How public TV can connect with donors as viewing platforms shift

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For the third interview in our series of chats with public TV leaders about the future of their stations in a digital world, we talked with Tom Davidson, senior director of content at UNC-TV in North Carolina. Davidson used to be a newspaper guy and knows what it’s like to see technology undermine your business model and perhaps even your very reason to exist. More recently, Davidson was senior director of digital strategy at PBS, where he laid the groundwork for Passport, an on-demand video service for members. Adam Ragusea, host of our podcast The Pub, asked Davidson about how Passport was developed.



Tom Davidson: I was fortunate to work with terrific local station partners. They were able to really ground me in the economic realities of stations, and what that service had to do to serve the economic needs of stations, and to make sure that the interests of PBS remained aligned with the interests of stations. Services like Passport, in some ways, have to be developed by a centralized group. Software development succeeds at scale. The more entities you can spread those costs among, the better piece of code you end up with.

I also totally get the suspicion that stations would have about a PBS-developed service that was one more on-demand platform, and in this case serving their members and their donors. There are legitimate suspicions on the part of station leaders about, “Are you just trying to decide to disintermediate me? Are you trying to cut me out of the equation?” A team of us spent an awful lot of time and had some really loud conversations trying to figure out, how do we do this in a way that can succeed and serve the consumer need, but also make sure it’s serving the economic needs of the local stations?

Current: Putting aside the whole suspicion thing, let’s just look at the economic reality of it. You tell me — if lots and lots of people, more and more people, and eventually most people are getting national public television content through Passport or some other kind of on-demand service, why does UNC-TV need to exist? Or maybe it doesn’t.

Davidson: That a great question. If you look back all the way to the ’60s, when public television was being created, the only reason we were able to justify the 1967 Public Broadcasting Act, the only reason we’re able to claim that precious spectrum space and to claim IRS tax-exempt status is because we’re serving our local communities. For many stations in the ’60s and ’70s, the best service they could provide was, we’re bringing Masterpiece Theater and Sesame Street to you.

Current: By the way, let’s acknowledge that that was no small thing. To bring Masterpiece Theater to, like, Nowheresville, Alabama, that was a big deal.

Davidson: Absolutely correct. And yet when you move forward 50 years, the challenge that stations face is exactly the challenge that any media organization faces. What unique value are you delivering to your local users? If all you are is a distribution point for PBS content, for NPR content, for Associated Press content (in my old world of print), you are less and less relevant as those distribution monopolies crumble under the weight of digital technology.

The approach that’s been taken here at UNC-TV for 20 years, long before I arrived, was I think a sensible one. We prove our unique value to the people of North Carolina every year through 350 hours of local broadcast production. That’s a lot; that’s among the top ten of all stations in PBS. The extension of that challenge in a digital age is, well, is 350 hours of local television right for today? Yeah, that was great in 1997, it was an awe-inspiring number in 1997, but how do we adapt that for those same market realities of people not watching as much linear appointment television and living in much more of a world of “I want what I want, and I want it when, where and how I want it.”

Current: So Passport: It’s baked into the cake that there’s significant revenue-sharing with stations, right?

Davidson: In fact, all of the revenue flows to stations. PBS makes not one dime of revenue. The only way somebody can sign up for the service is to be localized to a PBS station and to either be an existing member of that station or to become a member of that station by making a donation of a certain threshold, $60.

Current: I’m going to go ahead and imagine that I’m in North Carolina, and I mostly watch public television through Passport, and I think about making my donation, and it occurs to me that I’m not just giving money for someone to make Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood so that my kid can watch it, I’m giving money to this other organization that isn’t involved in that at all so that they can have towers and FCC licenses and do all these things that I care not at all about. I have to give them money in order to get access to the thing that I actually want. That doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, that seems really inefficient, I’m going to keep my money. What do you say to that guy?

Davidson: What I say is, “I hope you’ll also watch North Carolina Weekend, things to do, places to go with that kid of yours this weekend. I hope you’ll also watch North Carolina Now, interesting people and interesting stories about issues from around the state.” It does come down to unique local value. Daniel Tiger’s wonderful. My kids were older before that show came along, but it’s a great show. That alone, though, isn’t enough to justify the economic existence of UNC-TV. We have to provide unique local value. It cannot simply be around distribution.

Current: I know that you do great content, but the question is, could you afford to make it if the popularity of big national public television shows weren’t indirectly subsidizing their production at your station?

Davidson: It’s an interesting question, and I haven’t actually sweated the numbers. But the question does imply something that we and everybody across the system has to do, which is sort of redefine our production models. We do a magazine series called Our State. They are terrific feature stories shot in an absolutely gorgeous style with a lot of care and feeding that goes into each one of those segments. That’s wonderful. Not everything we do, though, can have that high gloss and sheen.

Current: Or has to.

Davidson: Right. So using one of our digital subchannels, we launched a couple of months ago a fourth over-the-air broadcast service, and we’ve gotten pretty good cable carriage off it as well using the must-carry North Carolina Channel. Dayside production of that is much more along a C-SPAN model. Literally, today we shot a press conference from the state community college system finally announcing the new president of a 50-some campus system. A couple of cameras, a field switcher, delivered back here — I think they just used an IP drop on it to get it back for captioning and for broadcast. It is not using a big, glorious commercial-style satellite truck; it’s using stuff that’s only slightly better than what you could buy off the shelf at Best Buy.

The point being, it’s good enough for that type of a broadcast, and the question is not one of, do we do low-quality stuff? Or must everything be of high quality? It’s like, what’s the appropriate quality for this, especially given that if we were in more of a high-cost model, we simply would not be able to do that particular shoot and tell that particular story.

Discussions like that make people nervous. I’ve had lots of conversations with folks where they talk about, doesn’t that put us on a slippery slope? As one of my favorite old bosses — Jack Fuller, Tribune Company, touched two more Pulitzer Prizes than I’ll ever touch — as he used to put it, “We live on a slippery slope every day. There are two kinds of people: those who live on it and they know it, and those who are living on it and they don’t know it.” I’d rather be one who knows it.

Current: Are all of your local productions available on-demand one way or another?

Davidson: Nearly all of them. We have some that are produced outside our shop by independent producers, where we’re not able to get full streaming rights, so those may not be available on the different digital endpoints that PBS makes available to us through their co-ax system, streaming on our website but also on Roku and Apple TV and other platforms. Most of them are, and those that aren’t we’re really starting to work on more, because we just have to acknowledge that’s where the audience increasingly wants to watch things. Whether it’s catch-up, whether it’s stack-my-own-viewing lineup, we’ve got to be where the audience wants us to be. The trickier challenge is, how do we then tie back that on-demand viewing to membership support?

Passport is an important first step, but when you think about it, for 40-some years the public television model has been, “We want to entice you to watch us — with Nova and Nature and Sesame Street and great content — so that three or four times a year we can interrupt you and say, ‘Do you want to watch this other special that’s not Nova or Nature or Sesame Street? It’s something that we’re putting on just right now. And maybe we can get some of you to give us money, and in exchange we’ll give you this lovely thank-you gift of a DVD.’” It’s a model that’s worked really, really well for us. It’s a model that absolutely crumbles in an on-demand environment or, as I used to put it when I talk to station leaders who are still trying to wrap their heads around Passport, “If more and more viewing is occurring on on-demand platforms, where do you force them to watch the Suze Orman financial special? Oh, you can’t. So how do you adapt your model to fit that world where consumers have much more control over what they watch?”

Current: And so far the only answer seems to be Passport and — full disclosure — I’m on record as saying that I think Passport is a threat to everything we stand for! Because we shouldn’t charge people for it, ever. If we charge people for things, even if it’s an optional price point, we’re not public media anymore.

Davidson: I don’t disagree, but I will also point out: Passport is not a subscription service. It is not Netflix; it is Amazon Prime. Are you an Amazon Prime member?

Current: I am, yes.

Davidson: Why are you now an Amazon Prime member?

Current: Primarily because my wife watches too much TV.

Current: So you’re in it for the streaming service. I’m in it because my daughter likes two-day delivery, and she likes the music service. So Amazon Prime is a bundle of services, just as station membership has always been a bundle of services. At UNC-TV, member benefits for being a donor to our station include a monthly magazine. They include — now, of course — Passport. They include, depending on the level, some sort of a thank-you gift. They may include station tours and invitations to other events. Let’s not also discount the fact that there’s just this warm, fuzzy feeling from knowing that you’re supporting great public media. Passport’s just one more of those benefits.

We cannot, nor should we, ever position it as a Netflix competitor; it’s much more like Amazon Prime. Different people give for different reasons and, yeah, Amazon Prime as a streaming service is wonderful. But Passport is only one of the benefits somebody gets from being a donor.

Current: So you would envision a world in which everybody can watch first-run or recent episodes of anything for free via Cove, or whatever the back end or front end is for that matter. And Passport is just kind of an extra bonus that gives you archival stuff, deep episodes. Is that the vision that you’re supposing?

Davidson: That was absolutely was the vision of the station team that really proposed Passport and helped get PBS’s attention; that was absolutely the intent for PBS building it. I think what the service is today, four months after its launch, is just beginning to scratch the surface of what it could be. There’s still tons of work there at unearthing the rights to the deep, deep archive. What’s the role of potentially live streaming around that? We’ve done all sorts of what-if discussions. “Here’s the Great Performances feed of some fine Met Opera production. But maybe if you’re a Passport member, here are alternate camera views, here all the things that many of our commercial colleagues are already starting to experiment with, especially in the world of sports.”

What other benefits can we deliver digitally through Passport? At WNET, Dan Greenberg’s fantastic digital team up there is playing around with all sorts of notions. How can we do virtual screenings? How can we do filmmaker talkbacks, making them available to our members using the Passport authentication system? Can we use Passport and its authentication system to give our members and our donors first crack at tickets to some of our live events? All of those things are well within the realm of the possible using the technology. It really is a matter now of starting to experiment and figuring out where do those members, where do those donors, see real value.

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