GMs take up PBS plan to expand web video output

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Jason SeikenThree dozen general managers have coalesced around a proposal by PBS Interactive chief Jason Seiken to jump-start low-cost local video production at public TV stations.

Seiken laid out his plan for reinventing public TV’s new media strategies during the PBS Annual Meeting in Denver. By adopting new tools and digital distribution strategies, PBS and stations can adapt to the rapid proliferation of online video channels and emerge as “winners,” as he said in the May 15 speech. Seiken presented his plan in a private meeting with managers the day before.

The managers group, dubbed the “Digital Entrepreneurs,” will meet via webinars and a private Facebook group over the next several months to assist Seiken in converting his talk into an action plan.

Michael Dunn, g.m. of KUED in Salt Lake City, is among the managers who are eager to get started. He described Seiken’s speech as “a seminal moment” for public TV, and was so excited by it he emailed Seiken to express interest even before the PBS exec had finished speaking.

“This was not just another presentation,” Dunn said. “This is a man who is really committed to making these changes,” he said, referring to Seiken.

Pubcasters should stop thinking of themselves as broadcasters, Houle says. “You are now in the video business.”

Seiken’s plans dovetail with futurist David Houle’s, who appeared at the PBS confab via a live video connection. “Stop thinking ‘station,’” he told the hushed audience of conference attendees. The future “is more about how you morph as a station to get to a global audience. If you’re under 20 years old, you don’t know what station is. You just see endless options of video.”

PBS’s web-traffic numbers reflect that boom of online viewing. Just three years ago, users watched 2 million PBS videos online a month, PBS President Paula Kerger told attendees. By this March, PBS web and mobile platforms received some 140 million streams, and visits to the PBS Kids site were up 34 percent over one year ago.

Sara DeWitt, v.p. of PBS Kids Interactive, provided more data during a general session devoted to PBS Kids: In February, garnered 40 percent of all minutes spent viewing video on children’s media sites in the United States. And was the most-viewed children’s entertainment site in America for free video streams for nine months of the past year. PBS Kids’ sites are attracting more than 14 million unique visitors per month to play games, marking 15 straight years of online traffic growth.

Houle sees opportunities for stations in PBS’s online growth, but they need to “stop thinking programs and start thinking PBS brand,” he told Current. The quality content PBS now produces on the air in long form can translate to three-minute videos on iPhones as well, he noted.

Less handwringing, more trials

Houle, a keynote speaker and author based in Chicago, spent more than 20 years in media, including on the executive teams that created and launched MTV, Nickelodeon, VH1 and CNN Headline News. He sees tremendous potential — and huge challenges — ahead for PBS and its member stations.

“As a futurist, I speak about the concept of people trapped in legacy thinking,” he said, with a focus on outmoded concepts of the 20th century. For broadcast programming and print media, it’s the means of distribution that’s been turned upside down. TV broadcasters have to shift their focus from packaging and transmitting programming to TV sets. “You’re no longer in that business,” Houle said. “You are now in the video business.”

Houle noted that there are 5.6 billion cellphones in the world, each tethered to a potential audience member. Compare that with the number of households viewing the Season 2 finale of the Masterpiece hit Downton Abbey on PBS: 5.4 million.
In an interview, Seiken said he couldn’t discuss specific strategies for helping stations become, in words drawn from his speech, “the dominant force for local video.”

“This is an extremely competitive space — newspapers, AOL, Patch, City Search, Yelp, they all want the local audience,” Seiken said.

“I don’t want to imply we have this all figured out,” he added. “This will require a lot of experimentation, trial and error.”

That approach — of testing new strategies and learning from failure — appeals to Dunn of KUED. “Too often in public broadcasting I see a lot of handwringing, ‘What about the future?’” he said. “This is about just getting out there, acting, learning and repeating. Maybe this resonates more with me because I’m from outside the system.” Dunn was a commercial producer/director with his own production company before taking the helm at KUED two years ago.

One new production model that PBS highlighted in Denver is the cross-platform video project “Makers: Women Who Make America,” a Web-first production of short-form, high-quality video created as a joint initiative of PBS and AOL. Dozens of three- and four-minute interviews with women leaders are already available for online viewing on Interviews with participants such as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, author Judy Blume and comedian Carol Burnett will be developed into a three-hour broadcast documentary on PBS in 2013.

“As we were developing ‘Makers,’ video was exploding,” Dyllan McGee of Kunhardt McGee Productions told the crowd, “so we decided to do a Web-based project. Two heads of major content distribution companies embraced the idea: Paula Kerger of PBS and Tim Armstrong of AOL. They said, ‘Let’s use our collective platforms to reach as broad an audience as possible.’”

“I love the idea of introducing this via the website,” Dunn said, “with shorter contained segments viewed across multiple platforms, and broadcast being one part of that. With ‘Makers,’ I can see the opportunity for us to localize with the amazing women who played leadership roles in Utah and across the West.”

Sewing up big numbers

Digital platforms can be especially powerful for programs that cater to niche interests, and public TV’s lifestyle programs are uniquely suited to this. Because the content is not appointment viewing, “we’re seeing local lifestyle programs doing tremendously well on mobile apps and,” Seiken said.

The biggest hit so far is Wisconsin Public Television’s Sewing with Nancy. After host and expert stitcher Nancy Zieman started publicizing her show’s availability on those platforms last November, hours viewed via digital streams jumped 3,000 percent.

WPBT’s uVu site, online since 2007, also has experienced skyrocketing numbers. Seiken told Current that uVu, which offers the Miami station’s original content and user-generated videos along with social-media features, is “an interesting creative model.” Four years ago, uVu was receiving about 7,800 page views monthly (Current, Feb. 19, 2008); by last month, that number had grown to 232,000. WPBT Programmer Neal Hecker said the site contains some 11,000 videos. “We’ve also found it really is a way to connect with local organizations, arts groups and community groups” who want to share content, Hecker said.

Seiken plans to share these successes and similar ones with the Digital Entrepreneurs group, and expects that a series of trials or pilots will emerge “very rapidly” from the work.

With all the talk of digital innovation, PBS’s major programming announcement in Denver had a retro feel to it. PBS has picked up Call the Midwife, a BBC drama based on the 1950s memoirs of a young midwife in London’s East End, for Sundays at 8 p.m. It joins the national schedule on Sept. 30 as the lead-in to Masterpiece Classic’s Season 2 of Upstairs, Downstairs. For its January broadcast premiere in Britain, Call the Midwife scored higher audience numbers than Downton Abbey, PBS programming chief John Wilson told attendees.

In other conference news, APTS President Pat Butler announced during a breakout session that pubcasting’s efforts to rebuild support among Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill have begun to bear fruit. For the first time since 2006, a “Dear Colleague” letter to U.S. senators requesting continued federal funding for pubcasting has Republican signatures. Three of the 39 senators who signed the letter, which was addressed to the Labor, Health and Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee with oversight of CPB’s appropriation, are Republicans. In the House, a similar letter to the Labor, Health and Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee counts six GOP members among its 116 signatories.

“We’re taking that as a sign of progress in rebuilding a bipartisan consensus for public broadcasting,” Butler said. “It’s trench warfare. Every hill is hard-fought, and hard-won.”


“Today I want to lay out a vision for how we can invent our future,a future where public television is serving millions more people with billions more videos…”

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