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Kids’ cable pact
Stations weigh what they’d get and give up

Originally published in Current, March 14, 2005
By Karen Everhart

PBS offered to pay stations in the 60 largest markets for cross-promoting the new children’s services it’s launching on cable in partnership with Comcast, Sesame Workshop and Bob the Builder’s parent, HIT Entertainment.

The partnership’s first service will be video-on-demand kidvid, starting next month. Its channel for preschoolers, on cable systems’ extra-cost digital tier, is expected to launch in October and carry ads in the future. The new channel won’t take custody of the name “PBS Kids,” the network says, though the phrase will be used as a secondary “endorser brand” with the channel’s new name.

The partnership plans to announce its service plans April 4. Deron Triff, v.p. of digital ventures, said PBS will have good news in April about distribution of the channel on direct satellite services as well as on cable. “The initial audience base will be far ahead of our projections and will have more subscribers in place than most cable networks when they launch,” he said.

The familiar PBS Kids lineup carried in the daytime by most pubTV stations will not be affected by the change, though earlier episodes of many of the same series will begin appearing on the new cable service and the partnership plans to introduce some programming not aired on PBS.

To benefit from the promo deal, stations must waive their rights to broadcast shows for preschool-age children on their new DTV channels—a problematic decision for the many stations that raised digital conversion money by saying they’d put educational kids’ fare on DTV. PBS plans to develop next year a new channel for school-age kids that could help fill that gap. Stations could wait for that to launch or, if they opt out of the marketing deal for the new cable channel, they could put together their own preschool channels for DTV multicasts by repeating PBS Kids shows with remaining unused broadcast rights.

“If they choose not to participate, they can broadcast a preschool channel that they assemble but this will come in as better, stronger, more cogent and promoted,” said Wayne Godwin, PBS c.o.o.

The gap opens in September when the network turns off the PBS Kids channel distributed to stations since 1999 and now retransmitted by 74 stations as well as DirecTV and other satellite providers. The channel and other activities had been subsidized by a licensing deal with DirecTV that is expiring.

Stations that choose to join the local marketing affiliation program will air underwriting spots and cooperate in local events promoting the new cable services.

The partnership will compensate stations for airing promos during their children’s and primetime schedules. In exchange, co-branding messages on VOD and cablecast programs will link the service to local stations.

Although the rates offered by the partnership are lower than those that stations expect from underwriters, the promotions bring stations new streams of sponsorship revenue, said Godwin.

A second potential revenue stream is profit. “You will receive compensation and build value in an enterprise that you hold an ownership position in,” said Godwin. PBS will split earnings from the venture with all member stations, not only those in the 60 largest markets.

PBS has pointed to the deal as a new business model that lets public TV plug into the subscription-based cable economy that supports media ventures of all kinds, including award-winning HBO drama and documentaries.

Godwin described the affiliation program as a breakthrough for public TV. “For the first time, cable will carry the brand of local stations,” he said. “We are trying to create explicit relationship with the local station that is marketing a national service. No one has ever done this before.”

The program is voluntary, and all stations within a market can opt to participate. If stations in the top markets decline to sign on, PBS will open the program to stations in smaller markets, said Triff.

If a large number of stations don’t affiliate with the service, the partnership venture “will absorb the money and spend it on other media, such as Nick and Disney,” he said. “Then branding doesn’t happen and the association we’re trying to make doesn’t work.”

Execs and staff members at five stations said they hadn’t yet decided whether to participate.

"The things I’m weighing are what we get for signing it versus what we give up,” said Joe Bruns, c.o.o. of WETA in Washington, D.C. “What we give up is the opportunity to have a multicast preschool children’s programming stream. What we get is the opportunity to sell some of our available underwriting inventory at a discount rate to promote the venture.”

"The big question for us is, if it’s a stand-alone cable channel out there and refers to PBS with cross-promotions, will it still be seen as a public television channel?,” said Ellis Bromberg, president of Milwaukee PTV.

"On the flip side, let’s say the co-branding efforts are successful and people see it as our channel,” Bromberg said. “When people call us to complain or request schedule changes, we’ll say we’re promoting it and have no control over what goes on the schedule.”

“We’re used to being in control—or at least thinking we are,” Bromberg said.

Web page posted March 21, 2005
Copyright 2004 by Current Publishing Committee

EARLIER ARTICLES

PBS Kids launched as a separate all-kids channel in 1999, used on satellite, multicast DTV and other channels.

Producers, PBS and Comcast discuss a digital-tier cable net for preschool kids, May 2004.

Partners announce new digital channel for cable,October 2004. Comcast and HIT each own 30 percent; Sesame Workshop and PBS will share 30 percent without investing cash.

 

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