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PBS holds its annual meeting inside Austin city limits

Efficiency is a primary topic at meeting, which now combines fundraising and programming conferences.

Dale Roe
Paula Kerger is president, CEO of PBS.

A thousand public television station managers, programmers, producers and interactive and fundraising professionals are in Austin for the PBS Annual Meeting, running through Thursday at the Hilton Austin hotel.

Attendance is higher than anticipated, said PBS president and CEO Paula Kerger. "I think that's a testament to the work that we're doing, but I think it's also a testament to Austin. I think people were really looking forward to coming to Austin, and we're looking forward to being there with them."

This is the first time the gathering has come to Austin, and Kerger said several factors made the city a good fit.

"I think there's something appropriate about doing a meeting in Austin given our heritage with Lyndon B. Johnson, and I think that — particularly this year, as we're coming off of the 40th anniversary of signing of the Public Broadcasting Act — being in Austin felt like a good place to be," she said. "Plus, we love the station there and we love 'Austin City Limits.' "

The gathering combines programming and fundraising conferences that had previously been separate events. Carrie L. Johnson, PBS' senior director of communications, said the merger of the two events was "as much efficiency as cost-saving effort and allows more cross-sharing between different disciplines."

Efficiency is on the network's mind in a tight economy, Kerger said.

"This has been a tough year for everyone," she said. "We have had to make some very hard choices because we don't have the resources that we wish we had to develop everything. We're really trying to make sure that we're investing the resources that we have as efficiently as possible."

Nationally, the network reduced staff and made other cuts. A year ago, Austin PBS affiliate KLRU made cuts including layoffs and pay reductions. Things are worse at other some affiliates: At the end of this month, Waco's KWBU will sign off after 20 years, the victim of a $400,000 revenue gap.

Kerger said that philanthropy is up a bit and the network is beginning to see "a little more corporate money, but I think it's going to be a longer path before we're fully out of the woods."

One way the network is trying to become more efficient is by coordinating efforts in news and public affairs programming, she said. Crews from "Frontline," for instance, can coordinate with the "PBS NewsHour" team and avoid duplicating reporting efforts. PBS is working more closely with National Public Radio and reaching out to print journalists.

"I think that there's immense talent out there, and we should be figuring out how to best leverage it rather than everyone trying to create their own," Kerger explained.

On the programming front, producers will show off high-profile efforts including "Circus," a six-part documentary series about the Big Apple Circus; "God in America," an exploration of religion in the United States; and the latest from director Ken Burns, an extension of his "Baseball" series from 1994 that brings the documentary current.

Many people associate PBS with children's programming. A new educational series, "The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That," debuts this fall with Martin Short as the voice of the cat. And the network continues its educational push outside of the TV box.

So, for example, a relatively new literacy-based, young children's series called "Super Why!" is a broadcast show, but it's also part of the PBS Kids online service and sports an app for the iPhone and iPad. And it's the subject of community camps — live programs around the country that help kids improve basic letter recognition and fundamental reading skills.

"I think it's a really great example of how one project that was initially developed as an educational children's television show really has developed many different component pieces," Kerger said.

"So much of the work that we do is really education-based, and we try to look for opportunities to share those resources in schools," Kerger said. "And, so, to have everyone (at the meeting) looking at the content at the same time, talking about how the work does play out, both on-screen and on multiple screens and in the classroom is, I think, the way Public Broadcasting should be looking at its work."