Success in sharing arts content inspires new programming co-ops for public TV

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Public TV stations are starting two new programming co-ops modeled after the Arts and Culture Major Market Group project, which gathers and repackages local content for more than 30 stations nationwide.

WNET, which handles the arts project, now has producers compiling station contributions for a new technology initiative as well. The local segments feed into SciTech Now, a half-hour newsmagazine hosted by PBS NewsHour’s Hari Sreenivasan that premiered Oct. 1 in New York, Houston and Seattle.

One segment on SciTech Now, WNET’s new series created from local station content, highlights the pioneering work in aerial videography being done by drone company Hoverfly Technologies in Orlando, Fla. (Image: SciTech Now)

A segment on SciTech Now, WNET’s new series created from station content, highlights pioneering work in aerial videography being done by drone company Hoverfly Technologies. (Image: SciTech Now)

Another program-sharing pilot aiming for small and midsize stations, based at Maryland Public Television, draws from the popular genre of outdoors shows.

“We decided to use the proven model of the WNET arts program,” said Jay Parikh, MPT’s managing director of content enterprises. He’s hoping to have the first half-hour American Outdoors (w.t.) ready to show stations in the spring, tentatively slated to premiere next fall.

Both productions, in development for about a year, tweak the original concept of the arts initiative. Participating stations receive all the elements for a complete program, or can add their own local talent or other content. In addition to the program segments, arts stations also receive lineups, scripts, credit rolls, music and graphics to assemble programs for local broadcast.

Stations can participate in the co-op without contributing to the production, but most do create and share segments. Since it kicked off in September 2012, stations have produced a total of 469 segments, according to Lindsey Bernstein, WNET publicist.

For the tech co-op, “in addition to all the pieces to create a show, we also give them a fully produced show,” said Diane Masciale, executive producer of SciTech Now.

MPT also plans to offer American Outdoors in two ways, according to Parikh. Broadcast-ready programs will be hosted by national talent; packages of the various production elements will be delivered to stations that want to customize the show for local audiences. “Name it what you want, host it with whomever,” he said. “We won’t micromanage.”

One difference between the WNET and MPT productions is pricing. Stations pay $15,000 annually for SciTech Now and $14,000 for the arts co-op, but WNET is offering a discount to those that buy both. The package of two runs $26,000.

MPT is working to keep its outdoors show below $10,000, Parikh said, and will offer discounts to stations that contributed segments. He plans on using a multi-tiered pricing plan, he said, with smaller stations paying less.

“We’re trying very hard to make this as economical as possible, to have participation from a wide range geographically and by station size,” Parikh said. “Maybe not every community has the arts, but everyone has the outdoors.”

For WNET’s two co-ops, 33 stations participate in the arts program, and 21 in SciTech.

PBS SoCaL, the flagship station in Los Angeles, has already provided content to the tech co-op. “And we plan on launching our own science-tech series in the months ahead, utilizing the co-op content,” said Stacy Shaffer, spokesperson. “We feel that this collaborative content model is a very effective approach that can serve the needs of many stations.” The station is also considering joining MPT’s outdoors co-op, she said.

Parikh is optimistic that the outdoors co-op also will be popular because “quite a few” public TV stations produce such local shows.

Growing community ties

Several pubTV stations have created arts programming blocks around the co-op materials. Nine Network in St. Louis grew its Sunday Arts into Arts America, which now airs Saturdays as well.

“Since we have begun to exchange more locally produced programs with stations across the country,” the station says on its website, “we decided that Arts America was a more fitting title to the series.” Soon Arts America will introduce a regular interview segment featuring local arts leaders, created in partnership with the Regional Arts Commission and the Radio Arts Foundation, and funded in part by the National Endowment for the Arts.

WNET President Neal Shapiro sees the tech co-op as a way to provide similar opportunities for local stations to forge stronger community connections. Stations can interact with universities in their markets by interviewing researchers and academics for segments to share nationwide. The content can also help stations reach out to the growing sector of technology investors for station support, he said.

The co-op could also lead to educational tie-ins. Many schools and stations are focusing efforts on the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) curriculum. WPBS in Watertown, N.Y., is taking part in the tech co-op “as we continue to work with manufacturers and vocational institutions regarding the increased need for a workforce with a background in STEM educations,” said Lynn Brown, president.

The SciTech team is working with WNET’s education department to create curricular content for PBS LearningMedia, pubTV’s online portal of educational media, according to Masciale. Lesson plans will be developed for stories contributed by stations, such as a series from KUEN in Salt Lake City, Cheese Science. One segment is about the “physics of cheese,” Masciale said. “It’s really fun. We all push for STEM education, and the series is a perfect vehicle.”

On the show, Sreenivasan — host of PBS NewsHour Weekend and a correspondent for the weeknight program — introduces segments such as “Ask a Scientist” and pieces about drone photography and the science of dance. He also conducts Google Hangouts that present authoritative guests without flying anyone in.

Sreenivasan “is very interested in science and technology — it’s one of his passions,” Shapiro said. “And he’s already here for NewsHour Weekend,” which WNET produces.

Masciale and her team of two producers, two associate producers and one editor set up interviews for Sreenivasan and shoot with him twice monthly. “We do an entire month in advance,” she said.

The website scitechnow.org archives all episodes of the show as well as interactive features and online-only pieces; the tech co-op’s producers also contribute to a blog. The site can be localized, Masciale said, and soon stations will be able to post additional local content as well as a “Donate” button.

Parikh also envisions a robust web presence for American Outdoors. “The content will reside on multiple platforms and be accessible in multiple ways,” he said. “In addition to on-air and online, there’ll also be an outreach component.”

The popularity of MPT’s Outdoors Maryland sparked the idea for the co-op’s subject matter, Parikh said. “That’s been running for almost 30 years, with good viewership every week.”

And the outdoors genre encompasses many subjects, including nature, ecology, travel, camping, hunting and fishing.

MPT will curate and produce the program, which will have a multiyear license for 52-week play, Parikh said. “Once we put out the pilot and see the response, then our intention is to hire as small a staff as possible to be responsible for the program,” he said. “They’ll curate, produce and run interference.” The team will also track ratings and supply graphics and promotion spots.

Ruby Calvert, g.m. at Wyoming PBS, is enthusiastic about MPT’s plans for the show. American Outdoors “will attract new audiences and underwriters, and will leverage the production resources that PBS stations across the country are currently using to create local natural history and outdoor shows,” she said.

Calvert added that MPT’s track record as a longtime producing station lends “increased credibility and sustainability” to the project.

Questions, comments, tips? sefton@current.org