Bill O'Reilly, and the firing of Juan Williams [by National Public Radio]...coming in a little row, what's your outlook for continued public funding at PBS...In '94 there was a big worry that they'd cut off the funding and it seems even more dire in this cycle," a TV critic asks PBS president Paula Kerger right off the bat during her network's at-bat at Winter TV Press Tour 2011.

"Quite concerned," Kerger dives in, and PBS is working with its TV stations, that get the bulk of those federal appropriations, "making our case to the American public."

But Kerger already had done a bang-up job, de-clawing the question in her opening remarks, when she noted she's "extremely proud that for the seventh consecutive year, the public has named PBS the nation's most trusted institution, according to a national annual poll conducted by GfK Roper."

So, once she actually gets that first question, she smoothly refers back to that Roper poll which, she says, also captured some additional data about the public's feelings about federal support for public broadcasting:

"In fact, every year in those seven years [of the polling], with the exception of one, viewed public broadcasting as the best use of tax dollars, second only to the national defense," Kerger says. "And that one year we were actually viewed as important as the investment in national defense," Kerger says, coughing loudly - she has laryngitis - but with the easy assurance of one who has nipped something hot in the bud.

The other topic also had been turned into a softball question by the time it was lobbed at Kerger. That's because PBS's press-tour at-bat had very cleverly been opened with a Q&A for a cooking show called "Made in Spain" which is produced by the new PBS primary station in the Los Angeles area - the newly renamed PBS SoCal - formerly the Orange County-based PBS station KOCE.

"Made in Spain" is hosted by Spaniard Jose Andres, who says he came to this country 21 years ago and who movingly tells the TV critics, "I learned English watching PBS... I became a better citizen watching PBS...I became, I believe, a better father watching PBS...So when I saw myself the first time on PBS, I couldn't believe it - I really cried."

Kerger says she's "particularly proud of what's going on right here in Los Angeles" with overhauled SoCal station, which has "given us the opportunity to reevaluate how we can best serve the people of Southern California." PBS, she says did "everything that we could" to keep KCET in its member-station roster, and she "believed, until the very end, that we were going to come to an understanding."

Then Kerger wishes KCET well, saying "I really truly hope that they're successful because if they are, then it will just further serve the people of this community."

But, she also says that "The KCET thing," as one reporter put it, is an isolated case and "I don't see any other station that is poised to go down the same path as KCET."

And that was pretty much that.

By Lisa de Moraes  | January 9, 2011; 6:10 PM ET
Categories:  Winter TV Press Tour 2011  
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Next: PBS' corporate-sponsor-less "Masterpiece" to thank individual sponsors on-air

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