Spirits rise as PBS acts: science, kids, on demand

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With Nash hosting the breaks in the PBS Kids block, PBS hopes to keep tots “glued to our set.” (Photo: PBS.)

During a PBS Showcase meeting distinguished by a sense of optimism that public TV had emerged stronger after last year’s political troubles, public TV executives unveiled their plans to make more PBS content available to viewers on demand, to expand children’s programming and pilot new primetime science series.

“The digital revolution cannot be ignored. … It is calling us to reinvent ourselves on a seemingly daily basis,” said new PBS President Paula Kerger, during a May 17 speech that opened the conference in Orlando, Fla.

“We need to expand the menu of services we offer for the era of ‘my time’ TV,” said WGBH President Henry Becton later that day. PubTV will have to experiment with new platforms and adapt as quickly as technology advances, he said. “We have leadership now at the national level that will help us work toward that goal.”

Kerger and other PBS executives reported their progress on this reinvention on several fronts:

  • PBS will expand the number of series available for free on-demand viewings by digital cable subscribers, Kerger announced. PBS and Boston producing station WGBH are partnering with cable-industry organizations to cross-promote the special VOD offer of Frontline’s “The Age of AIDS,” a four-hour miniseries debuting on PBS this week.
  • The network introduced Lori Holton Nash—an actress, educator and mother—who will serve as host of its revamped PBS Kids block this fall. The broadcasts will be part of a multi-platform children’s service that competes for young viewers but is differentiated from other channels by worthwhile educational content.
  • Production teams including Wired magazine and National Geographic Television will develop pilots for four primetime science series funded by PBS, said PBS chief programmers John Wilson and Jacoba Atlas. They plan to solicit proposals for new history series next year.

Speakers said PBS also has been reinventing its relationships with stations and other pubcasting organizations. After her speech, Kerger introduced CPB President Patricia Harrison, the former Bush administration official appointed last June as the corporation’s top executive. Some station leaders protested that her background of party activism wasn’t appropriate for a CPB chief, but after nearly a year in the job, Harrison seems to have wiped away those worries and won pubcasters’ confidence.

Harrison described her “great relief” to have Kerger as a colleague among pubTV’s national leaders and pledged to protect pubcasting’s editorial integrity and funding.

Harrison, a public relations veteran and former co-chairman of the Republican National Committee, also promised to help redefine the debate over pubcasting’s federal aid.

Instead of questions over whether the field should receive funding, Harrison said, the debate should be about “how . . . we as a country make a greater investment in a civil society.”

APTS President John Lawson, who spoke after Harrison, said public TV’s lobbying group joined this battle in March, when APTS and a coalition of organizations involved in education, health services and workforce training supported a Senate amendment authorizing a $7 billion appropriations increase for labor, health, human services and education. The measure challenged President Bush’s spending priorities for next fiscal year and won broad Senate approval, but House leaders have blocked introduction of a companion measure, Lawson said.

“We had to get involved in the debate about what kind of country we are,” Lawson said. “Are we only about tax cuts?”

“There is a new alignment at the top of our national organizations,” Lawson said, referring to new leaders at PBS and CPB. “We’re all pulling in the same direction.”

“Compared to this time last year, I’m lovin’ life,” he added.

“It was great to see the three of them speaking and seeming to be in sync,” said John Boland, chief content officer for KQED in San Francisco.

Aiming high for kids’ fare

Lesli Rotenberg, senior v.p. of branding and head of the PBS Kids Next Generation Media initiative, opened a May 18 session devoted to the five-year endeavor by telling station reps: “Working with you, we’re going to change the face of kids’ educational media for now and in the future.”

The pledge was audaciously ambitious, but, judging from reactions in the room at the end of the 90-minute session, the objective seemed within reach. Rotenberg and her cross-disciplinary team of programmers, web producers and creative directors unveiled new elements of their strategies to reinvigorate PBS Kids with a revamped preschool service and plans to engage preschoolers and school-age kids in learning through TV programs and online content.

PBS’s revamped preschool block, which launches this fall with the debut of Curious George, will be hosted by Nash. PBS selected her after auditioning 1,500 applicants in three cities and getting focus group reactions to the top candidates. “It was like American Idol, and I got to play Simon,” said PBS’s John Ruppenthal, referring to Simon Cowell, the famously unkind Idol judge. Ruppenthal, senior creative director for branding and promotion, rolled a clip of a mother in a focus group describing Nash as “nurturing,” “authentic” and very much like a preschool teacher.

Nash walked on stage with PBS Kids characters and admitted to feeling “very overwhelmed by what I just saw.” She recalled growing up in a PBS household. As a mother of three, she said, she feels that PBS supports her and “understands the problems that I have.”

She’ll host from a set designed like a preschool playground that “kids are so excited by that they forget to say ‘goodbye’ to their parents,” Ruppenthal said. An animated guinea pig character known unofficially as Bobo will be Nash’s sidekick and “create special learning moments” in the hosted break. In addition, the boy in the PBS Kids logo will “get a name and a life” as Dash, an 8-year-old who enjoys computer games and links the TV shows to PBS’s online world for kids.

PBS will schedule four shows in the block, leading with Curious George at 8 a.m., followed by Clifford the Big Red Dog, Dragon Tales and It’s a Big, Big World. The block’s first hour is designed to have crossover appeal to school-age kids, while the second hour is geared more narrowly to preschoolers, said Linda Simensky, senior director of children’s programming. It begins one hour before Nick Jr., Nickelodeon’s block for preschoolers, and leads into Sesame Street. “With the packaging, we hope to keep them glued to our set,” Simensky said.

PBS’s long-range plans are to expand the preschool block to accommodate all of its series, Rotenberg said, and to create a destination more narrowly targeted to toddlers.

To highlight the educational curriculum behind each show, PBS will introduce elements that “speak directly to parents about the show’s goals and promote the website,” said Sara DeWitt, director of PBS Kids and PBS Parents web content.

The latter site is “our best-kept secret,” DeWitt said, and it will be promoted and expanded with more guides to foster creativity and help children learn early math skills, and translated into Spanish. The PBS Kids site will be redesigned and relaunched with Flash animation.

Other new children’s series coming to PBS are the literacy-based shows Super Readers to the Rescue, Word World and Martha Speaks, each backed by the Department of Education’s Ready to Learn Program.

The PBS Kids Go! block for school-age kids debuted Fetch! on Memorial Day and will introduce Word Girl, featuring a clever superheroine with a fantabulous vocabulary, this fall as 2-minute shorts at the end of Maya & Miguel. Word Girl launches as a half-hour show in January.

More supply for on-demand

PBS added seven titles to its lineup of primetime programs available for free video-on-demand viewings. The expansion gives public TV stations “ammunition to successfully negotiate deals” with local cable operators, Kerger said. It also makes signature PBS fare available to viewers who have become accustomed to on-demand TV platforms. Kerger predicted these viewers will recognize the quality of PBS programs and opt to watch them at times they choose.

The package now includes Nature, Nightly Business Report, Now, P.O.V., Tavis Smiley, Washington Week and Wide Angle. Selected titles from Nova, Masterpiece Theatre and Mystery! will be offered quarterly. Antiques Roadshow, Frontline and the NewsHour—three titles that PBS began offering on VOD in 2004—remain on pubTV’s on-demand menus.

Local stations offer the programs as “cached broadcasts,” which means a cable company can capture each program from the local broadcast, encode it and offer it on its VOD menu. The rights window for cached broadcasts expires after 48 hours for daily series and seven days for weeklies.

PBS estimates that as many as 30 stations currently offer cached broadcasts of local and national PBS programs through their local cable systems.

Stations can offer the VOD package nonexclusively to cable operators who carry their analog and digital signals. Neither stations nor the operators can charge for VOD viewings.

PBS’s VOD expansion will get a big promotional push with the debut of Frontline’s “Age of AIDS,” a documentary miniseries debuting this week and offered for free VOD viewings for two weeks after the PBS broadcast.

WGBH collaborated on the series with PBS, the National Cable and Telecommu-nications Association and Cable Positive, an AIDS action organization backed by cable and telecom companies. The partnership includes cross-promotions of the series’ broadcast and on-demand availability in spots that feature rock star/activist Bono, former President Clinton and AIDS researcher Dr. David Ho. Local stations can air similar spots promoting the VOD offer.

“This special partnership between public television and the cable industry reflects a shared mission to refocus awareness about HIV/AIDS and to raise the epidemic’s profile on the public agenda,” said Jon Abbott, executive v.p. of WGBH. “The national on-demand window of ‘The Age of AIDS’ also provides many public television viewers with expanded, convenient access on demand to this monumental series.”

Science outside the box

With the funding of four science series pilots, PBS moves to expand its primetime content in a genre that, according to CPB-funded research, holds great interest for potential primetime viewers who are “interested and inclined” to watch and support public TV. PBS’s request for proposals early this year, which drew 19 proposals, is the network’s first attempt to create new, ongoing programs to meet audience needs and interests identified in CPB’s 2003-04 study.

PBS selected four top proposals this spring and tested them with an online panel of viewers who fit the “innovative and inclined” profile. Panelists reviewed descriptions of the series and gave them all a thumbs up, so PBS decided to give each concept a pilot run, Atlas said. “These four are really lively, innovative and interesting,” she said.

Proposals to be piloted, as described by Wilson and Atlas during a May 17 Showcase session, are:

  • Being Human from National Geographic Television, “based on the idea that science doesn’t have to be remote and inscrutable, that science and scientists can be clear, relevant, even funny.”
  • Science Investigators from WGBH and Lion Television, in which four young hosts armed with gadgets and “attitude for the blog generation,” explore scientific mysteries.
  • 22nd Century from former Oregon Public Broadcasting production chief John Lindsay and Tower Productions, which reports on the dramatic changes that research will bring within our lifetimes and examines resulting ethical and philosophical questions.
  • Wired Science from KCET in Los Angeles and Wired magazine, which transplants the magazine’s DNA—technology news and its impact on society—into a fast-paced, timely TV show.

Whatever emerges from the pilot phase will be eligible for first-season production backing from CPB’s Opportunity Fund, established last year to run with findings from the primetime research. PBS hopes to debut the new show next fall, Atlas said.

“There are really cool opportunities here, with really nice thinking outside of the box,” said Ron Pisaneschi, broadcast director of Idaho Public Television, who was on the PBS advisory panel that reviewed the proposals.

PBS program execs were so encouraged by producers’ response to the solicitation that they plan to issue an RFP for new history series. As with its request for science series proposals, PBS will develop guidelines based on “what the audience wants,” Wilson said.


PBS hires a new president — Paula Kerger, station exec from WNET, New York.

Adding a host to PBS Kids is part of an upgrade for the children’s schedule. PBS’s ratings among preschool kids were exceeded by Nickelodeon’s in 2002-03.


Kerger brings in John Boland as content chief, June 2006.


PBS said an episode of its series Jean-Michel Cousteau Ocean Adventures “played a role” in President Bush’s designation of a vast Hawaiian area as a national monument.

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