Lessons have been learned at PBS from the ratings successes of “Downton Abbey” and Ken Burns’ “The Roosevelts,” which have both broken network ratings records. As a result, PBS is pushing harder into original series production.
In addition to a co-production deal with BBC, in which the media organizations are planning up to 10 new specials together, PBS has also greenlit its own original Civil War-era drama from Scott Ridley and is moving forward on original digital series.
At the same time, PBS’s chief programming executive and general manager of General Audience Programming, Beth Hoppe, said there are television genres she’s happy not to explore.
“The live daredevil event stuff is pretty scary and you worry somebody could die,” she told TheWrap. “And so, I think that is a trend that we’re happy not trying to compete in. That said we’re looking at a project that’s kind of a live science natural history project, because I think that excitement of live does bring something to the table for the viewer. When I watched the space fall, that was crazy.”
TheWrap spoke with Hoppe about the learning curve of PBS’s push into original scripted programming and the kinds of TV she’s personally drawn to.
TheWrap: PBS’s programming can feel very, very eclectic. Is there something in your mind that is the through line for everything that PBS does?
Beth Hoppe: We have kind of a funny through line, because what our responsibility and what public broadcasting was set up to do is to do what commercial television won’t. It’s to fill gaps. We’re doing hour-long plus documentaries on ‘Frontline’ week in and week out that are serious investigative reporting. You don’t see a lot of investigative reporting on commercial television right now. There’s still some, 60 Minutes and Nightline, but it’s pretty short and it’s punctuated with commercials, so that’s one of the things I think that really makes us unique. Arts, you don’t see almost any arts anymore and not much science. And so, we really are filling the market gaps.
That said, I think that that’s kind of a reverse way of describing us. I think we’re a vibrant variety service that strives to educate, entertain and inspire, and that also kind of ties everything together. I think if there’s sort of a theme in our programming right now, I’d like to think of myself as an optimist and I’m always looking for projects that have some line of optimism in them. We also are, I think, the most prolific and important home for independent filmmakers and independent voices on television. There are other places, HBO, CNN, that do some independent film, but I think we do more than anybody else.
PBS gets a lot of press and high ratings for “Downton Abbey,” a great reason for PBS to push into its own original scripted projects. Yet, your experience is very strong in the nonfiction side of things. Was there a learning curve for you?
Oh, there’s a learning curve every day, but I’m excited. I love learning new things. When I was out in the commercial side, I learned a lot. When I was running Optomen, the first food show I did was ‘Worst Cooks in America,’ which is still running on the Food Channel and there was a huge learning curve, but it was also one of the really exciting things I did there. And I love taking on new works and the key is to find great talent who know what they’re doing and then I can just follow along and learn.
What kind of non-PBS dramas are you personally drawn to?
‘True Detective’ was really original and I’m a big fan. ‘House of Cards.’ I don’t know if you saw it, but we had a special honoring Billy Joel and Kevin Spacey can also sing and play harmonica. He was amazing. He was really great. So, ‘House of Cards’ is one of my favorites, too.
Finally, what would you consider the biggest opportunity for PBS right now, something that you’d like to maximize on in the future?
I have a couple of answers. On the business side, I think there are sponsorships available on PBS that I think we haven’t been great at telling our story there and that I think it could help us see revenue and form good relationships with businesses, foundations, and others that could help us grow our slate of original programming. So, I think there’s a business opportunity there. I think as far as a programming opportunity, the fact that we are a variety service means that we can try anything. And that is we can invent a new genre or try a live show, come up with something really big in the arts, something new and different that no one had done before.
One of my favorite projects that I worked on years ago was the ‘House’ shows. It was ‘The 1900 House,’ and then ‘Colonial House’ and ‘Frontier House’ was my personal favorite. And it was taking people to live an experience of the past, and it hadn’t really been done before. And it was thrilling and it was a big huge ratings hit. So, figuring out what the next new thing and having the space to try it and the resources to make it is the big Holy Grail for me. That’s the opportunity. I don’t know what it is yet, but we’ll be looking.