The Television Critics Association winter press tour for 2013 has been one of defensiveness when it came to most network heads. Brutalized by a fall that reduced everybody’s ratings—but for NBC, which went from “awful” to “not quite awful”—and a world in which the number one scripted drama was on cable and was about zombies. It was easy to see why everybody was running a little scared, why the whole house of cards seemed like it was about to fall apart. Hell, stodgy old CBS even took to bragging about how much better it would do if Nielsen’s C+7 numbers were counted, a position that would have been unthinkable from the network even two years ago. The broadcast networks are dissolving like Alka Seltzer in the water of modernity! All is lost! All will be ruined!
Into this post-apocalyptic landscape, atop a chariot of her fallen enemies, pulled by at least seven Romneys, rides Paula Kerger, president of PBS, the United States’ only public broadcaster and the new, unlikely king of all that the light touches. This is not to say that PBS is beating the other networks in the ratings—it isn’t, and its ratings are almost beside the point in its business model—but it is to say that PBS is the only network that’s entered the new year after a string of really good news.
The good news started sometime last year, with the excellent numbers for Downton Abbey and Sherlock, which gave PBS two terrific pieces to put alongside whatever documentary Ken Burns had thrown together that particular year. (This year, it’s Central Park Five, which he made with his daughter.) PBS has a fairly solid “viewer core,” but it rarely reaches outside of that core, because its programming—while probably the most consistently excellent in all of American television—isn’t immediately sexy and/or interesting. That’s all changed with Downton and Sherlock, which are shows that people who like to talk about TV like to talk about. The good news continued into election season, with Mitt Romney’s clumsy mention of Big Bird in the first presidential debate at once making people remember that, hey, they were favorably predisposed toward PBS and prompting plenty of articles about how PBS doesn’t eat up much of the federal budget anyway (and what little there is is mostly used to prop up rural member stations, rather than produce programming). Romney, of course, fell to Barack Obama, and since Democrats are generally friendlier toward public broadcasting than Republicans are, that provided another four years of something like protection in the White House for Kerger and her team. And, finally, Downton returned to its third season with just under eight million viewers to its name. Not bad.
What’s more, PBS is almost uniquely well-suited to surf the transition from the current TV landscape to the digital landscape. It brags endlessly about how many kids use its PBS Kids website and apps, and it also puts pretty much everything it airs online, just because. Because PBS sees very little benefit from airing its programming exclusively on television for any particular period of time, it puts most of its shows up online almost immediately after air. And they remain there for years. You can probably watch some Frontline you half-remember from 2003 right now, if you really want to, and PBS hopes that by being so nice and user-friendly, you’ll want to give it money. PBS pretty much treats TV viewers like they say they want to be treated—outside of airing Downton Abbey at the same time as it airs in Britain, because it doesn’t want the hassle of competing with fall TV, Kerger said—and it’s mostly ignored by the media and TV fans. (Seriously, the room the press tour is held in empties out every time PBS comes to present.) The entire business strategy of the channel relies on making people feel sort of guilty about not giving it money for all the great free content it provides, so that means it pays off for it to be as generous as possible. This means things can get very, very lean, but it also means that things right now are very, very good, if the bits and pieces of evidence around at the press tour are any indication.
The success of Downton and Sherlock has also prompted the network to expand to air more dramas. Call The Midwife didn’t really take off in the States like it did in the United Kingdom, but it was a solid little success for PBS, and it will anchor a new night of acquired dramas airing later in the spring, along with Jeremy Piven vehicle Mr. Selfridge (airing as part of Masterpiece) and ITV mystery series The Bletchley Circle. These sorts of shows are expensive to procure—particularly with more and more American broadcasters longing to grab good British content—so the fact that PBS is doubling down on this strategy either indicates that Downton and Sherlock have gone to its head, or the success of those programs is raising all boats. The network is also doubling down on its commitment to indie film, with an upcoming independent film festival. It’s even going to air 56 Up and Brooklyn Castle, two much-praised documentaries that might have gone to HBO in other years.
Kerger didn’t really say much in her presentation—her answer about the Kevin Clash situation was a masterpiece of evasion—but, then, she didn’t need to. PBS has stuck to the same strategy of British imports, kids programming, and documentaries for years now, with most of its most recognizable franchises—Masterpiece, American Masters, American Experience, Nova, Frontline, etc., etc., etc.—running well past their 20th seasons and its PBS Kids brand still going strong. (At one point in the day, a PBS Kids exec bragged about how the channel has the top six programs in the 2-5-year-old demographic, which you probably didn’t even realize was a demo.) Now, this won’t last long; nothing does in television. But thanks to smart programming, some good management, and the fact that the channel removes anybody with even the slightest hint of controversy, it is good to be PBS again. All must tremble before Big Bird’s mighty wrath!