Thomas J. McLean is an AwardsLine contributor.
Last August, just a month after PBS had earned 58 Primetime Emmy nominations — including 16 for breakout hit Downton Abbey — presidential candidate Mitt Romney told Forbes he would eliminate the $445 million federal subsidy for public broadcasting if elected president. But while candidates and voters still remain divided on the political value of public broadcasting, the TV Academy is decidedly on PBS’ side. Last year, PBS was the third most-nominated network, and Downton Abbey earned the network its first nomination in the best drama series category since Upstairs, Downstairs, which won the statuette in 1977.
PBS president and CEO Paula Kerger says the attention was welcome, but insists PBS is doing nothing different. “We’ve stayed focused on our core, which is to create quality content that connects to people,” she says. Kerger believes critics who say commercial networks would air these shows without a government subsidy might, in some cases, be right. But she argues that a show like Downton is successful in part because it is on PBS. “We have on Sunday nights an audience that really loves this kind of programming, so we were able to build on an existing audience and add into it,” she says. How long PBS can maintain its trendy status is unclear, but its place as an Emmy favorite is unlikely to change as long as it continues to air projects like Ken Burns’ documentary The Central Park Five. “I am not sure that film would find the kind of home that it did on public broadcasting,” says Kerger. “(PBS) exists for people that are interested in work that is engaging but is also educational and inspiring, and that’s a different mandate than other cable organizations or broadcasters have.”