PBS and its member stations leaped into the age of on-demand viewing Tuesday, unveiling their new membership video-on-demand service, Passport.
By launching the members-only streaming service along with a redesigned PBS.org, PBS aims to deliver a one-two punch that will dazzle station donors with significant upgrades to their digital viewing experiences. Executives also hope the new service will entice younger viewers to watch more public TV programs and become members.
Passport, which was designed and developed with the wonky name MVOD, offers nearly 1,000 episodes of a variety of programs — including the entire Downton Abbey oeuvre, allowing fans to binge-watch in anticipation of the sixth and final season that premieres Jan. 3.
As the first group of PBS stations unveils Passport, visitors to PBS.org will discover a revamped website that’s more personalized, streamlined, simpler to search and station-centric.
“We’ve been dreaming about a member service for a contemporary audience,” said an ecstatic Daniel Greenberg, chief digital officer at New York City’s WNET, a station that piloted Passport and is in the launch group.
Passport will attract new members “who want to live in a digital world and be rewarded digitally,” Greenberg said. He described the service, which is only available to viewers who donate to their local PBS station, as “a contemporary version of the tote bag.”
Greenberg said WNET’s technology was essential in building Passport and he was glad to help. “We know we can’t survive without smaller and midsize stations. We need a system nationwide. If public media fails in one area, it’s bad for everybody,” he said.
One of public television’s challenges in rolling out Passport is that, like the 195 nations at the Paris Climate Change Conference, stations of all sizes, shapes and mindsets must agree to work towards a common goal of marketing the service to their members and viewers.
PBS stations have wildly disparate levels of funding, staff and technical capacity to introduce a groundbreaking new system such as Passport, so the rollout will be staggered across the system.
Greenberg wanted WNET to the first PBS station to offer Passport, but as many as 15 have confirmed their plans to launch the service Tuesday, according to PBS.
Some stations delayed the launch to focus on December pledge drives and crucial end-of-year giving campaigns. Forty stations have said that they plan to offer Passport by mid-January, according to PBS.
Out of the 137 Passport-eligible stations (full-powered, FCC-licensed PBS members), 120 have said they want to offer Passport to their members, according to PBS President Paula Kerger in an email sent Monday to station leaders. Nearly 100 have completed or are close to completing the training needed to launch the system.
Either way, Passport was scheduled to go live by 8:30 am Tuesday for any station that wanted it, according to the PBS executives who were the driving forces behind the service — Ira Rubenstein, senior v.p. of PBS Digital, and Betsy Gerdeman, senior v.p. of development.
In addition to Downton Abbey, PBS’s top-rated series ever, Passport’s initial program offerings include other dramas, science and history documentaries, and arts programs —from Masterpiece’s Wolf Hall and the new civil war medical drama Mercy Street (premiering Jan. 17) to the British comedy Vicious, and with limited series such as EARTH A New Wild, How We Got To Now and The Great British Baking Show.
Episodes from PBS signature series such as American Masters, Great Performances, Nature, Nova, American Experience and Antiques Roadshow will be available, as well as the Ken Burns documentaries Jazz and Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, and Rick Steves’ Europe, a travel series syndicated for public TV by American Public Television.
“Like any service, whether it’s Netflix or Apple, it’s a beginning,” said Rubenstein, who joined PBS after a succession of top Hollywood jobs at Sony, Fox and Marvel.
Viewers won’t be able to download or purchase programs, but they can stream them on-demand through a new window that’s opened for digital viewings. PBS.org typically offers free streams of new shows for two weeks after broadcast. New episodes of Downton Abbey, for instance, will be available for free on PBS.org for two weeks after their television broadcast, as they have in the past. Viewers with access to Passport will get them after that.
Public affairs series such as Frontline, PBS Newshour, POV and Independent Lens will always be available for free online streams.
To lay the groundwork for Passport, PBS’s lawyers have been negotiating digital rights into every contract signed over the past two years, Rubenstein said. Meanwhile, rights to older shows are being systematically renegotiated. New content will flow to Passport as deals are worked out. “It’s a really complicated process” being worked out with producing stations and a constellation of independent producers, he said.
Passport members will have multiple ways to access the service: through their local station’s website, the local banner on PBS.org, PBS video apps for Android and Apple’s iOS smartphones and tablets, and the PBS app on Apple TV.
Retention vs. acquisition
As Passport goes live, PBS will be watching to see whether stations use it mostly as a perk to retain current members or a carrot to attract new ones, as well as how aggressively they market the service.
“The biggest question I have as a member station is how will this affect us in terms of retention versus acquisitions,” said Michael Lupetin, marketing v.p. at KQED in San Francisco.
KQED is going with a soft, mid-range launch for Passport Tuesday, Lupetin said. “We’re presenting it as a holiday gift. Our message is, ‘Downton Abbey is coming. We have a live event January 2 and a special holiday gift — a sneak peek at all five seasons.’”
Like an increasing portion of the television audience, KQED’s viewers want to binge-watch, Lupetin said, citing the station’s own research. He expects that’s how they’ll use Passport.
“My gut is saying that’s what they’ll do — 80 percent binge-watching, and 20 percent saying, ‘I remember I saw that episode of Nova, I would really like to see it again.’”
WNET is also building its Passport launch around Downton, creating a special page on its website promoting Thirteen Passport for members who want to watch the previous five seasons.
To promote the new service, WNET created a targeted online paid-media campaign that includes social media; it launches Friday. An email marketing campaign that begins today notifies members about their special access to Passport; next week, viewers who subscribe to WNET’s newsletter will receive notice.
The second email blast will reach 450,000 people, including active and lapsed members and non-members, Greenberg said. The marketing plan extends into January, when the sixth season of Downton begins airing.
KET, which participated in beta testing, is also planning a soft launch for Passport, according to Tim Bischoff, senior director of marketing and online content. The Lexington-based state network will activate Passport accounts for all KET members who donate online between now and late December. KET’s marketing push to members and viewers will be concentrated in January and February, ahead of its biggest pledge drive of the year in March.
“The viewer’s expectation of quality in a digital experience is being set by the Disneys and the HBOs and the Netflixes of the world,” Bischoff said, “and they are offering terrific products that are very easy to use.” Passport gets PBS squarely into that game, he said, “competing in an enterprise that operates on a different budget scale.”
Rubenstein and Gerdeman declined to discuss how much PBS spent to build, test and introduce Passport. PBS budget documents for fiscal 2015 and 2016 had earmarked $1.4 million and $1 million, respectively. PBS is staffing a toll-free help desk for Passport customers, open daily from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Eastern time.
“This is a really powerful tool for a small station that has limited resources,” Bischoff said.
PBS is also providing marketing and communications support to help stations craft their messaging on Passport’s rollout. The package distributed to stations includes emails that can be sent to active members and non-members, as well as social media messages, said Ellen Sinkinson, senior development director at WNET.
PBS and pilot stations already tested the emails in messages inviting members to participate in Passport’s beta test. KQED’s email generated 819 responses, while WNET heard from 625 recipients.
Prior to the beta test, PBS mounted a national outreach effort to help stations prepare for the full rollout. PBS staff made presentations during 11 road show meetings convened in major cities this year and offered four-week training sessions via webinar.
The process of developing Passport helped to break down barriers within and among participating stations, according to participants.
“Development people and content people and digital people were all invited to work together,” and they did, said Gerdeman. Cooperation — within station departments, among stations themselves and between stations and PBS — could be a long-term positive development to emerge from Passport, she said.
The immediate benefit for stations will be the ability to engage their members and viewers directly and build a strategy around their audiences’ responses to on-demand content.
It will also help stations strengthen relationships with members who contribute at all giving levels. Stations will be able to connect with their more elusive, small-level donors with the same ease as major donors, who are well known to development staff and make their interests clear, Sinkinson said.
“The greatest hope with Passport is our ability to be able to talk to people about the importance of supporting public media and public television while they are watching the content in the way they like to watch the content,” Sinkinson said. “The ability to communicate with them in that moment is something that, on the lower donor level, we have never been able to do.”
Stations have also been given a bigger seat at the table on the newly revamped PBS website.
Rubenstein acknowledged that it was ambitious to roll out the new site the same day as the new on-demand service. “I am extraordinarily proud of how this turned out,” he said. “For the first time, stations have a lot of real estate on PBS.org. We localize 90 percent of the content, really tie the stations to the content.”
The new site highlights Passport on local hubs of those stations that offer it. When stations don’t have it, PBS.org visitors in those markets won’t see any reference to it. The hub, an area within PBS.org dedicated to a viewer’s local station, is bigger, easier to navigate and more prominent than on the previous version of the site. Local programming is featured more extensively.
The revamped site also accommodates mobile users. “For the first time, we have a responsive design that will look great on mobile devices,” Rubenstein said. The site’s search function is more refined, navigation more streamlined, and settings more personalized.
“I have done a lot of redesigns but never anything as complicated as this from a UI (user interface) standpoint,” he said.
Bar one instance, perhaps: “At Marvel,” he said, engineering search results for the superhero Wolverine were incredibly complicated. Sometimes he “came up as himself, sometimes under X-Men, and sometimes under The Avengers” — kind of like trying to decouple Downton Abbey from Masterpiece.
Correction: An earlier version of this story gave the incorrect title for Dan Greenberg. He is chief digital officer at WNET, not g.m. of the Interactive Engagement Group. An earlier version also misquoted Betsy Gerdeman. She said “digital people,” not “visual people.”
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