NEW YORK — Honey Boo Boo, the management at PBS wants to thank you.
You, too, real housewives. And naked castaways, 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.
“We were concerned that people would consider us irrelevant because we were no longer providing a service that people couldn’t get anywhere else,” she said.
She left PBS to join the new wave, taking a job at Discovery to produce science programming for its networks. She knew it was time for something else when an executive asked her to “add sex and celebrities” to the Curiosity series she was working on. Hoppe talked to old friend Paula Kerger, the president and CEO of the Public Broadcasting Service, to see if there was room for her if she returned.
There was, and by last December, she was made responsible for PBS’ programming department.
Hoppe has tried to make PBS more topical, ordering a lengthy examination of guns in America that ran a month after the Newtown, Conn., school shooting. She pushed PBS producers for programs looking at the Boston Marathon bombing, the meteorite that exploded over Russia in February, and Superstorm Sandy.
“She comes to her job with a filmmaker’s sensibility,” said John Bredar, vice president of national programming at Boston’s WGBH. “She understands things from the ground up as a producer. She’s someone who has a visceral understanding of what the market is like.”
In October, PBS’ Frontline is collaborating with ESPN for Concussion Watch, an investigation into health issues caused by violent collisions in the National Football League.
PBS will aggressively mine anniversaries as programming hooks. This fall brings an American Masters special on Billie Jean King 40 years after her “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match with Bobby Riggs and a show on War of the Worlds 75 years after the radio program incited panic.
As with other networks, the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination will be given attention. PBS’ programming will include a four-hour portrait of Kennedy, a “cold case” look at evidence in the shooting and a minute-by-minute recap of the killing from the firing of shots to when CBS’ Walter Cronkite reported Kennedy’s death.
That’s what Hoppe means when she talks about thinking like a network instead of just a service, anticipating the interests of viewers. There’s a difference between waiting to see what work producers will offer you and actively going out with some of your own ideas.
PBS is also trying to bring more consistency to a schedule that encompasses several genres. Programmers call it “flow,” and in this case it means concentrating science programming on Wednesday, arts on Friday, with more history and news-oriented shows on Monday and Tuesday.
While there’s much on cable TV that PBS doesn’t want to emulate, Hoppe said the competition has pushed public broadcasting to be more innovative. She considers Antiques Roadshow an example. The success of miniseries like History’s Hatfields & McCoys and The Bible is pushing PBS to get into that genre, with the first project under development involving the Civil War.
The system’s crown jewel, Downton Abbey, returns for its fourth season on Jan. 5. You’d have to look back two decades to Ken Burns’ The Civil War to find a series as important to PBS.
The hope is that it doesn’t exist in a vacuum, that some of the interest created by the series can be transferred to other things on the schedule. Programs on Henry VIII’s palace and Secrets of Chatsworth were clearly aired to appeal to Anglophile Downton fans, and this fall will see documentaries on the Tower of London and Scotland Yard. Same thing with some British dramas, like Call the Midwife and The Bletchley Circle.
“If we could look back in 10 years and say that was a real turning point for PBS in terms of its perception in popular culture and being cool and hip — the first of many new hits for PBS of that sort of magnitude — that would be awesome,” Hoppe said.