Cascade Public Media of Seattle is preparing for a pilot launch of its own locally developed streaming app, which will scale up next year to offer its customization tools to public media stations around the country.
The Seattle PBS station KCTS, which is rebranding itself as Cascade PBS, first introduced the localized streaming product in late 2020 for Roku. It has since released the app on Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, iOS and Android.
Now the organization is working to expand its use through the Local Streaming Initiative with support from the Public Television Major Market Group.
Cascade’s pilot will launch in March with 10 early adopter stations. Participating stations had until Nov. 30 to sign on by preordering the app under a three-year contract. Kevin Colligan, Cascade’s VP of media and innovation, said LSI is now accepting stations to join the initiative on a rolling basis.
The LSI app aims to offer the same content that’s available to viewers through stations’ PBS Video App and Passport pages while giving stations more tools to customize the user experience. For the initial launch, LSI will allow stations to offer station-branded apps and curate their streaming homepages with local audiences in mind. By fiscal year 2025, Cascade wants to introduce capabilities such as interactive events, digital pledge-drive gifts and access to FAST channels.
An aspirational goal for the app is to “be as easy-to-use as Netflix, as smart as PBS, and as local as your next-door neighbor,” Colligan said through a spokesperson in a November email. In an interview this month, he told Current, “We probably will never be as slick as Netflix, but we want to be as good or better than a BritBox or some of the middle-class streamers.”
Several sources who spoke to Current said public TV is playing catch-up in the streaming world. They acknowledged that some of LSI’s advanced features were urgently needed at least two years ago.
In the past, producers and viewers who recognized that public TV lacked access to capital for splashy streaming technology were willing to give PBS and stations a pass. But that grace period has essentially expired, according to public TV streaming specialists. What viewers care most about now is where and how easily they can access the programs they want to watch.
Colligan was the key technologist behind the development of Major League Baseball’s website, which offers national content but points to local teams. He hopes that a similar concept can be applied to LSI.
“We’re fortunate to have a great foundation built by PBS with the video-streaming infrastructure and popular Passport member benefit,” he said. “Our plan is to build upon that foundation [and] add additional programming, features and member benefits, all locally curated to meet our communities’ needs.”
‘Our app is our TV station’
The Local Streaming Initiative responds to the concerns of station leaders and the requests of Passport users.
As audiences for linear television continued to decline and stations found it harder to attract new donors through Passport membership, fundraisers have been looking for ways to improve digital fundraising performance. Those conversations have focused on needed upgrades to Passport and the PBS Video app.
An email survey conducted by PBS in March 2023 found that viewers who accessed Passport as nonmembers wanted PBS to improve its continuous play features and recommendation tool that suggests programs based on watch history. Passport has a continuous play function and PBS began introducing recommendation tools in 2023, but the LSI app offers improved functionality of both features.
LSI’s backend features are especially attractive to stations. Its enhanced metadata supports customized curation. Stations can create subgenres for content, such as “dark mysteries.” LSI also allocates space for station-branded messages.
“Local PBS stations face the same industry challenges as every broadcaster — essentially, our audience is flocking to streaming and leaving traditional television behind,” Colligan said in his November email. “The way we see it, in the post-broadcast world, our app is our TV station. And just as local stations had to build studios, control rooms and towers — an entire television broadcasting stack — we need to do the same for our next-generation ‘digital stations.’”
PBS is not participating in LSI, but Colligan described PBS as a “great partner.” LSI is built atop the PBS Video App’s infrastructure, and Cascade officials discussed their plans with key PBS staff before moving ahead to offer the technology to other stations.
“We see the PBS migration to streaming as a team sport, and the LSI is stations doing their part,” Colligan said. “We local stations are the tributaries that flow into the collective PBS river. Strong local stations make for a strong PBS and vice versa. We are all in this together.”
But during the PBS Annual Meeting in May, Scott Nourse, PBS SVP of product and innovation, urged stations not to adopt locally customized solutions, such as their own Passport sign-up pages, and to stick with tools developed by the PBS product team.
“When we work on a centralized, scalable platform, across the board, end-to-end, we have the end-user journey that we can monitor, that we can fix when it’s broken, that we can iterate against through A/B testing in a way that all stations benefit from in real time,” Nourse said during a general session devoted to distribution issues. “The way things are fragmented today — where some stations manage part of it and PBS manages part of it — that’s where the real problems lie.”
“When we first launched Passport, we wanted to create as much optionality for stations as possible,” Nourse added. “But what we’ve learned over time is that some of that optionality has actually worked against us. … If we can collectively come together, make the national page work the way stations want it to, give you flexibility and optionality, that will allow us to solve one of the biggest problems with Passport.”
Current requested interviews with leaders of PBS’ product team. PBS acknowledged the requests but did not make staff available.
‘Urgent need’ to respond to audience erosion
KPBS in San Diego has signed on as an LSI early adopter. GM Deanna Mackey first heard about LSI last year, when she led the PTMMG as executive director, she said. “Being a federated industry, where stations’ purpose is to super-serve their local audiences, [LSI] allows stations to innovate in their community and share it more broadly,” she said.
“I was seeing that happen at Cascade,” Mackey added. “I was watching how their member streaming service was changing based on usage of their members, based on input they were getting. That quick iteration and quick response was really exciting to me.”
Mackey sees another advantage to the LSI app. By giving stations the power to locally curate their in-app programming, LSI may help stations align their programs with local underwriting messages, she said.
WHRO Public Media in Norfolk, Va., and Rocky Mountain PBS in Denver have also joined the pilot. Amanda Mountain, RMPBS CEO and president of the PTMMG board, told Current that she sees Cascade’s app as innovative.
“When we are talking about these really big challenges — like the audience migration from broadcast to digital and our urgent need to respond to that and stop the audience erosion — it was exciting to learn more about Cascade’s work,” she said.
“It was very generous of them to figure out how they could design what they were doing there as a pilot for others to participate,” Mountain said. “Once they made that opportunity available, we jumped on it, because we just don’t have the types of resources to go at it alone in this digital streaming space.”
‘Everything is about using the app’
To Mountain, LSI doesn’t compete with the viewing experiences that the PBS App and PBS Passport already offer. “We don’t necessarily think about it as conversion from one app to another, as much as it is an additional offering to our audiences who are interested,” she said. If viewers find what they want to watch via the PBS App and PBS Passport, “that’s great,” she said.
“What we do want to do, though, is talk about the benefits of all our local content and local impact alongside the national content they’re consuming,” Mountain added. “We want to tell viewers ‘Hey, if you love Frontline, do you know that we also have an investigative series called Colorado Voices?’”
PTMMG is not financially supporting LSI. But after a year’s worth of conversations among the affinity group’s members, “their fingerprints are all over the plan,” Colligan said. He added that while the Major Market Group was a key facilitator of the LSI build-out, the initiative is designed to boost stations of all sizes and markets.
KSPS in Spokane, Wash., was invited to participate in LSI but declined, according to Skyler Reep, director of development and sustaining membership. “We’re very interested in the concept and goals, but the cost for early participants was prohibitive,” he said in an email. “Still, we’ll be very curious to learn what participating stations find from the effort and how those lessons can improve the public television streaming experience.”
Nashville Public Television, another early adopter, plans to initially launch its LSI app as a donor benefit instead of rolling it out to its wider audience, according to Shane Burkeen, director of brand and digital.
Some of the core functions that power Nashville Public Television’s online offerings in the backend require continued use of the PBS App and “ecosystem,” he said.
Piloting the LSI app with donors will help the Nashville station’s team figure out exactly what donors like about it. Findings will be shared with Cascade, pilot stations and the PBS product team that is working to improve the infrastructure supporting the PBS App and Passport.
“I’m trying to bring to the table things that I hear that users are frustrated with,” Burkeen said. “Users feel like finding local content is difficult in the PBS App,” he said as an example. He’s heard that the LSI app “has a very robust algorithm and … an overlay of metadata” that enables it to recommend more titles. “We don’t necessarily know how everything works in the PBS App, so we’ll have a little more control over what we can surface [in the LSI app],” he said.
Burkeen is also excited about the LSI launching with multiple livestreams of the station’s feeds, including its primary channel, PBS Kids, Create and World. “Our users want all of our streams on the app,” he said. “… That’s something that multiple viewers have asked about. We have a way to do that on our website, but viewers want it in the app. Everything is about using the app.”
Cascade’s work has shown that innovations can come from stations themselves, Burkeen said, and he appreciates that PBS is generally supportive of these solutions.
‘Co-owned by partner stations’
Cascade’s pricing for LSI is based on station size. The 10 early adopting stations received a discount, according to Cascade’s LSI website.
Those stations also invested in LSI as “founding sponsors,” contributing into a three-tiered startup fund that requires payments ranging from $32,000 to $150,000. All of the founding sponsors, regardless of their sponsorship tier, hold voting seats on an advisory board that weighs in on decisions about LSI’s future. Participation as a founding sponsor was optional for stations that subscribe to the LSI app, according to the LSI website.
After the initial launch on Roku apps and web portals in March, Cascade will turn to building out apps for additional platforms: iOS, Android, Fire TV, Apple TV and Google TV, according to Colligan. This staggered launch cycle helps ensure that product releases optimize the capabilities and differences of each streaming platform.
All the technology behind the LSI “will be co-owned by our partner stations,” Colligan said. Because stations will own their app code, designs and data, they can “go their own way at any time” without being locked into the LSI service forever.
Colligan’s “dream scenario” for LSI is to “help usher in a new age for local nonprofit media, where local stations find workable business models, which allow them to thrive and expand in unique and varied ways,” he said. A successful outcome will be public media stations avoiding “the type of cutbacks and consolidation that have decimated the local newspaper industry. We cannot allow that to happen to local PBS stations.”
“We recognize this is a big challenge,” he added, “But we believe we have the plan, partners and technology to make it happen.”
Correction: This article has been updated to clarify findings from PBS’ March 2023 survey of Passport users who aren’t members of their local station. It also clarifies the status of Passport’s continuous play and recommendation tools.