PBS Digital Studios is commissioning the digital media unit at New York’s WNET to produce 40 episodes for two new YouTube series, marking its first major content collaboration deal with a PBS member station.
WNET’s Interactive Engagement Group will create short-form videos about gender identity. WLIW, the station’s Long Island affiliate, will produce a series on consumer technology. PBSDS will co-produce both.
Representatives at PBS and WNET declined to discuss the value of the contract, which was announced Wednesday. In an interview, Ira Rubenstein, s.v.p. and g.m. of PBS Digital, characterized it as “substantial.”
The project “is helping us to prove a new model — which honestly, is an old model” of presenting stations’ programs, he said.
PBSDS’s YouTube network contains more than 25 channels. Content includes the PBS Idea Channel, its pop culture, technology and art hub with 33.7 million views since launching in March 2012.
WNET formed its Interactive Engagement Group early in 2011. In addition to developing digital tools for WNET, such as apps, the 25 workers have built websites for Moyers Media, Tavis Smiley and PBS NewsHour. They’ve also created short-form online series including New York on the Clock, about how various residents earn a living; and The City Concealed, exploring interesting places.
Previously, WNET and PBSDS collaborated on a smaller online series, Diorama, inspired by the American Museum of Natural History’s famous three-dimensional wildlife exhibits.
The two staffs, including Joe Harrell, senior director of digital strategy at WNET, discussed an official collaboration in May at the PBS Annual Meeting in San Francisco.
“We really believe that gaining new audience and being a part of YouTube is important for the future of public TV,” said Dan Greenberg, WNET’s chief digital officer. “We are natural partners. As a major producing station, our next foray has to be into original online programming.”
PBSDS is hoping to partner with more member stations, Rubenstein said. Channels on YouTube include Indie Alaska, produced in partnership with Alaska Public Media; Deep Look, an ultra-high definition science series by KQED in San Francisco; and the cooking show BBQ with Franklin from KLRU in Austin.
But that doesn’t mean PBSDS will abandon its indie-producer roots. “We can do both,” he said. “We will continue to work with independent producers on content that makes sense.”
Meanwhile, WNET is already at work on the new series. Greenberg said a host for each will be announced soon. The YouTube audience is “looking for authenticity” for those individuals, he said. “We want someone who can carry the conversation and interact through comments in social media,” he said. “That’s what’s unique about YouTube — it’s a direct line to a constituency. So especially for the gender identity series, we wanted someone who really knows that community.”
The staff at WLIW is “uniquely positioned to do that because of their work on Sci/Tech Now,” WNET’s latest content co-op project, he said.
PBSDS is helping select the host. It will also review cuts of programs and suggest topics to cover, Greenberg said. Programs will debut in January 2015.
So far, Greenberg is pleased with the partnership. “This is the way the public television system should collaborate — harmoniously.”