How regional centers, NSF funds are helping to diversify PBS Digital Studios content

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When Maribel Lopez started as head of PBS Digital Studios Dec. 13, she knew that major developments were on the horizon.

At the end of January, PBSDS announced that it had selected three stations as Regional Digital Centers of Innovation: Houston Public Media, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS North Carolina. Backed by a $3 million CPB grant, the centers will partner with PBSDS and additional stations over the next two years to develop up to 15 new digital series. 

Around the same time, PBSDS also launched its first-ever podcasts, based on its series It’s Lit! and Eons. Plans are afoot as well for how PBSDS will use a $2.5 million National Science Foundation grant to support STEM content and attract women and people of color as viewers. 

That gives Lopez a full plate after her time as an EP and managing director at TPT in St. Paul, Minn. Current recently spoke with Lopez about becoming head of PBSDS, why her background at a member station is so vital, and how she plans for PBSDS to represent what America truly looks like. This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Gregory Wakeman, Current: Unlike your predecessor, you come to the role with a background at a station. How does that affect how you look at the role of PBS Digital Studios and what you hope to accomplish?

Maribel Lopez: I spent a little over 11 years at TPT and prior to that, as my first entry into public media, I was an intern at Iowa Public Television. So it’s always been a really important space for me. Coming to PBS and having that member station perspective and having worked as a Digital Studios producer on that side of things is really important, especially with this Regional Digital Centers of Innovation project. I’m able to put myself in the station’s shoes and really understand where they’re coming from, especially when it comes to resources, working with management and advocating for this kind of work in the digital space. I’ve been there, so I can empathize and support in that way. It’s exciting. It’s the future.

One of the big things that was really important for me coming into this job, when I was talking to Sylvia [Bugg, PBS’ chief programming executive and GM, general audience programming] in my interview, was having that perspective. Being on the station side and working with Digital Studios … it was sometimes clear that there’s a big difference between coming from a station and being inside of PBS. So I hope I can provide the support that the stations need along with the team when it comes to these Regional Digital Centers of Innovation.

Current: Can you give more detail about the specific areas that you want to grow within PBS Digital Studios?

Lopez: One of the things that I really love about what Digital Studios has been doing is building communities around different subject matter areas. I think it’s super smart, and I think stations can learn from that. … So an example of that will be coming soon. We just relaunched one of our channels that used to be a show about history into a themed channel about history. We’ll have multiple shows feeding it and therefore build a community that loves a certain subject matter. And at the same time, it doesn’t put the onus all on one show to be super successful. Instead it puts more of a collaborative team effort into these themed channels.

I’d love to be able to do more of that and to respond to the needs and the wants of the viewers that we have on Digital Studios and to new audiences as well, and be able to create more themed channels and build up the existing themed channels to really touch on the sub-themes that they’re really interested in. On that note, we do an annual survey with our audience every year at Digital Studios, and that really helps us in our decision-making. We don’t let the data inform everything we do, of course, but it’s helpful to really, truly be listening to our audience and be responsive and take into consideration what they have to say. And we’re going through a lot of that data right now to help us plan for the future.

Current: How do you plan to develop shows and ideas?

Lopez: It’s the blessing of working on the internet, right? Having all of that content allows us to be responsive. I worked on the broadcast side when I first started in public media. You get ratings information, you get a little bit of demographic information. That was very different 10 years ago, and more data is available now. But now is the time to be more responsive, and you can make decisions even within a show. If you have a 10-episode run of a show, we can develop a couple of the first few episodes and start to listen and look at the data and use that to inform episodes six, seven and eight. If we see at a certain point in an episode that viewer retention drops off, we have the chance to look at the format or the content at that point in the episode and try not to repeat that. We want to keep people watching the whole way through.

And that’s just one small example. We’re always going to be grounded in the mission of what public media is, of course. And we have some themed areas that we want to continue to build upon. But there’s also a level of listening we can do to our audience. If people are really into science, what kind of science do they want to hear more about? Do they want to learn more about psychology? OK, then we can try to build something around that and best serve them. And I still feel like that totally aligns with our mission. We’re here to inform and inspire and all of that. So that is really exciting, and that’s what it means to really be audience-first and the beauty of working in the space that we’re in.

Current: What kinds of new programming can we expect?

Lopez: I mentioned a little bit about Origins. Our former show Origin of Everything is turning into the themed channel Origins. The new show for that channel is called Historian’s Take. It’s coming at you next week, and they dropped a trailer earlier today. It’s history through a pop-culture lens, and it’s going to feature our former host of Origin of Everything, Danielle Bainbridge. Also Dolly Li, who brought us A People’s History of Asian America last year, along with Adrian De Leon as the host. So [we’re] excited about that one. That’s top of mind, everything we’re talking about right now. Since we’ll have this history-themed channel, we’ll be looking to feed it with more shows like this.

As part of the Regional Digital Centers of Innovation, we can expect a bunch of new shows to come from that project, anywhere from 12 to 15 new shows across different channels on YouTube and possibly on other platforms — podcasts, TikTok, all of that. We’re going through the process of vetting applications and proposals that we received for the sub-grantees. … We’ve got those three Regional Digital Centers, and each of them will have sub-grantees. All of those stations will produce a show. We’re going through that process right now to figure out who the sub-grantees are. We got 34 pitches from across the system. And hopefully by June, we’ll know who they are. We have some criteria that we’re measuring them up against. And of course, we want to make sure that we don’t have duplicative shows and things like that. So that’ll be a fun exercise and will bring us a bunch of new shows. So I can’t tell you right now exactly what the themes are. 

We also have that [National Science Foundation] grant, so you can expect a large body of work coming to our Terra-themed channel. We’re working with a new producer on one of the first ones, and it’s still under a working title. It explores human behavior, more on the behavioral science side — why am I like this? Why do I do the things that I do? That’s coming as part of the NSF grant, as well as a show on futurism. Those are both in development right now.

Current: The three Regional Digital Centers are Houston Public Media, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS North Carolina. Why were these particular stations chosen?

Lopez: Each of these stations represents — I think this is true for any station — very diverse regions of the country. And each of the stations brings a different level of expertise to creating digital content, as well as different station structures. You have university licensees, some that are joint licensees, and different sizes as well. The stations were selected prior to my joining Digital Studios, but I was pleased to see that they are very different representative regions of the country. Hopefully through the sub-grantee process, too, we’ll be able to bring even more geographic diversity as well as station market size, different levels of experience. Because ultimately, we want these three centers to be able to franchise out Digital Studios and take the best practices of what it means to create digital content and do it in a way that is optimal, effective and with best practices, and be able to train the trainer and teach their sub-grantees. So there’s going to be a lot of learning through this project. There are also going to be some workshops that happen through this. So there’s a lot of learning by doing. But there’s also going to be learning through seminars and workshops.

We’ve already started some of that with the Regional Digital Centers of Innovation. It’s a two-year project, so we’ll be sharing [information] out at Annual Meeting hopefully. We hope to have our producer summit this fall, fingers crossed, where we can bring everybody together to learn not only from other RDCIs and the sub-grantees but to learn from the long-time creators on the PBS Digital Studios network and be able to hear from folks like Joe Hanson or Emily Zarka who have been doing this work for years, as well as other industry experts and things like that. We’re not sure if we’re going to be able to do that, COVID permitting. But that’s another big piece of the project as well.

Current: Each regional center is going to be led by a digital EP. Will those be filled by people already at the stations or are you looking for outside hires?

Lopez: They’re all in a different phase of that hiring process. So they’ve been working closely with us. Ultimately, they get to decide who that digital EP is, and that person will be a key leader in bringing these projects to life. So that’s been really great, because it means we’re bringing more folks into the system, first of all, and also, I think some of the positions are remote. So you don’t have to be based there. And we all know right now it’s very competitive to find really great talent. Three positions doesn’t feel like a big number, but it’s going to be a big job and it’s going to be an important one, hopefully one that really raises the visibility for those individuals and for the stations, and contributes to the pipeline of talent that we all keep talking about that we really want in public media.

Current: Your predecessor at PBS, Brandon Arolfo, told me that going forward he wanted PBS Digital Studios to represent what America truly looks like. You’re looking to achieve that with these digital centers. How else is Digital Studios working toward that?

Lopez: That’s incredibly important, and I wouldn’t be in public media if I didn’t believe that we could get there. I’ve dedicated my entire career to working in public media, and I believe that we should reflect the audiences that we want to serve. If I didn’t see myself or at least people that look like me or have my energy or whatever you want to say, I probably wouldn’t watch this content.

So the fact that Digital Studios resides not only on YouTube but increasingly across more platforms, that’s just making it even more important for us to continue to invest in diverse talent, not only in front of but behind the camera. … It’s better for the content to have a diverse cast, a diverse crew bottom to top. It’s better for the pitches that we get. It’s better for creativity, for business. Everybody’s coming at it from a different perspective. So I love that. I’m totally invigorated by that. This team already does it really well. And the Regional Centers and the NSF project are only going to take it up another level.

Current: PBS Digital Studios is looking to bring on a consultant for diversity, equity and inclusion to support the stations. Has that consultant been selected, and what are you hoping to achieve with that?

Lopez: I get so smiley because we had such great candidates for that job, and jumping into this project I was so excited about it. We had to hit the ground running, you have to hire this role, and we had this amazing pool of folks, and it was really hard to pick. We couldn’t have gone wrong, I don’t think.

We have a great consultant that joined us. She’s just been with us a little over a month now starting at the end of February. Her name is Shanique Bonelli-Moore. She spent many years in the talent and entertainment industry. She’s very familiar with DEI best practices, just a lovely person and a great collaborator, and has already brought so much to this process. The first thing she was tasked with was as each of the stations hired a digital EP, she played a part in that interview process. We don’t have the final say over who the stations ultimately make an offer to, but we were part of the interview process, and she was playing a key role in that. So it’s been great to have her because that’s where she comes from, too, experience-wise. It’s been great also having an outside perspective on the project. 

Current: What did you learn from your most recent survey of your audience?

Lopez: It’s a great chance for us to get a sense of who our viewers are. We get some demographic information, and we’re still pulling all of that together, so forgive me, I don’t have numbers readily available. … We know a lot of our current viewers like the science content. A lot of the longtime shows on Digital Studios are science-related. But being able to get a little bit more specific, we did see neuroscience and psychology bubble up as a theme of interest.

… For our history-themed channel, it’s not like we just decided we should turn it into a history-themed channel. We thought, PBS is known for this kind of thing, first and foremost. We also have done some history shows. We had a successful one. It had a good run. We don’t want to bring it back as is. Where can we go from here? And we see that there’s an interest in potentially doing more history content around different communities, different BIPOC communities, LGBTQ communities. So it would be really great to have a number of different history shows that are focused around various communities and see where that takes us. Historian’s Take is a partnership with CAAM [the Center for Asian American Media], and we worked with CAAM on A People’s History of Asian America along with Dolly Li. That project was such a quick hit, and it was responsive in meeting that moment of what was going on in the world. And we want to be able to do more of that, and CAAM has proven to be a really excellent partner. We’d love to find ways to work with more of the NMCAs [National Multicultural Alliance organizations] on some of these shows moving forward as well. … I’d love to get to know the folks at some of the different NMCAs and find ways that we could collaborate.

Current: Last year PBS Digital Studios received a $2.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation to support STEM content and to attract women and people of color as audiences. What’s going on with that initiative?

Lopez: It’s still in the early stages. Part of that is because we’re working with a couple of university partners to do audience research first. We want to know what the people want. Right now we’re in that stage where we’ll be sending out a survey working with these university partners with different log lines for shows, for the audience that we aim to serve and reach with the content, to get their response and to really see what it is that they’re interested in before we dive in and start cranking out the content. But we do have a couple of shows that were written into that NSF grant, the futurism one and the one I described about behavioral science, “why am I like this,” that are part of that grant as well and already moving forward. Those hopefully will be coming in spring or summer.

Current: How important to the growth of Digital Studios are social media platforms such as TikTok?

Lopez: Digital Studios has long been a very YouTube-centered network. We’ll continue to do that. That’s the core of what we do. We all know being in more places and meeting your audience where they are is just fundamental, and especially building brand recognition, getting in front of younger, newer audiences. We’re going to be launching a PBS Digital Studios TikTok, hopefully this week, and we’ve been working more closely with all of our production partners, our producers and our station production partners to create social video strategies for their shows. So you’ve got, for instance, Two Cents, our personal finance show as it exists on YouTube. How does that exist on Instagram? What does that look like on TikTok? We don’t want to just take the same thing and move it over. That doesn’t necessarily work. But what does it look like on that platform and how can we be intentional about being in those spaces? So we are absolutely doing more of that. It’s something that we’re in constant communication with our producers about brainstorming and coming up with ideas on the best approach based on the show, the format, the host and all of that.

Current: Do you ever discuss earning subscription or membership revenue from Digital Studios content?

Lopez: I wish it was an easier question to answer. Some of our shows have membership programs, if you could say that. They have a Patreon, and that’s select shows. It’s a great thing to explore, something that we may need to explore, of course being sensitive to the fact that member stations are first and foremost trying to get funding and member support. That’s always a really important thing for us to remember. That’s definitely something I would love to give some time and thought to as I move forward with this new role.

Current: Last month, PBS Digital Studio videos became available on the Local Now streaming platform. Why did PBS Digital Studios make that move?

Lopez: It’s another example of just being in more places and trying to reach folks where they are. I’m not exactly sure how that opportunity came about, but to me it seems like a smart choice to try to get our content in as many places as possible. And for what it’s worth, too, it’s not all Digital Studios content. We have different agreements with different shows. So it’s really just the stuff we own that can go on those platforms. We’re looking into other places and get approached from time to time on getting our content on different platforms. So I’m also wanting to better understand the opportunities that we have in those spaces, because it’s a new space for me as well.

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