Knowing what audiences want has powered growth for PBS Digital Studios

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Emily Zarka

"Monstrum" host Emily Zarka on set during a shoot.

When it launched in June 2012, PBS Digital Studios wanted to bring PBS content to the thriving digital platforms that millions of viewers were watching instead of their TVs. 

More than nine years after its first videos debuted on YouTube and Facebook, it’s safe to say that PBSDS has accomplished that mission. 

Its 50 ongoing series have amassed over 2.6 billion lifetime views, and the PBSDS YouTube channel draws 56 million monthly views. More than 60% of those viewers are between the ages of 18 and 34, according to PBS. The network’s broadcast content, meanwhile, has traditionally been viewed by people either under 10 or over 50. 

The PBSDS audience “is great for PBS because it helps bridge the gap between the kids audience and the broadcast audience,” said Brandon Arolfo, until recently head of PBSDS. (After speaking with Current for this article, Arolfo left PBS in August to become a VP at Travel + Leisure overseeing creative and content. PBS has posted the job listing for his replacement.)

Arolfo and the hosts of PBSDS’ series point to several strategies that have powered their audience growth. They listen to viewer feedback, stay open to changing course to deliver what fans want, and base decisions on data. PBSDS shows also leverage cross-promotional opportunities with other PBS shows and platforms.

When Arolfo arrived at PBS six and a half years ago, he focused first on drastically expanding PBSDS’ portfolio and audience. The unit had already landed its first hit with the viral video “Garden of Your Mind,” the Mister Rogers remix that has 13.9 million views on YouTube alone.

“At the time, the internet and YouTube wanted viral content,” said Arolfo. “That was great. But it was about figuring out a way to be more sustainable and to build a loyal audience that would come back week after week for more great PBS content on YouTube.”

Arolfo and his team established what he calls a “more streamlined operational process” for selecting shows to develop. “When we have an idea for a new show and we have the funding to do a specific kind of show, or we want to do a miniseries in connection to a larger PBS event, we’ll start to dive in deep to figure out the audience at the same time as we are building the creative of the show,” Arolfo said. 

When developing a show, the Digital Studios team works on an audience-targeting map while creating the first few episodes. Extensive surveys give superfans and subscribers examples of shows PBSDS is working on and ask which would most interest them.

For the show Monstrum, which debuted in 2018, PBSDS pinpointed an audience of 18- to 35-year-olds who were interested in spooky stuff but were a little shy about it. Hosted by professor and “monster expert” Emily Zarka, the show takes a deep dive into monsters, myths and legends. 

“It’s about really looking into the history of why these monsters are needed and why some people still want to believe in them,” Zarka told Current.

Zarka also wanted Monstrum to appeal to female viewers, especially with YouTube’s audiences largely skewing male. “It’s important to reach outside of that demographic,” she said. “So in terms of how we worked that, we focused on monsters that are maybe a little less scary or bloody, monsters that parents can show their kids or that teachers can teach in their middle-school or grade-school classes.” 

After a PBSDS show debuts, producers continue to track and respond to viewers’ interests. After a six-episode Facebook series, it quickly became apparent that Monstrum warranted way more material. The show expanded to YouTube, where it has amassed nearly 25 million lifetime views. Six Monstrum episodes have racked up more than a million views.

Zarka admits that before starting her show, she was “very naive” about YouTube and didn’t use it much. She’s now “constantly on the YouTube app,” she said.

“I read every single comment,” said Zarka. “… I listen to what viewers want to see and make note of what deserves more attention.”

The appetite for ‘random weird stuff’

PBS Digital Studios also leaves plenty of room for shows to evolve. When it approached video production company Complexly about making the show Eons, PBSDS initially wanted a series about dinosaurs. But co-host Blake de Pastino said he knew instantly that focusing on that time period would be too narrow in scope. 

“So I said to them, ‘You know what, I’ll see you that and raise you a show about the history of life,’” de Pastino said. “What we want to do is demystify scientific endeavors. They were like, ‘Let’s try it.’”

PBSDS wanted the first season’s episodes to be just three minutes. “But we couldn’t really have a meaningful conversation about anything without establishing the context,” said de Pastino. “We needed more than three minutes.”

Most episodes ended up being five to seven minutes long. For the second season and beyond, though, PBSDS allowed the Eons crew to double the episode length.

After PBS Digital Studios releases a show, everyone involved examines YouTube and Facebook data to help build audience.

“I’m not saying that data rules all,” Arolfo said. “I’m saying that data helps to lead things. It helps to justify things. … You have to consider the platform, the audience, and all the other tools in the platform as well. We’ve chosen to be on these platforms, which by their very nature are generating data at an incredible speed. It would be very disrespectful if we didn’t digest and use it.”

Eons co-host Kallie Moore credits producer Seth Radley for monthly deep dives into analytics. The show has learned that dinosaurs are almost “too popular,” Moore said.

Moore (Photo: Nick Jenkins)

“Dinosaurs are usually our lowest-performing episodes,” she said. “… People want to learn about the random weird stuff that they’ve never even heard of before. People are very interested in what they can see around them.”

When Zarka learned from Monstrum’s analytics that she was attracting a global audience, she decided to pivot and focus on monsters from different countries that she wouldn’t have targeted as quickly. 

“My biggest intention is to try and take the popular Western monsters, like vampires [and] zombies, and balance those out with monsters from other nonwhite cultures that I think people deserve to know,” said Zarka. “I wanted the show to inspire other people to make connections with cultures and individuals that they might not encounter otherwise.”

From YouTube to broadcast

Equally central to PBSDS’ evolution has been encouraging producers to explore new formats and platforms. The team behind It’s Okay to Be Smart has created videos challenging its 3.95 million subscribers to answer questions or complete certain tasks. Other explainer episodes are more informative and educational. 

PBSDS has also started to focus more on TikTok, launching an Eons spinoff on the platform. Over six months, it has amassed more than 175,000 followers and 17 million views. 

“I was evangelical about creating content for TikTok,” said de Pastino. “I’ve been worrying for the past 10 years about the next big disruptive thing that’s going to make YouTube less relevant. TikTok is it. I’m firmly convinced of that. So it would be remiss of us not to be present on that platform, because part of our mission is to meet people where they are. That’s where they are, by the billions.”

PBSDS’ cross-platform growth will cross another threshold later this year when it releases the first podcasts spun off from series. The shows will be based on Eons and It’s Lit, which focuses on books, and will be co-produced with PRX, said PBS Chief Programming Executive Sylvia Bugg Monday during the virtual PBS TechCon. PBS expects the shows to debut this winter, Bugg said.

As it has progressed, PBSDS has looked to connect its content with other PBS events and shows with the help of the company’s business-intelligence groups and marketing teams. Arolfo praised PBS leadership’s “savvy” decision to move PBSDS into its general audience and programming division in January 2020.

“That sent a message that there was no substantial difference between the way that PBS was treating digital programming and broadcast programming,” said Arolfo. “They just saw content as content.”

If PBSDS encounters skeptics, Arolfo is now able to point to the seismic growth of Digital Studios in recent years, telling them, “This is an amazing opportunity for you to expand your audience as well.”

The PBSDS team works in close proximity with broadcast colleagues during early stages of production, enabling them to develop a digital angle for broadcast shows early on. One such collaboration recently saw Joe Hanson, host of It’s Okay to Be Smart, film a miniseries in Tanzania on conservation wildlife that connected to Life at the Waterhole, a PBS and BBC series.

When PBS was looking for an hourlong Halloween special for broadcast last year, Arolfo and his team were able to point them to Monstrum. Zarka had the perfect topic lined up, too. 

“We need to figure out ways to help the PBS system make this content sustainable and … make it appealing on a local and national level.” 

Brandon Arolfo, formerly head of PBS Digital Studios

“PBS had been saying, ‘You should do zombies. You should do zombies,’” Zarka said. “I kept insisting the story was too big just for YouTube. I knew we needed a bigger platform.”

Arolfo was able to demonstrate Monstrum’s success using data, supporting the idea of a 60-minute episode. The result was Exhumed: The History of Zombies, which went on to win two Silver Telly Awards for providing unique insight into America’s history with slavery and foreign occupation, as well as modern-day uncertainties about pandemics and bioterrorism.

Zarka believes Exhumed helped to boost Monstrum’s popularity, too. “I do think we had more viewers coming to the channel. I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw an uptake in the older demographics,” said Zarka. “The people that liked Exhumed definitely went on the YouTube channel.” Unsurprisingly, Zarka is keen to do another longer episode for broadcast.

Eons’ producers envision a broadcast show that would start on digital platforms: “a big idea that would be three parts, each 15 minutes long,” Moore said. These parts would then be combined into a 45-minute PBS show. Eons was close to launching such a show when the pandemic hit. The show’s team delayed production until travel is safer.

Arolfo said such connections within PBS need to continue to allow PBSDS to present themes and topics to new audiences. That could include taking an unused interview from a broadcast show and putting it online, where PBSDS can do something different with it. 

As PBSDS continues to work internally to grow, it will also seek to bring more stations into the fold as contributors of digital content. Stations such as KQED, Alaska Public Media and Louisiana Public Broadcasting have already been producing PBSDS series.

“We need to figure out ways to help the PBS system make this content sustainable and … make it appealing on a local and national level,” Arolfo said. 

That work will advance with a boost from CPB. In August PBSDS received $3 million to establish three Regional Digital Centers of Innovation located in geographically diverse markets across the country. Each center will work with up to three stations, resulting in up to 15 new digital series that will appear on YouTube and other digital platforms over the next two years.

“I can only imagine the beautiful deluge of different content that will come from the many stations all across the United States,” said Arolfo. “I want our digital platforms to represent what America truly looks like.”

Current’s Julian Wyllie contributed reporting to this article.

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