Paula Kerger, President and CEO of PBS, appeared this week before the television critics to talk about the state of PBS and television now and in the coming years, the new Ken Burns film, and the 2009 nation-wide change from analog to digital TV. This year marks the 40th anniversary of Public Broadcasting and PBS has a diverse lineup of shows to fill the upcoming season, with their centerpiece being the 14+ hour film, The War, about World War II, by acclaimed filmmaker Ken Burns. Public Broadcasting leads the way in children's TV, but it is also a place for diverse and entertaining programming for people of all ages and backgrounds.
Paula Kerger: "Under the leadership of John Boland, our chief content officer, PBS is going where its viewers go. We're continuing to make our programming available on iTunes, YouTube, cell phones and other new platforms.
Today I'm pleased to announce that PBS, just this week, is doubling the size of its offering on iTunes. The new additions include award-winning Ken Burns documentary such as Jazz, as well as films from the Ken Burns: America and America Lives collections.
PBS is also streaming more programs online. Last month we began offering episodes of our weekly investigative journalism series Expose [America's Investigative Reports] online on Wednesdays, which is two days before our public television stations air the programs. This is just one of a number of experiments that we're conducting online."
While PBS is moving forward into the digital age, they are not cutting back on any part of their traditional programming. However, with the analog shut-off on February 17, 2009, Kerger expressed some concerns.
Paula Kerger: "I'll tell you something. I am more concerned about this from the consumer standpoint than I am from our stations. Our stations are pretty much ready. We have over the course of the last years spent a lot of effort doing capital campaigns in local communities to raise the money to make the transition, and so pretty much all of our stations are broadcasting in digital as well as analog.
What really worries me is that there is very little information in the press about the fact that February 2009 if you were someone that relies on over-the-air television, you need to do something in order to continue to receive television. You need to either connect your television to cable or satellite. You need to buy a new television set that receives digital signals or you need to buy a converter box that will allow your old rabbit ears set to receive a signal. Most people are not aware of that.
So I think that for us, because we're a public service broadcaster, we feel very strongly, not just for viewers of public television, but for those that really rely on over-the-air television -- and it's a lot, it's at least 15 percent of the country, and I think some people have this idea that it's just older people or poor people. It's not. A cross section of people around this country rely on over-the-air television. And also from a positive standpoint, stations like our public television stations are now broadcasting multiple signals through the ability of digital. So to be able to receive 20 or 30 channels of over-the-air television with great picture quality and great sound for the expense of buying a very cheap box, I think, to me, is a really interesting time for television.
And so I want to make sure that viewers know that they have options. And I want to make sure that in February of 2009 when we are ready -- when the federal government switches off analog and takes the spectrum back to be auctioned off, that the public is aware that they need to do something. It's not just people that rely just on over-the-air television. How many of you have that extra set in the extra bedroom or in the den or somewhere else? All of those sets are also affected.
And I understand a little bit the concern about talking about it too early because the set-top boxes aren't really in stores yet, and the government is still working through how they're going to manage a coupon program so people will be able to get them for reasonable expense. But it's not that long away. And so people really need to think about it. They need to be really careful when they're buying sets. You're not supposed to be able to buy a set that isn't digital compatible now, but I know there's some on the shelves. So consumers need to be aware as well that that really cheap set that they're seeing at an electronics store maybe isn't such a good bargain."
Ms. Kerger also stressed the importance of the upcoming TV event, The War.
Paula Kerger: "The number of World War II veterans that are leaving us, that are passing away at a rate of 1,000 a day, made us all realize that this is a part of our history that is just slipping between our fingers. And so we talked about whether this was really the kind of project, even in 14 and a half hours, that certainly is not going to cover the whole scope of World War II. In fact, there's at least one cable station that does spend a lot of time on World War II documentaries, The History Channel.
We felt that there were so many stories, because obviously World War II touched every part of this country, that to be able to use the power of local stations that are everywhere -- and in most communities, it's the only local broadcaster left. It's the only broadcaster that has this time with community to be able to tell local stories, as well as national stories, was just this great moment.
So the thing that is amazing about the series, besides the fact that I think it is, from a creative standpoint, is, I think, Ken's best work, and you'll judge that, obviously. But what the film has done, it has galvanized the largest outreach project that I certainly can remember in public television, and I would venture to say possibly the largest outreach project ever.
I'm aware of at least 40 local documentaries that have been done, telling local stories about World War II. I'm aware of over 100 oral history projects that have been done, many of them involving kids recording grandparents, great-grandparents, the guy down the street who fought in the war. It's interesting because one of the stories that Ken tells when he was working on this project, is that many people were telling their stories on film for the very first time.
This is a generation that came back from World War II and didn't talk about it. These local projects and these local oral histories have had the same experience. A couple of weeks ago I had the great honor of being in Washington when a group of 47 World War II veterans from Arkansas came in, and they had been part of a very big oral history project that has been underway state-wide. And several people came up to me after the event and said, 'My dad never told us the story of what happened in the war.'
And so to have this opportunity to document all this work -- we have a partnership with the Library of Congress, so there's a place that these oral histories will be housed, for me, has been one of the greatest experiences of my professional life, being associated with this project. I think that the legacy it will leave behind, not just as a broadcast event, but as a piece of our archive, is what I think public television has done so -- is just uniquely positioned to do."