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Through the looking glass to Public Broadcasting 2.0

Published in Current, Feb. 21, 2006
Commentary by Dennis L. Haarsager

ome of us have been on a strange journey of late, not unlike Alice’s trip through the looking glass. We’ve reached a place where almost everything I’ve learned in 36 years as a broadcaster is a reliable guide — if we then do the opposite.

Curiously, once we made our way to the unfamiliar side of the mirror, we discovered many others had stepped through before us.

They were people we once took for granted — listeners and viewers who increasingly found programming elsewhere, which they could use whenever they wanted. They and others were leaving Public Broadcasting 1.0 for this new realm, taking control of their media usage and sometimes media creation as well.

Understanding and adapting to this on-demand world will help us serve both old and new audiences better. Public broadcasting will have to reinvent its business and operational practices and learn to sustain its mission in a new way, and do it quickly.

Much in the same way that the profound changes now playing out on the Internet are being labeled Web 2.0, it will be helpful to think of this new MO as Public Broadcasting 2.0.

The 1.0 world

Familiar as it is after more than a half century, it would probably be useful here to describe PB 1.0. It’s a one-to-many medium operating in a scarcity economy: Programs go out in real time, which of course is finite, on broadcast and even cable channels, which are far scarcer than the programs that could be produced and enjoyed. This scarcity factor drives our entire culture.

To our advantage, distributing a program to 1 million users costs no more than to one, but our business model for that program rewards average use at any one time rather than cumulative use over longer periods.

PB 1.0 brands are most effective at the level of the aggregator — the network or station — so our programmers are tacticians, finding hits and scheduling programming competitively against other hit-makers.

In doing so, PB 1.0 does a better job of aggregating “gross tonnage” of public service than anything else in the nonprofit or governmental sectors. Public radio serves its audiences for nearly 12 billion contact hours (one person listening for one hour) a year and public television for about 6 billion. But for each hour we earn very little listener- and viewer-sensitive revenue, such as donations and underwriting — only about 2 to 4 cents.

Web 1.0 is a close relative of PB 1.0. Like broadcast stations, Web 1.0 sites are one-to-many affairs. Content is generally aggregated and curated by a site owner at a single address. The sites’ relationships with users are generally one-way. As computer scientist Ramesh Jain notes, these 21st-century media still follow the legacy of Gutenberg.

Trends that shape PB 2.0

Technology is enabling and nearly dictating the shift to PB 2.0. The cost of digital storage is falling, broadband distribution capacity is increasingly available, and the machinery of media exists increasingly as software applications rather than proprietary hardware.
As a result, media are changing in several directions:

Digitization — the mathematical representation of content. The broadcast of a program, according to one wag, was once its funeral. Not in the digital world. Mathematically represented content can be catalogued and readily segmented or revised for new purposes and audiences. Digitization multiplies the value of content beyond that of a boxed-in analog program.

Personalization—content that organizes itself. Perhaps the most foreign of concepts for media practitioners is self-organization, though it is routine in biology, chemistry, mathematics and social science. Tools for organizing and finding content emerge within communities of producers and users, making media viable in the smaller “long tail” interest groups described in Chris Anderson’s October 2004 Wired magazine essay “The Long Tail.”

Democratization—new tools that enable people to generate and distribute content on their own. If personalization is the most foreign of these concepts, democratization could seem the most threatening to us professionals. Very high-quality cameras and audio and video recording and editing tools are now affordable to middle-class households. Online content distribution tools connect creators with audiences without the vetting that usually accompanies the processes of program acquisition, branding and scheduling. Will professionally produced content continue to bubble up to the top in this world? Yes, but so will the work of others, sharing some of the same distribution platforms.

Step into PB 2.0 for a moment

Perhaps the best way to imagine how this strange world will work is to try a thought experiment.

Set aside your PB 1.0 experience and imagine for the moment that you had worked for years in a world where the main thing limiting your program distribution is not the scarcity of desirable time slots on a finite channel but storage capacity. If you have room for the content on your server, it can be available to its audience. In essence, you can use an unlimited number of channels without competing for government-assigned frequencies or raising capital repeatedly for very expensive broadcasting equipment.
Your users have access not only to your content but also to everyone else’s output. They pay only a fair price, if anything—though this requires us to imagine that intellectual property attorneys have all gone back to writing deeds and wills.

The content serves any number of audiences, large and small — self-organizing communities defined by geography, education, profession, avocation or other bonds—and these users can hold conversations with one another and with you. They organize their communities by tagging programs with descriptive words that help others find the content through search devices. (Chosen by the grassroots users, these tags amount to a taxonomy of content that has been called a “folksonomy.”) The users can also rate the quality of each piece of content and share comments about it.

On the arrival of new content that matches their interests, they can be automatically notified or have it delivered to their computers, iPods, TiVos or other playing devices. If you’ve used, the excellent photo-sharing website, or the bookmark manager, you’ve already seen these kinds of personalization tools at work.
To a profound extent, the more people use these community features, the more valuable your media assets become—a defining characteristic for both Web 2.0 and PB 2.0.

Because users find it useful to get suggestions of things they would value, most of them register with content aggregators, permitting them to track their content choices. As a consequence, media aggregators have detailed — not just statistical—knowledge of their registered users. It will be important, of course, for media organizations to respect users’ privacy and enable them to control the use of their “attention data.” But there are good reasons for users to consent.

Knowledge of the users’ preferences not only benefits them but helps maintain PB 2.0 institutions by enabling smarter development, programming, production and partnership decisions. It also helps the institutions make stronger cases for funding from foundations and governments.

The number of your users in this imagined world is typically smaller than broadcasters are used to enjoying. Many will also use PB 1.0 services also. But PB 2.0 can be as economically viable as your 1.0 service if you chose to charge for on-demand programs, individually or with subscription fees, in the same way you do now for CDs and DVDs, which also add distribution costs. This support can amount to 10 to 1,000 times more audience-sensitive revenue than your station receives today per hour for programming.

Even if you choose not to charge fees for on-demand services, PB 2.0 draws support from underwriting, tax-based and foundation support, fulfillment partnerships, footage marketing and individual donations. Arguably, all but the last of these revenue sources could be enhanced by PB 2.0 techniques, though describing how would fill another article.

Looking back through the mirror now, you find you’ve just entered [Rod Serling voice-over] Public Broadcasting 2.0. Had you been familiar with this hypothetical media landscape, our current 1.0 operations might seem ineffective, scary and risky.

I’m not suggesting that we abandon linear real-time programming. To the contrary, we need to nurture the stations responsible for 18 billion contact hours a year — tonnage of public service that no other nonprofit or government agency can duplicate.

But we have the opportunity to provide even greater public service, especially for the “long tail” audiences we have always tried to serve, with a more effective economic support system, in PB 2.0.

Furthermore, we face the loss of viewers dissatisfied with the limitations of 1.0. Television’s audience has been slowly shrinking and will take a real body blow with the end of analog transmission. Radio’s performance is leveling off and, if we don’t intervene, will decline significantly. Other nonprofits and for-profit businesses will move quickly to serve 2.0 audiences, because barriers to entry are low. Public broadcasting interests urgently need to develop a coherent, viable on-demand strategy.

The Open Media Network effort in which I’ve been active is one such strategy and, so far, the only one of the “external” initiatives to include public broadcasters actively in its core planning team. I’ve come to view it as a great gift to public broadcasting. We are looking forward to stations and independent producers helping to build this new economy by including OMN among the places by which they distribute content to PB 2.0 audiences.

Web page posted Feb. 18, 2006
Copyright 2006 by Current Publishing Committee

Haarsager speaks at a conference in San Francisco, 2005

Dennis Haarsager, who manages pubcasting operations at Washington State University, summarizes what he’s learned in the ad hoc Public Service Publisher initiative, which is experimenting with the Open Media Network online platform.


Haarsager urges pubcasters to get to know the media habits of the My Time generation, November 2004.


Open Media Network, a real-world platform for Public Broadcasting 2.0.

Mark Fuerst's commentary: For public broadcasting's second decade on the Web, let's step up to baseball's league.


Open Media Network, which uses grid network technology from Kontiki Inc. From the home page you can download the OMN client software for viewing OMN programs.

Haarsager's blog items about the Public Service Publisher initiative, and the home page of his blog, Technology 360.

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