It's been a re-invention era for PBS and its president

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Somehow, we don't expect change at PBS. We expect the same faces -- from Fred Rogers to English kings -- to be there eternally. But during her 12 years as head of the network, Paula Kerger has brought a subtle transformation. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

Lately, PBS has been
asking people to name their favorite book.

So let's aim that
question at the PBS president: What is Paula Kerger's favorite book?

“Every time I'm
asked that, I seem to have a different answer,” she said. “But
I'm starting to realize it's 'The Great Gatsby.'”

She's read it at
least three times -- PBS people are the ones who read – and keeps
finding something different. “It's beautifully written and speaks
to the power of re-invention,” she said.

That fits the fact
that Kerger and her network have been sharply re-invented. “This is
such an interesting time to be in the media .... It's a time when
everything seems new,” she said.

Sure, PBS has lots
of the old. It has the 30th season of “American
Experience,” 36th of “Frontline,” 40th of
“Antiques Roadshow,” 44th of “NewsHour,” 47th
of “Masterpiece,” 48th of “Sesame Street.”

But Kerger was soon
talking about the network's digital studio and an online emphasis
that ranges from kids' games to “Frontline” interview
transcripts. And PBS' line-up has made profound changes; it has:

-- Arts programs
every Friday. Some are documentaries, but viewers often can catch
theater or a concert – ranging this season from country to hip hop.

-- Other designated
nights – history and current affairs on Tuesdays, science on
Wednesdays.

-- A new, all-day
kids' channel. “If you've ever had a kid who's sick, you know how
important that is,” Kerger said. This isn't just fluff, she said.
“It's all built to help kids succeed in school” and in life.

-- And a surge of
Sunday drama. The night now has more shows and higher ratings.

In the process, PBS
has managed to be both sturdy and popular. One survey shows it's the
most trusted national institution; Nielsen shows it has jumped from
No. 15 to No. 6 in total audience.

You could argue that
Kerger has benefited from perfect timing. Her 12 years as president
have included the big boost that came when “Downton Abbey”
debuted in 2010. Her shows -- “NewsHour” and “Frontline” and
such – are part of the current surge in serious reporting.

“More Americans
are hungry for substance over soundbites,” she said, adding later:
“People are done with the Kardashians .... They're done with the
circus.”

Isn't this also a
promising era for women? “It still is a hard time for women in
media,” Kerger insisted.

You can't tell that
at PBS; as “Masterpiece” chief Rebecca Eaton put it: “This is a
network that is led by a strong woman -- and programming decisions
are made by Beth Hoppe, another strong woman.”

Women lead many of
the most substantial shows -- “NewsHour,” “Nova,”
“Frontline,” “Masterpiece” and more. When Charlie Rose was
dumped from latenight amid sexual-abuse accusations, Christiane
Amanpour was chosen to replace him, in a show that starts in July.

For Kerger, there's
also been personal re-invention. When PBS chose her a dozen years
ago, she was nearing 50 and had mainly worked in “development”
(fundraising, mostly), not programming.

Still, she says, the
interest was there. “I grew up (near Baltimore) in an area where we
didn't have a chance to go to a lot” of theater and concerts. But
the school arts program was strong; so was public-TV. Her favorites
were early “Masterpiece” and a local nature show called “Hodge
Podge Lodge.”

At the University of
Maryland, she switched from pre-med to business administration.
Kerger did development, including for the PBS station in New York.
She became its station manager in 2000 and COO in 2004, then moved up
in 2006; at 61, she's the longest-running president in PBS history.

An adopted New
Yorker, she knows life is different elsewhere. “When you look at
something like 'Hamilton,' you realize the relatively small number of
people who actually get to see it.”

So PBS did
“Hamilton's America,” a ratings success. It's done some full
musicals, the usual operas and dance shows and lots more pop
concerts. It has ranged from poetry to “The Great American Read,”
which chose Americans' 100 favorite novels and will eventually name
the No. 1.

It has re-invented
itself. Jay Gatsby would approve.