PBS weighs balance between free, premium access for launch of Plus

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PBS is preparing for a pilot run of Membership Video on Demand, a premium service for station contributors, under the new name PBS Plus.

The service will be structured to preserve a window of free access to program streams on PBS.org and to protect stations’ member data, according to Tom Davidson, PBS senior director of digital strategies, during a session at the NETA Professional Development Conference, Oct. 20–22 in Dallas.

PBS Plus will go into soft launch in the spring for existing members at seven test stations. Under the full kickoff scheduled for late summer 2015, stations nationwide can begin marketing it to new members.

The multiplatform subscription service is built atop COVE, PBS’s local-national video site. PBS is spending $1.5 million from this year’s budget to adapt the system for premium on-demand streaming. Stations will use Plus to provide exclusive access to PBS’s large library of digital content to members who pay a premium donation, the price point of which has not yet been set.

PBS and stations are looking toward a new generation of potential contributors as they plan the service. Right now just 1 million people watch PBS programs on streaming platforms each month, compared with 115 million who tune to station broadcasts, Davidson said. “We are getting out in front of this,” he said. “We need to provide enhanced digital streaming as a premium benefit of membership.” Streaming viewers skew younger than PBS’s broadcast audience.

Davidson’s staff has been researching station economics “to make sure we’re delivering real value. That’s something that, candidly, with some of our first-generation digital products, we probably didn’t spend enough time on.”

Prosper, PBS’s national online fundraising initiative, drew fire from stations in 2011. It required online donors to share their names, addresses and credit card numbers via PBS.org but allowed them to opt out of sharing some information with stations. For Plus, PBS will collect only a member’s name and an identifying number that the station uses to differentiate donors with similar names.

“I like to think we’ve learned a little bit from Prosper,” Davidson told NETA attendees, “and we’re really trying to emphasize from day one that this is not some sneaky attempt by PBS to try to displace you. We’re a system; we succeed together or we fail together.”

Plus “is not a national PBS membership program,” he said. It will be available to viewers only through stations. “Donor relationships stay at the station level,” and all donor data also belongs to the stations. And as much as possible, Davidson said, the technology will be an open system to encourage innovation. “This is not about locking into a particular vendor,” he said.

Test-driving the technology are member stations Oregon Public Broadcasting; KQED in San Francisco; Twin Cities Public Television in St. Paul, Minn.; Kentucky Educational Television; WETA in Arlington, Va.; WNET in New York; and Boston’s WGBH.

Michael Lupetin, marketing v.p. at KQED, sees a big change in PBS’s approach in developing Plus. Everyone involved with the project “really made a concerted effort to work with stations from the very beginning, and that made all the difference in the world,” he said, comparing Plus’s planning to that of Prosper. “We were very much part of this process; it was not a process imposed on us,” he said.

Lupetin is serving on a committee that’s working on messaging and branding strategies for Plus. “We might test different messages by market,” he said, “so before Plus rolls out systemwide, we’ll better understand what works.”

Pilot stations are also collaborating with PBS to set a “very reasonable” price point for access to the content, he added.

Lupetin is “thrilled” to be able to offer Plus as a perk for members. “One thing we know is people like to binge-watch,” he said. “Even as a consumer I’m pleased, because soon I’ll be able to do that too.”

Once Plus is up and running, stations will be able to market it to different categories of the contributors and viewers, according to PBS’s Chas Offutt, director of digital development services, who spoke during the NETA session. Stations can offer it as a perk for current members, a renewal enticement for lapsed members and a lure for new members — especially younger viewers — who prefer to stream content.

Once stations begin capturing member data, they’ll be better able to target members with personalized appeals. Instead of the message “Support quality programming like Nature,” a member who viewed a specific episode may get “Wasn’t that ‘Honey Badgers: Masters of Mayhem’ Nature show great?”

The PBS Plus team is developing and planning the service with another station sensitivity in mind — public TV’s unique public service responsibilities to reach all of the American people. “We polled a lot of station leaders, and we heard loud and clear that we cannot do anything creating the perception of turning our back on universal service,” Davidson told NETA attendees.

All content that PBS holds rights to will be available for free online streaming for a certain period of time, he said, noting that details of how to do that are still being worked out.

He expects “windowing policies” will vary by genre. News and public affairs, for example, will always be free and accessible outside of any paywall. Other content may be free for a period of weeks, then available only for Plus members. “That goes a long way to refuting the perception that we would only be serving members of an elite audience” that pay for the content, he said.

He added that the approach is similar to how PBS has shown its content for free online, then sold it on DVDs.

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This is an updated version of a story first posted Oct. 21, 2014.

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