Programmers work to free PBS’ back catalog from lockdown

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“Poldark,” the popular drama starring Aidan Turner, is one of the “Masterpiece” titles programmers have been unable to schedule for repeats. (Photo: Courtesy of Mammoth Screen)

The rollout of PBS’ sIX interconnection system — a major advance in public television distribution that lets stations pluck programs from the cloud — has created unexpected snags for station programmers trying to schedule repeats of a substantial back catalog of PBS shows.

After PBS completed its technology upgrade last January, station programmers gradually began to discover that they couldn’t access certain shows that were still in broadcast rights.

Episodes of Antiques Roadshow, Nature, Great Performances, Ken Burns’ Jazz, the Masterpiece drama Poldark and the two-part biography Margaret: The Rebel Princess were among the titles they couldn’t repeat, due to problems with usage windows.

The cloud-based system automatically locked down the episodes because interstitial elements that determine a program’s usage window — primarily promos and underwriting spots from previous airings — had expired. These windows are sometimes much shorter than the three or four years of broadcast rights usually granted to PBS member stations.

“What I have heard around the system is that programmers are quite frustrated by what has happened with usage and rights windows,” said Val VanDerSluis, director of programming and content at KTWU in Topeka, Kan., who just completed a term as president of the Public Television Programming Association. “You may have three years of rights to a show, but the usage window is only good for two.”

For example, broadcast rights for Margaret: The Rebel Princess, which debuted on PBS in February 2019, expire in 2026, VanDerSluis said. Yet she couldn’t schedule a repeat last October because usage rights had expired in May.

KTWU’s traffic department flagged the problem a week before the scheduled repeat, and VanDerSluis worked with Maria Bruno Ruiz, VP of program scheduling at PBS, to edit outdated material from a version of the show that had been saved on KTWU’s server. PBS later repackaged the show and made it available to all member stations.

That kind of hustle has been happening at stations and in PBS programming. The workaround is especially problematic for small stations that don’t have traffic departments or servers to store months or years of programs.

PBS and stations became aware of the issue during rollout of sIX, according to station programmers, consultants and PBS executives working to fix the problem. Last fall, station programmers became increasingly restive about the need for a solution during meetings of PTPA and the PBS Programing Advisory Council, a group of station programmers who advise PBS on content, strategy and execution.  

One-third of PBS programs that are now in rights are outside the usage window, said Jennifer Rankin Byrne, PBS spokesperson. “At any given time, program packages for approximately 70% of our programs have active usage windows,” she said. “The usage windows for the other 30% are expired for various reasons.”

Programmers can find information on usage windows for these shows on myPBS and ProTrack, she said.

“We have heard from a number of stations and understand the issue,” said Sumner Menchero, PBS senior director of programming operations and engagement. “We are trying to direct the resources that we have toward addressing the programs that are coming to air and have the highest likelihood of repeating.”

After a meeting with its PAC last November, PBS sent a memo to council members that listed the steps it’s taking to resolve issues with “rights and usage dates.” The first priority, according to the Nov. 19 memo, is to deal with programs with embedded “post-logo filler,” such as sizzle reels or branding spots, that create discrepancies between the rights and usage windows. PBS is working on marquee titles first; it doesn’t have a timeline for working through all the fixes.

“Addressing programs with post-logo filler was/is the short-term priority, and we are delivering on that,” Byrne said in an email. “The remaining points we will continue to address on a rolling basis because we know the importance of the usage windows to stations.”

Correcting the problem will also involve talks with sponsorship sales groups, according to the memo, to ensure that funding spots can run for the duration of program rights. PBS is also evaluating whether software changes or enhancements might help alleviate some glitches. 

‘Brilliant solution,’ in concept

VanDerSluis and other station programmers said that sIX has streamlined their work in many ways. It provides indefinite 24-hour access to public TV shows via a cloud library. And it’s much more flexible than the previous satellite-based transfer system, which provided access to programs for about 10 days. With sIX, stations no longer have to download programs on their internal servers for future plays.

The concept for sIX as flexible and accessible is a programmer’s dream, according to Steve Graziano, who leads the program consultancy P3 Public Media. “PBS will have all these shows on our big server, and you just download them on demand,” he said. “That is a brilliant solution.”

But that’s not always how it works, at least not yet. “Now each and every show has parameters,” Graziano said. “Stations are not able to download these programs.”

“You pay a tremendous amount of money to be a PBS member station and be given access to PBS content.”

Val VanDerSluis, Director of Programming and Content, KTWU

Stations rely heavily on repeats to flesh out their weekly schedules and tailor programming for their local communities, Graziano said.

“It’s incumbent on stations to check rights and releases. But if a station paid for a series for three years, it should have it for three years,” he said.

“You pay a tremendous amount of money to be a PBS member station and be given access to PBS content,” VanDerSluis said.

As with any transition to new technology, adoption of sIX requires implementing a new process for managing programs, Menchero said. There were bound to be “some bumps in the road as program managers adjusted their workflows to take usage windows into account,” she said.

When in doubt, reach out

Menchero and Ruiz said PBS has provided evergreen versions of episodes from series such as Masterpiece, Nova and American Experience on sIX. Embedded promos and spots were removed to create clean versions that stations can access and schedule for repeats.

PBS programming staff are also trying to accommodate programmers who request evergreen versions of specific programs. But they need lead time to handle these requests. 

Menchero advised programmers to check usage windows before scheduling a repeat. “But if they run into an issue and call us early enough, we are often able to find a solution,” she said.

Programmers can request help by emailing [email protected], Byrne said. “Addressing these issues can be as simple as extending the usage window, or as complicated as re-editing the program,” she said.

Stations shouldn’t edit embedded material out of a program unless they check with PBS staff first, Ruiz and Menchero said.

Jason Viso, the new president of PTPA and director of programming and content at Louisiana Public Broadcasting, said the scope of the challenge is significant.

He described a massive amount of backdated content “that will have to be addressed to make those rights clean again.”

Viso worked with PBS last year to repeat episodes of Great Performances, Great Performances at the Met and Nature that had expired usage windows but were still in broadcast rights. “I haven’t been refused yet a program I wanted to run,” he said. He clipped the out-of-rights material off the end of each show. Viso keeps copies of PBS shows on LPB’s servers until they’re out of rights, he said.

“PBS is very understanding of the issue, and I take them at their word when they say they are working on this and it is complicated,” said Graziano. “It certainly is.”

“It’s a big problem for stations and for PBS, and everybody is looking for ways to effectively address the issue,” he said.

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