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Public TV expands fare offered on demand

Originally published in Current, April 12, 2004
By Karen Everhart

As cable providers in big cities roll out video-on-demand services to digital subscribers, public TV is moving to expand the mix of programs available on demand under pending agreements with stations and PBS producers.

Public TV stations in Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Boston and San Francisco are among those making programs available to digital cable subscribers who can watch the shows for free and at their own convenience. PBS is working to clear rights for stations to offer VOD viewings of its news and public affairs programs and a regular sampling of specials. The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer will be the first ongoing PBS news series to become available through VOD.

Meanwhile, PBS’s earlier experiment with video-on-demand — a package of PBS Kids shows that PBS and producers licensed for a one-year pilot — will soon become available in nearly 8 million homes, 2 million more than PBS projected for the test run, according to Deron Triff, PBS v.p. of digital ventures.

Stations and PBS created VOD packages to test viewers’ interest in watching public TV on the emerging new platform. As they consider the costs of clearing rights to more programs, they’re trying to figure out business models that work. PBS charged cable operators a license fee for PBS Kids On Demand, but the stations aren’t charging for their local VOD packages.

PBS cleared rights to 80 different children’s shows and licensed the entire package last year to iN Demand, a leading distributor of pay-per-view programs. The kids channel is one of the most popular of some 30 free VOD channels offered by iN Demand, according to Triff. PBS is negotiating to extend the agreement when the one-year pilot ends in September. Revenues from PBS Kids On Demand help pay for PBS’s new HD Channel.

On-demand viewing of PBS Kids spikes from 4 to 8 p.m. weekdays, when stations conclude their broadcasts of preschool fare, Triff said. Usage data also indicate that some titles are building bigger cumulative audiences through VOD.

“The important point is we’re not seeing a drop in ratings,” Triff said. “It’s adding to the cume” of PBS Kids shows.
Stations that have ventured into VOD are offering local programs to which they already own the rights.

“Our interest in getting on VOD is that it’s a new platform that consumers seem to really like,” said Kyra McGrath, v.p. for strategic projects and general counsel for Philadelphia’s WHYY. “We don’t know where it’s going in the future, but we want to get our foot in the door as the platform develops.”
WHYY and Milwaukee PTV were among the first stations to put local programs on their cable operators’ VOD menus. Both mined their archives for shows that would fit the bill for VOD menus of local or regional fare.

“The only thing we had to invest was programming,” said Ellis Bromberg, MPTV g.m. “We looked through our library for programs that have some shelf life but aren’t in active rotation.” MPTV put programs on the local Time-Warner system last November.

WHYY began offering seven different titles through Comcast On Demand last month. “The attraction for Comcast is it adds a local element to a platform that’s not
locally driven,” McGrath said. She’s developing plans to put the weeknightly WHYY series Delaware Tonight on Comcast’s “Get Local” menu. “That’s the kind of programming that fits really well with VOD,” she said. “People want to see these programs, but they might not be able to catch the broadcast.”

WGBH in Boston and KQED in San Francisco plan to launch more robust lineups of on-demand fare with local Comcast systems this spring. Using a VOD technology known as cached broadcast, the cable systems will capture each program at broadcast and make it available on demand until the show’s broadcast window expires.

Through an agreement WGBH will announce this week, Comcast in New England will add WGBH On Demand to its “Get Local” VOD menu. The ’GBH titles that digital subscribers will find there include Greater Boston, the weeknightly news and public affairs series, which will be offered for VOD viewings for 48 hours after broadcast. Greater Boston’s popular Friday edition, Beat the Press, will be available for seven days. Episodes of local weekly series Art Close Up, La Plaza and Basic Black may be offered on demand for as long as two weeks, WGBH-TV General Manager Jon Abbott said. Cached broadcasts of single episodes of Simply Ming, a cooking how-to distributed nationally through American Public Television, will be on the VOD menu for one week.

KQED plans to unveil a similar VOD package of timely local fare in June — weekly installments of This Week in Northern California, a public affairs roundtable, and Spark, which covers the arts. KQED also aims to include cached broadcasts of the NewsHour in its on-demand package. “We’re hoping that it will be a mix of KQED programs and a few PBS programs,” said John Boland, chief content officer. Four KQED election specials planned for this fall may also be available on demand.

The stations also have to figure out how they can afford to buy additional rights without charging viewers for VOD. “It’s our desire for Comcast to license the content so that the viewer gets it for free and KQED has no significant expenditures,” Boland said. “So far we have incurred some additional expenses, but we haven’t gone very far into our library.”

Putting This Week in Northern California on KQED On Demand was relatively easy, but Boland said clearing rights to past episodes of Spark, which feature field-produced performance segments, would be “complicated and costly.” If VOD proves popular with KQED viewers, the station aims to include VOD in future licensing packages, he said.
PBS hopes to make at least two public affairs or news titles available through VOD, along with as many as 10 specials over the next six months, according to Triff. Once the titles are available, stations can offer them to local cable operators as cached broadcasts, which they must make available at no charge.

WGBH is working to clear VOD rights for its national programs, but Abbott estimates that it will be up to a year before VOD becomes part of its standard national production contract. ’GBH has made progress with some national programs. The Forsyte Saga II, a recent Masterpiece Theatre title, will be available on demand during its national rebroadcast, Abbott said. Granada, WGBH’s British partner in the production, agreed to convey the rights because “they recognize that we’re not making money doing this.”

Web page posted June 23, 2004
The newspaper about public TV and radio
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