On the day before Thanksgiving last year, PBS C.E.O. Paula Kerger was driving home from the grocery store and preparing to host some holiday guests when she learned of a troubling phone call that had just come into her organizations main switchboard. Two days earlier, The Washington Post had contacted PBS about a story involving sexual misconduct allegations against Charlie Rose, whose eponymous interview show had aired on PBS stations since 1991. Soon after, Kerger terminated PBSs relationship with the host. But the Rose revelation had prompted a woman to call PBS about another important personality on the broadcasters airwaves: “She had read about Charlie Rose and said, I want to tell you a story, and it involves Tavis Smiley.”
Upon receiving the call, which involved an alleged incident during Smileys employment on a BET show years earlier, Kerger hired an outside attorney, Los Angeles-based Sarah Taylor Wirtz from the firm MSK, to investigate the talk-show host. Three weeks later, PBS suspended Smileys show indefinitely, citing “multiple, credible allegations of conduct that is inconsistent with the values and standards of PBS.” Smiley fired back with a lawsuit alleging breach of contract and claiming that PBSs public statements interfered with his other business dealings, and did a spate of media appearances. In May, a Washington, D.C., judge dismissed the majority of the damages sought by Smiley, and in July a judge ruled that Smileys companies would have to pay a portion of PBSs legal fees. The contract dispute is still ongoing. When reached for comment, an attorney for Smiley said that he still believes PBS breached its contract with Smiley, and that it did so “for a variety of reasons including racial bias.”
“This was new territory,” Kerger said, in a conversation over tea on Monday during a break in the summer Television Critics Association press tour. “All of it was happening pretty much in the public eye, and I was wanting to protect the women who were brave to stand forward.”
Nearly 10 months since sexual assault and harassment allegations against Harvey Weinstein began a ripple effect of uncovering other bad behavior in media and entertainment companies, and in a week when CBS is investigating new allegations of misconduct against its C.E.O., Les Moonves, much of the media industry is still grappling with how to address the issue. (Weinstein has denied all allegations of nonconsexual sex. Moonves has also denied the allegations against him, saying in a statement, “I have never misused my position to harm or hinder anyones career.”) PBS, a nonprofit organization run by a woman with a different set of values than those that drive many media companies, provides a case study of sorts.
“We are an organization that has always had a lot of women in leadership roles,” Kerger said, citing Sesame Street co-creator Joan Cooney and pointing out that her predecessor as president and C.E.O., Pat Mitchell, was also a woman. Women also hold powerful places on the air at PBS, which was the home of the first network-news broadcast with a female co-anchor team: Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff, who took over as co-anchors of PBS NewsHour in 2013. (Woodruff became the shows solo anchor after Ifills death in 2016.) Beginning in September, Christiane Amanpour will host Amanpour and Company in the slot formerly occupied by Rose.
The culture at PBS, often chided for being sleepy compared to the tempo of much of the rest of the TV industry, may have helped equip it to field the particular challenges of the #MeToo moment. Often unable to compete with for-profit news networks dangling higher salaries, PBS instead appeals to potential employees by offering something relatively unique in the media world: the possibility of work-life balance and a lower stress, more collaborative environment.
“In business, for a long time, there was sort of a command and control, rule by fiat. And thats how organizations were governed, and thats what leaders looked like,” said Kerger, who joined PBS in 2006 after more than a decade at the parent company of Thirteen/WNET and WLIW21 New York. “Ive been following the Les Moonves stuff at CBS, which seems unbelievable. And its just—the way that that moves out and encompasses so much more than just an individual. . . . If youre an organization that expects people are going to be working 22 hours a day, you cant keep that in balance. And by the way, that doesnt just impact women. It also impacts men.”
PBS, which was founded in 1969, does not produce its own original programming, but rather broadcasts shows produced by its member stations—which added an extra layer of complexity to fielding the allegations against Rose and Smiley, whose shows were both produced by New Yorks WNET. “Although we dont have that same window in, as if we were a producer, it doesnt absolve us of the responsibility of trying to ensure that the people we work with have safe work environments,” Kerger said. Since the Rose and Smiley allegations broke, she added, “Weve been much more explicit with our producers about our expectations. Part of it is to understand where to go if you have a concern. If you feel that youre in a circumstance that is difficult, you will at least have someone you can talk to, and you can do it without fear of retribution.” In February, PBS also aired a five-part series about sexual harassment, #MeToo, Now What?.
In the case of Rose, Kerger learned about the allegations from The Washington Post, which contacted PBS just hours before running its story. The newspaper wanted to know if PBS handled Roses human resources, which it did not, and if the organization had had any complaints of sexual harassment involving him, which it had not, Kerger said.
“With Charlie Rose, [the Post] had already done the investigation,” Kerger said. “In the case of Tavis, it was a woman calling us . . . so the onus of really looking into that was on us.”
The dual scandals arrived in a year when President Trumps budget proposal recommended eliminating PBSs funding, but the House and Senate ultimately restored it. “We seem to be on that path again this year,” Kerger said, of Trumps budget proposal. “Its not a great place to be, because youre spending a lot of energy and effort on [holding onto funding].”
At T.C.A., Kerger was engaged in the business of promoting new programming, including Native America, a four-part series premiering in October, and an airing of Wont You Be My Neighbor?, the documentary about Fred Rogers that has become a surprise box-office sensation. Rogers, who died in 2003, remains as a kind of cultural true north for PBS; it is his company that produces PBSs signature childrens show, Daniel Tigers Neighborhood.
Rogerss gentility may seem dated in 2018, when Twitter fights and cable-news rants are the norm. But the neighborly principles he espoused, said Kerger, also turn out to be good business. After all, how else can a company “really build a work environment that gets the best contributions out of people that are different than, you know—different than me?”
Get Vanity Fairs HWD NewsletterSign up for essential industry and award news from Hollywood.Rebecca KeeganRebecca Keegan is a Hollywood Correspondent for Vanity Fair.