The Ottumwa Courier

Entertainment

July 29, 2013

PBS: Acting like a network as well as service

NEW YORK (AP) — Honey Boo Boo, the management at PBS wants to thank you.

You, too, real housewives. And naked castaways, Long Island princesses, breakaway Amish, storage warriors, pawn stars and pickers. People at public television may not want to watch you, but they are happy to see you.

When Discovery, The Learning Channel, History, Bravo, A&E and similar networks emerged, there was a real fear it could lead to the death of PBS. Each specialized network would pick off a portion of PBS' audience for programs on science, nature, history and the arts. Founded as an alternative to commercial TV, PBS was losing what made it unique.

Yet in the past few years, these cable networks discovered that it was much more profitable to create reality TV stars. PBS' path was cleared, and it is making the most of its new chance.

"It is now once again something that the viewer can't get anywhere else," said Beth Hoppe, PBS' programming chief.

PBS' viewership slipped steadily starting in 1993, which hardly made it unusual in a world with an ever-increasing number of choices. Since 2009, that trend has reversed. PBS' average prime-time audience has ticked back up from 1.9 million four years ago to 2.1 million now, with the growth faster among young people. Certainly the sensation of "Downton Abbey" is a key factor, but the growth isn't just on Sunday.

Hoppe is trying to infuse PBS with new energy, make its projects more timely and get her colleagues to treat it as a television network instead of just a public service.

Hoppe worked at PBS stations in New Hampshire, Boston and New York City and remembers well the worries when new cable networks started.

"We were concerned that people would consider us irrelevant because we were no longer providing a service, or that we would no longer be perceived as providing a service that people couldn't get anywhere else," she said. Maybe PBS' programs were better, but that might not matter, she said.

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