This piece is adapted from my commentary in episode 66 of The Pub, Current’s weekly podcast.
Imagine, for a moment, that you’re a lobbyist for public television, and you’re headed to Capitol Hill to make your case for funding.
You walk into Congressman Johnson’s office (not a real person, by the way), and because you’re good at your job, you open with an anecdote — everybody can relate to a story.
You tell him about the biology teacher at Seaside High School in Seaside, Ore. Her school is in a low-income district, and she only gets a $900 budget every year to spread across 12 class sections. Most of that money goes to lab equipment, so she doesn’t have much left over for books or videos.
But thanks to Congress’s past commitment to public broadcasting, she does have Nova.
The venerated PBS science program produced by WGBH is an invaluable pedagogical tool for this teacher, who actually is a real person. Her name is Suzanna Kruger, and I talked to her on the phone the other day.
“For students that are not very proficient readers but are capable of understanding scientific content, I often times link a full hour Nova program for them,” she said.
For the students who are reading on grade level, Kruger might assign an article on the origin of life on earth from Scientific American. But for the kids who don’t read so well, she tells them to get on PBS.org and watch an episode of Nova’s “Origins” series with Neil Degrasse Tyson.
Now remember, you’re a lobbyist, right? And at this point in your pitch, the congressman is putty in your hands (assuming he’s not a creationist). CPB’s appropriation is all but guaranteed for another year.
But then you get to the next part of Kruger’s story.
“This trimester, which started in March, a number of my students said, ‘I can’t get to the video, it says it’s not available in my area,’” Kurger said. “And so I did the same thing, and realized, ‘Oh, there seems to be a paywall.’”
“A paywall?!”, Congressman Johnson shouts. “What is this, HBO Go?”
He picks up your briefcase, shoves it in your arms and shoves you out the door in the same swift movement.
“What are we giving you taxpayer dollars for if you’re going to make poor Suzanna Kruger and her students in Seaside, Ore. buy a freaking login before they can watch your videos?”, he barks.
Then he pushes you into the hallway and slams the door behind you, and you stand there thinking, “Man, maybe he’s right. What have I become?”
The paywall that Suzanna hit looked like a little blue compass graphic. And it, of course, was Passport.
“Well, it’s not a paywall,” some public TV people might say. “It’s a member benefit.”
Starting late last year, stations around the country began rolling out Passport, a service that provides access to archival content online to people who’ve made a minimum donation — usually $60 annually, from what I’ve seen.
To be clear, you can still go to PBS.org or station websites and stream dozens of Nova episodes for free. But the majority of episodes have that little blue compass icon that Kruger and her students started seeing in the spring.
“Honestly, it made me angry enough to reach out to OPB, which is our station affiliate here in Oregon, and I also emailed PBS,” Kurger said. She got an automated reply from the network, and a personal response from OPB that said the station can’t control what PBS puts behind the paywall.
“I teach in a high-poverty community,” she said. “I teach a number of students that are not going to be able to support OPB.”
I have, at various times in the past, described Passport — or on-demand member content more generally — as a profound threat to everything public media stands for. I like to think I’ve moderated my position since then.
There are lots of taxpayer-funded services that are not totally free to all. You still have to buy a ticket to a lot of subsidized zoos and museums out there. You sure as hell have to buy a ticket to the football game in that stadium your taxes paid for.
But Kruger’s story is different. PBS and stations didn’t create a new service and then start selling it. From this teacher’s perspective, they took something back that they’d previously been giving away for free and started charging for it. (Sorry, minimum-donation-extracting for it.)
That looks really bad. And it may actually be really bad too; I’m torn.
Maybe it’s not so bad. Maybe this is a membership inducement that will bring in tons of money, which can be spent on amazing new shows that will benefit a lot of people. Everyone can at least watch everything on TV for free, and online for some limited time after air.
Maybe the pros do outweigh the cons, but I can tell you for sure that the kind of experience Kruger had looks really bad.
I emailed PBS spokesperson Jan McNamara and handed her the unenviable task of trying to reply to Kruger’s concerns. She sent me a statement that raises a few important points.
“It is true that the rights for some video content have recently changed, which has shortened the window during which some content is available for free streaming,” McNamara wrote.
She continued, “This is not simply due to the launch of Passport, but is the result of the complex environment of rights and digital distribution, which involves a number of different entities and specific contractual obligations that can vary title by title, all within the context of changing technologies and significant operational costs.”
That may indeed be the case, however it’s important to remember that from the user’s perspective, the only thing that’s changed is the appearance of that little Passport icon. Regardless of whether Passport is to blame, it will be blamed.
McNamara also pointed out that Kruger could go to PBSlearningmedia.org and get school standards–aligned excerpts from the Nova videos she used to use in class.
That’s true, but they are just circa three-minute excerpts out of hour-long programs.
Here’s something McNamara wrote that made me sincerely happy: “[A] deep archive is being maintained for certain genres, such as news, public affairs and independent film, including such series as Frontline and PBS NewsHour.”
That’s awesome; the news is not going behind the paywall. That is a very good choice.
And lastly, a hopeful note from McNamara: “Recognizing that many teachers include Nova and other content as part of their lesson plans, we are working with producers to extend access to episodes that are particularly popular with educators.”
Excellent. Those are all good answers to tough questions. But I think she needs better answers.
How to get Kruger back
I don’t mean that McNamara in particular needs better answers; I think she’s messaging this the best she can with what she’s got. I mean the system needs to think really hard about what it’s doing with members-only content, and how it comports with public media’s mission, because maybe it just doesn’t.
So many of the obvious arguments in favor of Passport don’t hold up to scrutiny, in my estimation.
You might say, “Well, we’ve always sold videotapes and DVDs of our programs, either in stores or as fundraising premiums.”
Granted, but there’s a significant unit cost associated with manufacturing and shipping each DVD.
Online — if you’ve already acquired the rights to a video, put it up on COVE and made it available for streaming to Passport members — how much does it increase your costs to also make something available to non-members? Data costs will obviously go up, but I’d bet the unit price — your costs per additional user — are going to be much lower than if you were burning, packaging and shipping DVDs.
You might say, “Well, back in the day, the only way to watch any public television for free was to actually watch in on TV. Getting to watch anything on-demand was a bonus that you always had to pay for, and now at least some on-demand content is available for free.”
Sure, but back in the day, over-the-air TV was the core product. Is it still? Is it going to be tomorrow?
I think we’re rapidly moving to a world — some of us are already there — where to watch TV means to go on the Internet and call up a specific episode you want to see out of all of the episodes of that show that have ever been released. That is the primary service that public television will provide to people, just the way over-the-air TV used to be the primary service.
If most of the episodes that people would want to see are behind a paywall, then that will mean that public television’s core product is a subscription service.
Is that the world we want to live in? Is that what public media stands for?
Public television used to be like the city park, where everybody is free to wander in and out as they please. We’re talking about making public television more like the symphony; maybe they do a few free concerts a year to justify their little subsidy from the city council, but mostly they play for season-ticketed gray hairs.
Is this narrative I’m presenting unfair? Inaccurate? Good! I hope it is.
I hope you’re furiously coming up with all kinds of counterarguments in your head right now, because you’re going to need them. Suzanna Kruger was the poster child for the societal value of public media, and for the moment, you’ve lost her. You’ve got to get her back — her and everyone like her.
If that just means spinning the story a little better, give it a shot.
If it means refining Passport to make sure that more of the really important stuff remains free-to-all, I’m all for it.
If it means realizing that Passport costs the public TV system more in goodwill than it gains in money, well, better to realize that sooner than later. If you wait too long, it’s really going to cost you.
Just like watching old episodes of Nova.
Adam Ragusea hosts Current’s weekly podcast The Pub and is a journalist in residence and visiting assistant professor at Mercer University’s Center for Collaborative Journalism.