PBS Passport serves up on-demand content for public TV’s members

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ROBERT JAMES-COLLIER as Thomas Barrow, MICHAEL FOX as Andy Parker and KEVIN DOYLE as Joseph Molesley (Photo: Nick Briggs/Carnival Film & Television Ltd.)

Downton Abbey is among the offerings awaiting binge-watchers who sign up for Passport. (Photo: Nick Briggs/Carnival Film & Television Ltd.)

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.

A WNET enticement to sign up for Passport.

A WNET enticement to sign up for Passport.

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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  • WeakBeast

    PBS Passport is just a shameless money grab. It’s hardly anything new and exciting – it’s just a paywall that now blocks content that was previously free to watch. PBS is trying to ‘compete’ by limiting their content and charging for it. That really sucks.

    • MarkJeffries

      How can it be a “shameless money grab” when it’s essentially an extra benefit for people who give to public TV, along with the program guide and the discounts? I think it’s a damn good reason to get people to pledge to public TV. Would you rather have more underwriting announcements linstead?

      • WeakBeast

        Because what is now an ‘extra benefit’ used to be free and openly available online. What PBS has done is introduce a paywall to content that has been free for years prior. Can PBS no longer afford to offer such a service? If so, I wish they’d be up front about it instead of trying to spin the paywall as a new ‘on demand’ feature. We get less for more.

        • MarkJeffries

          A service that is mostly clips more than full-length programs–and full-length programs that get pulled a few weeks after broadcast. This is offering a much wider library of programming on a more permanent basis than what pbs.org was doing. Do you even support public TV? Probably not.

          • WeakBeast

            How presumptuous – I do support public TV, what little bit I can afford to. My partner and I watch Antiques Roadshow online – or we did until two-thirds of the episodes were made private. We don’t have money for a cable subscription and don’t own a TV. We feel frustrated by this narrowing of viewing options and angered by the idea that this is somehow an improvement.

          • freediverx

            Wrong. All of this content was freely available via their Apple TV channel before being locked behind the new paywall.

          • djshaqtus

            And via PLEX.

      • Ardea

        It is a paywall that blocks access to NOVA programming for my students in poverty.

    • Ardea

      It is a paywall that blocks access to NOVA for my public school students, who are in poverty.

      • Adam Ragusea

        They can still stream the last five episodes for free. Did they ever have streaming access to anything more than that?

        • Ardea

          Many more within the topics I teach – evolution and body and brain. Many of the videos that illustrate concepts in my curriculum are now behind a paywall. It is wholly inadequate compared to what was once available. To the public as a whole.

          • Adam Ragusea

            Could you get in touch with me so we can talk more? adam@current.org

  • Concerned Citizen

    We All Support PBS they take Our TAX DOLLARS to Produce their Content
    this Nothing But GREEDY and shameless money grab.

    • Aaron Read

      So you’re in favor of paying more taxes to allow PBS to distribute this content for free?

      • Concerned Citizen

        If it is for Educational Purposes Ex: Nova and American Experience PBS should be able to take TAX money.
        Downton Abbey No tax Money Should go for that . PBS is Just Being GREEDY Putting their Content Behind a Pay wall.

        • Aaron Read

          So you don’t believe in the First Amendment, then? The government can’t decide which broadcast content gets tax money and which doesn’t based on editorial decisions.

          • Concerned Citizen

            Could You Please find Some one else to Troll? Thank You, have a Good Day!

          • Aaron Read

            I find it absolutely delicious that I’m the one with proper spelling and a working knowledge of both basic economics and the Constitution…and you’re the one who just doesn’t like PBS and can’t come right out and say it because you know you’ll be (rightly) mocked for it…and yet somehow *I’m* the troll here? Please, DO go on. (munches popcorn)

          • Concerned Citizen

            254 posts? Its pretty Obvious you are a TROLL. DON’T FEED THE TROLLS !

          • Concerned Citizen

            SO Rhode Island Public Radio Pays you to Troll People on the Internet During Business Hours?
            Is THAT CORRECT Aaron Read? Do i have the right “Aaron Read?”
            Aaron leads the team that keeps our transmitters, computers and studios working at peak proficiency while strategizing future technical improvements. Born in Westerly and raised in nearby Mystic, CT, Aaron has lived in New England for over 30 years…albeit with a five year detour to the Finger Lakes of NY and Santa Barbara, CA.

            Prior to joining RIPR in 2012, he’s worked at, with, or for a multitude of NPR and college radio outlets; including WBUR, WEOS & WHWS, KCSB, KCBX, WMFO, WBRS, WZBC, WZLY, and also the public radio programs The Infinite Mind and Living on Earth.

            Read has a BA in Psychology from Boston University, is a Certified Broadcast Technologist in the Society of Broadcast Engineers, and relishes his “jack of all trades” reputation. He writes The Engineer’s Corner, an occasional series on technical topics involving RIPR.

          • Aaron Read

            Yes you do, and whom do I have the pleasure of speaking with?

          • Concerned Citizen

            With any Luck you will Find Out! Have a Good Day!

        • All from ‘GBH.

      • Concerned Citizen

        SO RIPR Pays you to Troll People During Business Hours?
        Is that Correct?

        RYAN T. CONATY
        Aaron leads the team that keeps our transmitters, computers and studios working at peak proficiency while strategizing future technical improvements. Born in Westerly and raised in nearby Mystic, CT, Aaron has lived in New England for over 30 years…albeit with a five year detour to the Finger Lakes of NY and Santa Barbara, CA.

        Prior to joining n 2012, he’s worked at, with, or for a multitude of NPR and college radio outlets; including WBUR, WEOS & WHWS, KCSB, KCBX, WMFO, WBRS, WZBC, WZLY, and also the public radio programs The Infinite Mind and Living on Earth.

        Read has a BA in Psychology from Boston University, is a Certified Broadcast Technologist in the Society of Broadcast Engineers, and relishes his “jack of all trades” reputation. He writes The Engineer’s Corner, an occasional series on technical topics involving RIPR.

  • JonesOntheMove

    PASSPORT – is breaking my heart. For people with expendable income and cable and tv’s – paying to access quality educational content and also supporting their member station is all well and good. But it was my belief that PBS is in part a service meant to offer QUALTY content to those who may not usually have access to such things. I have a laptop, to work form and study from. Watching what used to be available via the PBS website was my primary “free-time” passtime, because I WANT to enrich myself when I have the opportunity. If I could watch it free on a tv, I would. Once again, a CLASS BARRIER has been put in place to deter those of less “well off” circumstances from enriching themselves. The PASSPORT should be for those who want to download or something. PLEASE, PBS. PLEASE reconsider this decision, in order to still allow people like me to still have a chance at educating themselves and evolving with the help of your content!!!

    • Concerned Citizen

      PBS Makes me Sick They Privatized Seasame St. If your kid wants to see the newest
      episodes you have to have HBO. It won’t be long before NPR is doing the same thing!
      You want listen to Splendid Table? Pay 50 a month. and you will still have to listen to them beg for Money.
      Where i live NPR runs Commercials asking listeners to put NPR in their WILL!!!

      • Adam Ragusea

        Just to clarify, PBS didn’t privatize Sesame Street. Sesame Workshop decided to start selling Sesame Street to HBO instead of PBS. Also, NPR can’t charge you for Splendid Table because NPR doesn’t make or distribute Splendid Table. Your broader point remains valid, IMHO. Though, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the estate planning spots. Gotta get money from somewhere, and wills are better than charging for content.

        • Concerned Citizen

          The PBS and NPR are Charging for Content
          NPR Does it with Car Talk. You want a episode you heard a couple of weeks Ago go to iTunes. No Big Deal (shrug)
          Now you want to watch a episode of American experience you missed a Couple of Weeks Ago you have a Pay wall or a Donation Wall Blocking the Content.
          The PBS online Content has commercials. The online
          content rights get sold to HBO NETFLIX and AMAZON and thats just for Starters. Then Public Broad casting try’s to weasel its way into peoples Wills! PBS NPR will be charging more often and more their content. In Addition to Constantly begging for listeners for money .
          Because it is about GREED. Any one that thinks otherwise is Schnook
          All i know is if I worked PBS or NPR I would expecting a raise!

          • Adam Ragusea

            Oh, I agree that PBS is, in effect, charging for content. I’m not wild about Passport. But NPR is not. Car Talk is produced by a for-profit company (Tappet Brothers LLC), NPR merely distributes the radio show to stations. Tappet Brothers LLC is the one charging you for those back episodes. I do take exception to your characterization that public broadcasting is trying to “weasel its way into people’s wills.” Nothing wrong with raising money through estate planning. Believe me, there’s not enough money in public broadcasting for many people to motivated by greed (though I do think a few are). It’s mostly about people trying to keep the lights on.

          • bklynsteph

            It’s a vehicle for Public television’s attempts to placate David Koch. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/05/27/a-word-from-our-sponsor

          • MarkJeffries

            A three-year-old article. Got anything newer?

          • bklynsteph

            There are many examples this is another. It’s still my favorite channel, but not as good as it once was. http://observer.com/2016/08/head-case-why-has-pbs-promoted-controversial-shrink-dr-daniel-amen/

          • MarkJeffries

            The Amen programs are not PBS programs. They may air on PBS stations, but the network has nothing to do with them. Go deal with your local station.

          • Adam Ragusea

            That doesn’t even make sense.

  • rehuie

    Since Passport doesn’t work on Roku, watching shows on a reasonable screen is now a lot more inconvenient.

  • mary kile

    If they’re charging for content, then taxpayer money has got to go.

  • Ardea

    This is such BS! I am a public school teacher and I made NOVA available to kids via links from my teacher website! Now it is not available and my students are not RICH enough to come from families that can pay for this service!

    • Go to pbslearningmedia.org for more resources. #novapbs

      • Nycticorax

        Good tip, thanks.

      • Nycticorax

        Good tip, thanks!

    • Concerned Citizen


  • freediverx

    There’s no new content. They’ve just paywalled existing content, which is not remotely worth the $60 price of admission.

  • shareecloud

    My children (aged 10 and 7) are VERY disappointed they can no longer watch their much loved documentaries. By taking away this feature we are more against becoming members than for it (not to mention you are taking away learning opportunities for children/families who may not be able to afford other avenues). We, as a family, are very disappointed this decision made by pbs.

  • OMG PBS, WTF. Now I have to delete your app from my iPad. I’m not donating another penny to my local station. Good luck with the your paywall.

    • MarkJeffries

      As if PBS should care about anyone who trademarks his name, shills his T shirts on his blog and calls Angela Merkel a “bitch.”

  • Marsha Wright Beesen

    This really sucks. Came as a surprise. Fascist. I don’t like it at all, it’s disheartening.

  • David

    so, the public broadcasting service is now subscription based, at least in part. isn’t that private? just saying…

  • O Joseph Calabrese

    Many years ago PBS lived up to its mandate to provide free broadcasting to the public, for it was indeed “public” and funded by congress. Over the years, little by little, bit by bit, PBS has become more and more just like any for-profit commercial broadcasting entity. I find this profoundly disappointing and unacceptable. The influence of corporate sponsors has been noticeable to those who have watched closely over the years, and there have been egregious examples such as when WGBH pulled an award-wining documentary after a substantial Koch Brothers’ donation. Now, after years of showing Frontline videos to my students for free, I was blocked and informed that this content was exclusively for “Passport” members. Daniel Greenberg, the chief architect of this of this “Lets make PBS just another Netflix or Amazon Prime” travesty says, “We’ve been dreaming about a member service for a contemporary audience, Passport will attract new members “who want to live in a digital world and be rewarded digitally,” Greenberg is the chief digital officer at New York City’s WNET, a station that piloted Passport and is in the launch group. 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.” Well, first of all, it is not the “new tote-bag” it is gross departure from the original philosophy of all public broadcasting, which belongs to all of us, paid for by our tax dollars it should not be a tiered system only for those who can afford to pay for what should be a fully funded national resource. This is especially true for poor students and their dedicated teachers.

    • Dru Sefton, Current

      Hello Mr. Calabrese: Thanks for your comment. Teachers receive free access to PBS content for classroom use through PBS LearningMedia. That site also contains lots of professional development opportunities for educators. http://mpt.pbslearningmedia.org/

      • O Joseph Calabrese

        Thanks Dru!

        That is a resource that I will use!


  • Good way to bring extra money to PBS.