New PBS policy will locally limit national content on stations’ digital platforms

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PBS will soon prevent member stations from digitally distributing national content beyond their broadcast service areas, which the network says will help avoid viewer confusion and strengthen station brands.

Stations will need to “geoblock,” or geographically limit, national PBS content on their websites and mobile and over-the-top apps. PBS’ board approved the policy at a March 26 meeting at the recommendation of its Station Services Committee. The rule applies to streaming as well as video-on-demand programs.

PBS has not yet set a date for the policy to take effect to give stations time to make necessary updates, Chief Digital Officer Ira Rubenstein told Current.

PBS President Paula Kerger said in an email to GMs Tuesday that the new policy is also intended to “protect donations on digital platforms for local stations.”

Rubenstein said the growth of station presences across various platforms, apps and search engines could confuse viewers who are looking for national PBS content.

The new policy will not hinder viewing by station donors. WOSU GM Tom Rieland, Station Services Committee chair, told the PBS Board that the rule “carves out existing donors’ ability to receive PBS national content while outside of their station’s broadcast area.”

The new rule addresses “challenges posed by a rapidly evolving digital landscape,” Rieland said.

Rubenstein said the policy has been under discussion for about a year. “Should stations be able to livestream PBS content outside their broadcast area? That doesn’t seem right,” he said. “But they should be able to deliver local productions to anyone they want to.”

“That’s what this policy balances,” Rubenstein said. “If the station has the capability and wants to build its own apps for mobile or OTT, they should be allowed to.”

Many stations use a localized app developed by PBS. About 50 other public TV stations have hired the company Public Media Apps to build their apps. Updating those won’t be complicated but could be fairly time-consuming, said Peter Baker, Public Media Apps president and CTO.

“Right now, the apps play on-demand content regardless of where the app is physically located,” Baker said. Adding geoblocking to each app “will certainly take development work, but it’s not insurmountable,” he said. The company does not charge client stations for new app requirements, he said.

The new policy is part of PBS’ ongoing refinement of its approach to digital content. This month, the network began allowing same-time streaming of its prime-time programs. And PBS Distribution launched the PBS Living subscription streaming channel in March, offering lifestyle and do-it-yourself programs on Prime Video Channels, an Amazon service.

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