PBS Digital Studios proposes regional hubs to help stations create video series

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Howard Conyers, right, hosts LPB's "Nourish," a PBS Digital Studios series featuring Louisiana's culinary and cultural traditions.

PBS Digital Studios is aiming to build digital-production capacity at local stations by creating several regional training hubs.

By placing experienced digital video producers into those hubs as fellows, the program will help stations develop shows for the burgeoning online audience, said Brandon Arolfo, senior director of content development and head of PBSDS. “Content benefits from the feel of a specific region,” he said.

That’s already worked well for Louisiana Public Broadcasting’s Nourish, a look at the history and culture of Southern food that was nominated for a Webby Award. The pilot featured Howard Conyers, a personable NASA rocket scientist and whole-hog barbecue pit master who grew up on a farm in South Carolina.

“Digital Studios thought he’d be a great host for the whole series,” said Christina Melton, LPB deputy director and Nourish producer. “We retooled a bit based on what the studios suggested would work well, and went with Howard as host. We learned a lot from the studios’ expertise.”

Nourish is one of three station-produced series supported by a CPB grant to PBSDS, the program that Arolfo hopes to expand on with the regional hubs. The training would allow more stations to produce video series that can attract and build digital viewership alongside PBSDS.

Nourish’s subscribers contribute to the more than 18.5 million fans who subscribe to PBSDS’ YouTube channels, a 330 percent increase over 2015. Of the 22 active channels, 10 are co-productions with local stations. The channels, each a separate series, showcase a variety of topics, from WNET’s First Person, which profiles a transgender high school student (8,600 subscribers), to Crash Course, a PBSDS educational partnership with independent producers (9.3 million subscribers).

An additional 29 channels are no longer releasing new videos but their evergreen content continues to attract viewers. “While they’re not producing new episodes, there’s still traffic,” Arolfo said.

“One of the most amazing things about PBS is the changing mentality about content. It’s become a far more holistic approach. We’re not just thinking about content strictly for broadcast or for YouTube.”

BRANDON AROLFO, senior director of content development and head of PBSDS

Some 74 percent of PBSDS channel subscribers are under age 35 and nearly four in 10 are under 25, according to PBS. That’s an especially valuable demographic for PBS, whose broadcast programming traditionally attracts viewers under age 10 and over 50.

PBS is prepared to invest more in content strategies that will attract and engage younger digital audiences. Its proposed budget for fiscal year 2020 recommends reinvesting PBSDS sponsorship revenues to increase the unit’s budget from $1.3 million this year to $4 million.

“As our system navigates a complex and challenging environment, including rapidly changing consumer behavior, we are focused on helping your stations connect with audiences where, when and how they consume content,” PBS President Paula Kerger told GMs in a May 3 email accompanying the proposed FY20 budget. The budget is now with member stations for review before the PBS Board votes on its adoption in June.

PBSDS, which launched in 2012 with a major philanthropic grant in 2010, is also courting other key funders. Arolfo has asked CPB to renew and increase its grant supporting digital content production by stations.

Azie Dungey, left, and Evelyn Ngugi cohost “Say it Loud,” a KLRU series that launched during Black History Month. (Photo: KLRU)

The corporation provided $640,000 to create three new digital series in FY18: LPB’s Nourish; America From Scratch, produced by Rewire at Twin Cities PBS; and Reinventors from KCTS in Seattle.

That one-year CPB outlay also paid for eight Digital Voltage regional training events that drew 320 staffers from 76 public media stations. The two-day PBSDS workshops taught everything from writing for digital programs to production techniques and audience engagement.

With a new multimillion dollar CPB grant, PBSDS would build several regional station hubs into “beacons” for mentoring on digital content creation, he said. He has requested funds to build the hub system and launch new digital series over two-and-a-half years.

In “a perfect world,” Arolfo said, that work “would allow us to develop between 10 and 15 new original digital series produced in partnership with member stations,” with each hub creating five programs.

He’s also proselytizing for that digital future at the PBS Annual Meeting through a Wednesday session, “When Stations Create Digital-First Series: Lessons from PBS Digital Studios.” Arolfo and panelists from LPB, KLRU and Twin Cities PBS will discuss a range of best practices, from building digital production teams to funding strategies and crowdsourcing.

‘A more holistic approach’

That Annual Meeting session is an outward reflection of a philosophical shift at PBS. “I truly think one of most amazing things about PBS is the changing mentality about content,” Arolfo said. “It’s become a far more holistic approach. We’re not just thinking about content strictly for broadcast or for YouTube.”

Arolfo cited The Great American Read as a prime example. That national project, which celebrated reading and encouraged participants to rank America’s best-loved novels, premiered with a PBS broadcast special last May. Then it used digital platforms to build audience engagement until September, when the series returned with the final seven episodes.

Over the summer, fans interacted with the PBSDS series It’s Lit, which Arolfo described as “visual video essays made for Facebook and YouTube” by Lindsay Ellis, a media and film critic with more than 608,000 YouTube subscribers. PBSDS worked with Ellis and her producer to create book-themed episodes to bridge Great American Read’s launch and its fall premiere. The 11 It’s Lit videos proved popular, with one titled “Why Did They Make Me Read This in High School?” earning 205,000 views.

The quality of PBSDS content and the recognition of the PBS brand set It’s Lit and other series apart in the vast ocean of YouTube content. YouTube often selects PBSDS videos to highlight, “which serves our content to even larger audiences,” Arolfo said. That in turn allows PBSDS to charge premium sponsorship revenues of $2,000 to $11,000 per episode.

PBSDS brings in a little over $1 million annually from YouTube clicks and sponsor spots on videos, Arolfo said. That’s about 40 percent of PBSDS’ typical annual production budget. PBS receives 60 percent of YouTube sponsorship revenue, and the platform retains the remaining 40 percent — a typical split, he said.

Change in funding dynamics

PBSDS started with funding from the Anne Ray Foundation, a Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropy. The 2010 startup grant supported creation of two digital series, Off Book and Idea Channel, which showcased the potential for web-only production. Those grant-funded projects grew into a PBSDS network of channels that launched in June 2012. Early favorites included an Aut0-Tuned remix of Fred Rogers’ theme song that racked up 700,000 views in the first 24 hours; it’s since hit 13.1 million views.

But the Anne Ray Foundation “has changed its dynamic with PBS a bit” in recent years, Arolfo said. Previously the foundation would provide umbrella grants to cover PBSDS expenses including personnel, marketing and content. Now it targets funds to specific projects including Sound Field, which premiered in January to explore the history and culture behind popular songs and genres. Twin Cities PBS’ Rewire team is co-producing that series.

As Arolfo looks to identify new funders for PBSDS, he also asked the National Endowment for the Humanities to fund a proposal to launch a humanities channel on the PBSDS network.

Joe Hanson, left, host of “It’s Okay to be Smart,” poses for a selfie with Arolfo during this year’s PBS Digital Studios Producers Summit. (Photo: PBS)

But he’s most optimistic and hopeful about another and much larger grant proposal to CPB. The grant could be transformative for the studios. “That would allow us to do a slew of content,” Arolfo said, explaining that the content would flow from the regional hubs.

CPB Chief Content and Innovation Officer Maja Mrkoci said she was impressed with the impact of the initial grant. Participation in last year’s Digital Voltage trainings “underscored that CPB’s investments are aligned with the needs of public media stations,” Mrkoci said in a statement to Current. “CPB is committed to supporting the evolution of the public media system by making investments in content, talent and professional development that bridge broadcast and digital.”

CPB will notify PBSDS about the grant this fall, Arolfo said. If CPB doesn’t back the proposal, “we would try to find another funder for it. Or do something smaller, a pared-down version” of the hubs, he said.

Either way, Arolfo wants to ensure that stations can draw on PBSDS expertise, including guidance about which genres play well online. “We have an idea of what’s needed on YouTube or Facebook that wouldn’t be redundant,” he said. “So we can steer them in the right direction.”

Staying nimble

PBSDS approached KLRU in Austin, Texas, last year to produce Say It Loud, which celebrates African-American history with a “comedic take on identity and pop culture,” according to its series page.

“Brandon said, ‘We have this idea, and we think you’d be a good partner,’” said Sara Robertson, KLRU production SVP. The station previously helped launch the PBSDS network with its popular BBQ With Franklin, which launched in 2012 and later evolved into a nationally distributed public TV series.

For Say It Loud, PBSDS identified a team that could produce a successful series — producer Hallease and co-hosts Azie Dungey and Evelyn Ngugi. Hallease, a video producer and digital storyteller with a her own YouTube channel, “lives in San Antonio and went to UT,” Robertson said, referring to the University of Texas at Austin. “We were always aware of each other’s work. It was a great fit for us.”

Say It Loud premiered with three episodes during Black History Month — an ambitious initial production schedule, Robertson said. The most popular episode so far is “Are You ‘Black’ or ‘African-American?’” with 74,000 views.

PBSDS provided the initial round of funding for Say It Loud. KLRU is aiming for 15 episodes of between five and 15 minutes for the first season.

Robertson at first doubted that the station’s development team, in the midst of a capital campaign, could take on fundraising for a new digital video series. “One of the appealing parts of the pitch from PBSDS was they could do fundraising for us for the first season,” she said.

Louisiana Public Broadcasting staff came up with the idea for Nourish. The series was nominated for a 2019 Webby Award in the Best Social Media Projects category. The most popular of 10 episodes to date, “Cajun Hot Roast: Cochon de Lait Festival,” has racked up some 557,000 views.

Melton is impressed by how the show’s digital audience grew into an online community. “With broadcast, there’s not much interaction,” she said. “But this audience is sharing recipes, photos of their tomatoes, what food they’re making. They’re asking where to buy seeds. It’s so exciting to see the community that’s built up around this show.”

Digital metrics help to tell that story, Melton said: With no paid advertising and just 11 videos, Nourish has 120,000 followers through its Facebook page. Its YouTube channel has attracted some 23,000 subscribers, more than 75 million views and 1 million engagements.

LPB is anticipating a second season, Melton said. “We are hoping for some additional CPB funding to relaunch and then we intend to try to get underwriting and also ad revenue from the platforms,” she said. “We may also try crowdsource funding, such as Patreon.”

The difference in how PBSDS interacts with each producing station also reflects its flexible response to the rapidly changing digital world, Arolfo said.

PBSDS also courts independent producers and stars of YouTube, such as the brothers who created Crash Course, which is now the most popular series in the PBSDS YouTube network. Its educational videos are used by teachers and anyone interested in topics such as chemistry, history, ecology, psychology, literature, astronomy, philosophy, physics and more.

Crash Course was originally a channel unto itself produced by Complexly that came into our network around 2015,” Arolfo said. Brothers John and Hank Green “are practically YouTube godfathers, they’re the real deal” in the digital realm, with millions of subscribers on their education channels, he said.

The Green brothers have been producing for the platform since 2007 and oversee a stable of 16 online shows on education, culture, nature, gaming and trivia. Their massive fanbase has grown into an online community subculture called Nerdfighteria. Nerdfight clubs have sprung up at several universities.

Now, Arolfo said, PBSDS is partnering with Complexly to develop and fund Crash Course and two more of its programs on the PBSDS network: PBS Eons, a history of life on Earth, and Origin of Everything, which reveals little-known cultural and historical origin stories. Arolfo said PBSDS also shares such educational content with PBS LearningMedia.

PBSDS “has been able to remain nimble in our approach,” Arolfo said, “and that’s what it takes in an organization doing a lot of new things.”

An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that PBS proposed to double spending on PBSDS in fiscal year 2020. The increase comes from Digital Studios’ sponsorship revenues. The article also misidentified two of the station-produced PBSDS series produced with CPB funding in FY18. The shows created with grant support were America From Scratch and Reinventors, not Say It Loud and Sound Field. In addition, the story incorrectly described KLRU as a licensee of the University of Texas. It is an independent, community licensed station.

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