PBS plans digital video service as premium for station members

By Dru Sefton

Public television stations are hoping that special access to a rich library of PBS programs will convince viewers to become members and entice members to keep contributing.

The multiplatform subscription program, with the working title MVOD (Membership Video on Demand), will be built atop COVE, PBS’s local-national video site. PBS is backing the initiative with $1.5 million in its fiscal 2015 budget.

The Membership Video on Demand digital subscription service will provide public television members with special access to past seasons of signature PBS general audience series such as Antiques Roadshow. Here, a guest hears about the value of her cat portrait from appraiser Todd Weyman. (Photo: Jeffrey Dunn)

The Membership Video on Demand digital subscription service will provide public television members with special access to past seasons of signature PBS general-audience series such as Antiques Roadshow. Here, a guest hears about the value of her cat portrait from appraiser Todd Weyman. (Photo: Jeffrey Dunn)

MVOD will feature past seasons of signature PBS general-audience series and provide stations with the ability to add locally produced series, said Ira Rubenstein, head of PBS Digital. “I think of it as Amazon Prime or Netflix, but only for station members,” he said.

A task force of representatives from five stations has worked on the project for the past year: WGBH in Boston; WNET, New York; Twin Cities Public Television, St. Paul, Minn.; Oregon Public Broadcasting, Portland; and KQED, San Francisco. Kentucky Educational Television in Lexington recently joined.

The group’s first step was to define MVOD as a product specifically designed to grow and retain station members. “That’s been our core component from the beginning,” said Alexis Rapo, WGBH’s v.p. for digital media and a member of the task force. “Everything ties back to how stations can build MVOD into their overall benefit package,” offering digital access as a premium.

Rubenstein said PBS is building out the technology and working with stations on a test version scheduled for limited release this fall.

The popularity of subscription digital services such as Hulu and HBO Go “have clearly proven there’s an appetite for good content,” Rapo said. “PBS stations have incredibly loyal fans and followers. So we need to provide them with opportunities in the digital space to create and build lasting loyalty.”

The idea for MVOD emerged around three years ago, Rapo said, during station discussions with former PBS Digital head Jason Seiken. In a speech at the 2012 PBS Annual Meeting, Seiken exhorted pubcasters to embrace web-based video as a “magical opportunity” for public TV stations to reinvent themselves. Seiken established PBS Digital Studios that year, and PBS established a Digital Entrepreneurs grant in 2013 to help stations develop web-original video.

Until now, PBS Distribution has generated revenue through partnerships with digital distributors such as Amazon Prime. Last June, PBSd expanded its licensing agreement with Amazon, providing exclusive U.S. streaming rights to the third season of Downton Abbey as well as hundreds of episodes of PBS programs such as Nova, Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood and Ken Burns’s documentaries. That revenue helped PBS close its fiscal 2013 books with a surplus of $24.5 million.

“It’s an OTT world going forward,” said Steve Bass, president of OPB, referring to the “over-the-top” delivery of video and audio to consumers via the Internet. “What role is there for public stations in that world? If we don’t start thinking about that and we only sell streaming rights to others, we’re getting money in the door now, but where does that position us for the future?”

Rubenstein said that special access to programs “is something that stations have expressed interest in for some time, so we negotiated to retain rights for MVOD to many of our top titles.”

Pubcasting execs are keeping a close eye on the work. “This project is a priority for our stations,” said Dennis Haarsager, executive director of the Public Television Major Market Group. “There’s a very strong interest in this.” Station executives, he said, “see MVOD as a way to boost memberships and provide digital access to programs of interest to viewers.”

PBS said the $1.5 million earmarked for MVOD covers research, marketing materials, legal support for clearing rights, and updates to internal systems needed to interface with MVOD. The budget also called MVOD “a critical product to help stations drive membership of the growing digital audience.”

Questions, comments, tips? sefton@current.org
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