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Q&A: Sylvia Bugg, PBS Chief Programming Executive

January 22, 2021 Alyssa Beno Leave a Comment

Sylvia Bugg

PBS Wisconsin is pleased to introduce Sylvia Bugg, PBS national chief programming executive and general manager of general audience programming. Bugg was promoted to the position in October after serving as vice president of general audience programming.

This is Bugg’s third stint in programming at PBS, where she has led efforts to bring an array of programming – from arts to public affairs – to PBS and its members stations. Now, her focus is on acquiring and developing world-class content for PBS’ broadcast and digital platforms, with an emphasis on sharing important stories that reflect America’s diversity.

PBS Wisconsin spoke to Bugg about her new role with PBS, how she connects with our audience, and her hopes for the year to come.

PBS Wisconsin: Sylvia, welcome back to PBS! This is your third time returning to the organization, despite the many roles you’ve held. How does it feel to be back?

Sylvia Bugg: Of all of the times I’ve returned, this year has certainly been an extraordinary one, to say the least. If there was ever a time to be in PBS and back in the public media family, this is it. There’s so much happening around our country and how our stations continue to be of great service to our viewers and audiences, there’s no place I would rather be than at PBS during this time.

PBS Wisconsin: It seemed like PBS constantly had content to address the big topics of 2020 – COVID-19, race relations, the election. How was that possible?

Bugg: One of the things that we really have in terms of PBS is we have such a rich inventory of content that, in those moments, we could turn to, especially as it related to conversations about the history of race and racism and then how it translates into today. We felt that we could actually go into our archives with some of those stories and then find ways to prop up new content as well. As it related to the pandemic, we have great partners. For example the folks at PBS NewsHour were instrumental in helping us to be able to mount some of the new content. It was a combination of having great public media, PBS member station partners, and also the fact that we have such a rich archive and inventory of programs that we could pull out of the vault.

PBS Wisconsin: A lot of that stays in the news cycle constantly. Do you feel like you need to keep an eye on the news during your workday?

Bugg: It’s very unpredictable. In this age of multiple devices, I tend to keep my phone with me so my right thumb at the end of the day is just sore because I’m moving between my laptop and a phone and often I have an iPad or another laptop as a second screen device. To some extent we have to be. It’s important because I think when there are moments like yesterday [the Jan. 6 insurgence at the U.S. Capitol] that we had, it is a reminder of what public media and PBS brings to our audiences. I was so proud of the work that NewsHour and all of their correspondents and their teams had done to meet the moment and rally and plan in what seemed to me to be minutes. I sometimes call myself an air traffic controller, if you will, because it is always keeping a lot of those planes flying.

PBS Wisconsin: What are your priorities for the year to come?

Bugg: Over the summer, we’re really looking at ways we can start to think about art because a lot of performance venues and theaters are struggling right now, they’re really challenged because of COVID. So, one of the areas we’ve been talking about a lot is how can PBS continue to support some of that content, and is there a bigger opportunity here? Because we know that at some point, hopefully in the future, we don’t know when it will be, there will be some performance houses and theater outlets who will be able to turn the lights back on. It may be at full wattage, it may be at a modified version, or some of them unfortunately may not be able to return. So, I think for us, we’re really looking at how we can help support art form in 2021.

PBS Wisconsin: What about priorities beyond this year?

Bugg: As I think about beyond 2021, I really would like to continue to focus on journalism and news. Now more than ever, there is a real need and hunger for stories and perspectives and insights that really do reflect a lot of the conversations that are being had around the country. We’re also talking about diversity in a more meaningful way. We’re talking about how we can build upon what is already existing. When we talk about diversity in addition to race and ethnicity, I think points of view are important. Gender is important. Conflict resolution is also a form of diversity; we look at things in different ways and different perspectives and unique insights.

PBS Wisconsin: What’s your biggest hope for the year to come?

Bugg: My biggest hope for the year is that PBS, with our PBS member stations, our partners, our stakeholders, that we will really continue to see and leverage the value of the work that we do on behalf of this country. I had a phone call yesterday with a production company who was pitching an idea for a music series, and there are many streaming services out there that they could easily go to and get a check written for this idea. They said, ‘We wanted to come to PBS first because we believe in the mission of PBS, we understand and appreciate the value that you can bring to a project, and we want to work with you.’ It was a pleasure to hear that affirmation in the morning from that production company. My hope for the future is that we continue to find ways to be responsive to these moments that we’re in while at the same time remaining true to our mission and being of great service to our stations and viewers.

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