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Fall preview: PBS

With 111 daytime, primetime, and news & documentary Emmy nods under its belt this year, PBS has a lot to live up to going into 2010. John Wilson, senior VP & chief TV programming executive for PBS, spoke with realscreen about how the public broadcaster measures its success and gave us a sneak peek at the fall season.
August 24, 2009

With 111 daytime, primetime, and news & documentary Emmy nods under its belt this year, PBS has a lot to live up to going into 2010. John Wilson, senior VP & chief TV programming executive for PBS, spoke with realscreen about how the public broadcaster measures its success and gave us a sneak peek at the fall season.

What can we expect from PBS in the fall season?
It delivers on our mandate to inspire, enlighten and educate the American public. I think really [it's the] richness of it, when you have everything from a big Ken Burns series [The National Parks: America's Best Idea] kicking off the fall for us, to very smart programming that Sesame Workshop has made for families on how to talk about and deal with the economic crisis that so many are dealing with [Families Stand Together: Feeling Secure in Tough Times], to Latin Music USA, a historical look at American culture through the lens of the symbiotic relationship between Latin Music and American culture, and how they’ve each benefited from the other. Then [there's] smart science from NOVA with its miniseries Becoming Human.

The mandate for PBS is to serve the needs of its member stations and audiences. What are PBS’ audiences looking for right now?
What we hear from the audience is they like the fact that we’re a variety service. We’re not just a niche channel honing in on one color in the spectrum, but we offer a full rainbow of content. They also like the fact that they can trust the content they find on PBS. Year after year that’s an important measure for us and it’s something we try to gauge.

Other networks’ content lives and dies by ratings. How does PBS measure its success?
It comes in multiple forms. We certainly like to know who’s watching us and how they’re using us just so we can make the service as accessible as possible. But we like to look at a handful of things. Awards are important to us as a barometer and an endorsement from other people. Things like the number of [Emmy] nominations in news and public affairs is really terrific. The Peabody Awards is another place where public television’s producers really shine.
We also like to see how we’re measuring up in terms of people talking about us. We’ll take a look at the amount of ink that’s generated for a given show over an entire year. Then finally, at the station level, we check in with them and ask them to tell us what they’re hearing from their viewers.

What advice do you have for a producer wanting to work with PBS?
[First,] watch PBS and make sure you have a sense of the kind of approach that we take and how we speak to the audience. Not so that you can then mimic it, but that you can be sure that you’re approaching your content and your audience in the same way. Then, I always think it’s good to come and check out pbs.org both as a viewer and as a producer. We offer a lot of information at pbs.org/producers that provides them with how to submit to PBS, where some sources of funding might be found, what our technical specs are, and what our underwriting guidelines are.

About The Author
Selina Chignall joins the realscreen team as a staff writer. Prior to working with rs, she covered lobbying activity at Hill Times Publishing. She also spent a year covering the Hill as a journalist with iPolitics. Her beat focused on youth, education, democratic reform, innovation and infrastructure. She holds a Master of Arts in Journalism from Western University and a Honours Bachelor of Arts from the University of Toronto.

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