Public TV builds footprint on FAST channels in bid to reach younger audiences

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Bob Ross hosting an episode of "The Joy of Painting."

If you haven’t heard, public television’s lovable landscape painter is having a moment.

The late Bob Ross, creator and host of The Joy of Painting throughout the ’80s and early ’90s, has had a resurgence of posthumous fame thanks to a formidable presence of his TV show on YouTube, an upcoming comedic feature film starring Owen Wilson and a Netflix documentary about the legacy of his business.

Another place where new and old fans are gathering for all things Ross is on free, ad-supported streaming TV services, commonly known as FAST channels. Platforms like Roku and Samsung TV Plus have all been offering The Joy of Painting for at least a year, some longer. The channels’ popularity, especially with younger audiences, helped shape a new distribution and revenue strategy for other popular and enduring public TV programs — including Nature, Antiques Roadshow and cooking shows starring the late Julia Child — to be repackaged for the modern era of media consumption.

A significant portion of FAST channels are essentially rerun hubs, infinitely airing episodes of a specific series 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If you’re a fan of reality shows that feature domineering personalities, there are FAST channels for you, like Gordon Ramsay’s Hell’s Kitchen and Kitchen Nightmares, or another devoted to Abby Lee Miller’s Dance Moms. If you’re into scripted classics, there’s Degrassi: The Next Generation. And there are FAST channels that leverage content from across an entire media brand, such as CNN, Vice, Court TV and Bon Appétit. In the case of The Joy of Painting, viewers can watch a live feed or on-demand streams of around 380 episodes.

FAST channels allow advertisers to reach cable cord-cutters who watch television selectively and in a variety of ways — on mobile devices, computers or, if they’re so inclined, on an actual television. These viewers, who can access FAST channels via apps or the streamer’s website, know what their favorite shows are. And they’re willing to endure a few ads to be able to watch them for free.

“There’s a general understanding that FAST channels and the platforms that they’re on are attracting different audiences,” said Shawn Halford, EVP of content and VP of exchange and digital services for American Public Television. The viewership is trending younger and more diverse than those watching traditional linear television.

Public media has a balancing act to play in this free, ad-filled environment. Producers and their distributors have to consider how the ads that display on FAST channels align with public television’s noncommercial standards and brand values. And public media as a whole faces larger questions about how this strategy fits into its mission to reach all of the viewing public.

There’s also an existential question about the future of broadcast in a streaming world. “The fact is that broadcast viewership is declining and everybody’s moving towards streaming,” said PBS Distribution President Andrea Downing. “And so we need to evolve.”

Ira Rubenstein, PBS’ chief digital and marketing officer, was similarly blunt. “It can’t all just be the PBS app,” he said. “You have to be where the consumers are, and they are on all these platforms.”

Beyond reaching audiences who rarely watch linear broadcast television, they described public TV’s FAST channels as part of a larger strategy to secure more live linear streaming deals for stations. One such agreement was struck late last year with Allen Media Group’s Local Now to provide free livestreams of local stations and the PBS Kids 24/7 channel. Months before the deal came together, Allen Media Group and PBS created a channel of PBS Digital Studios content on Local Now. 

‘Who doesn’t need more Bob Ross?’

The idea for streaming-era Bob Ross piggybacks off The Joy of Painting’s reinvention as a YouTube hit. Since the channel launched in 2011, its videos have amassed more than 580 million views and nearly 5.5 million subscribers. To put that into perspective, Bob Ross’ YouTube channel has more subscribers and views than the YouTube channel for PBS, which rolled out in 2006 and has accrued 70 million views so far. The total number of subscribers to Bob Ross’ YouTube channel nearly outnumbers the combined total of subscribers to the PBS Kids and PBS NewsHour channels on YouTube, though those two have a combined total of nearly 4.5 billion views.

American Public Television, a syndication and program exchange service that managed national broadcast distribution of The Joy of Painting on public TV, worked with Bob Ross Inc. to debut the series on a FAST channel in April 2020. 

The deal to bring The Joy of Painting to Samsung TV Plus came together months earlier, but the timing of its launch during COVID-19 lockdowns turned out to be advantageous. More people were streaming television and seeking out what came to be known as “comfort TV.” (In its news story at the time, Variety said of the launch, “Because who doesn’t need more Bob Ross right now?”)

“We just thought it would be a really good idea because it’s a new type of audience and [Ross] is already so ubiquitous, he’s everywhere,” said APT CEO Cynthia Fenneman. Bob Ross Inc., which holds all licensing rights to the show, also has a Twitch channel. “This was a new way for us to promote public media,” Fenneman said.

FAST channels devoted to Bob Ross have 15 million monthly active users across approximately 25 FAST platforms, Fenneman said. She declined to name the platform, but one has an average watch time per user of 136 minutes per month.

To boost the show’s reach even further, Bob Ross Inc. has added “Bob Ross en Español” to five platforms, including Roku and Tubi. Spanish-language translations of the programs were done using artificial intelligence, a practice that is becoming more common in the streaming space, Fenneman said.

During the commercial breaks, which interrupt programs at regular intervals just like commercial broadcast TV, the Bob Ross FAST channel is packaged with messages that promote public media. “The spots mention how public media is the home of Bob Ross, that public media nurtures a lot of new talent, and it also talks about donating to your local public television station. We try to give a lot of positive support to public media,” Fenneman said.

Julia Child, ‘Antiques’ and ‘Nature’

The seemingly tricky part about bringing public media programs to commercial FAST channels — namely the “ad” part of the operation — has been straightforward, according to executives who negotiated deals.

Business and content development leaders at APT, GBH in Boston and the WNET Group in New York City said they were able to work through their concerns about the commercial breaks. Their goal was to make sure that the ads appearing next to their programs would be compatible with the public television brand.

WNET launched its first FAST channel for its multimedia platform All Arts in May 2022. Branded as Arts TWG+ in the streaming world, it’s available on Plex and Local Now. Earlier this year WNET added old episodes of Nature, its PBS prime-time series on natural history, to Plex. As of now, WNET holds streaming rights to a selection of Nature episodes from 1984–2009, though most of the episodes from that time period are available for streaming on PBS Passport.

One part of public TV’s FAST channel strategy is to give viewers as much of the programming they want for free, while reinforcing the idea of direct financial support for their local PBS station. WNET’s FAST channels insert promos for the All Arts brand and talk up the benefits of becoming a member — including gaining access to PBS Passport, said Bob Feinberg, VP of business development and chief legal officer for WNET.

GBH, through its partnership in PBSd, has launched FAST channels on Tubi, Plex and other platforms for the Julia Child titles Cooking with Master Chefs, The French Chef and Baking with Julia. It also launched channels for old episodes of Antiques Roadshow. The FAST channel for Antiques Road Trip, a BBC series, is managed by PBSd, which is jointly owned by PBS and GBH.

Like other public media executives working on FAST channel distribution, GBH’s Evie Kintzer declined to discuss specifics of GBH’s streaming deals. But she’s generally pleased with how the new channels are performing so far. In her role as VP of strategy and business development, she sees distribution of public media programs on FAST platforms as a path for audience development.

“We’re reaching audiences who wouldn’t otherwise find our content, because they may not come to public television and they may not come to broadcast,” Kintzer said. “If they can discover and experience our content somewhere where they like it, they may say, ‘I wonder where this is from and where I can find more.’

“That would be a fantastic next step if they go to the website and to their actual local public television station.”

Freelance Contributor Jacqueline Cutler contributed reporting to this article.

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