World channel comeback: Your grandchild’s PBS
For a bunch of reasons, public TV’s World multicast channel gets a chance to start a new life next month.
World’s re-planners at WGBH in Boston aim to create a media brand equally accessible on TV and on the Web, with an audience that’s more diverse in color and — with a median age of 36 — a generation or two younger than public TV’s primetime regulars.
CPB picked up the $600,000 R&D costs and will subsidize the project through June 2011. So stations will be able to carry the channel without charge for the next year, CPB President Patricia Harrison announced to applause May 20 at the PBS Annual Meeting.
Stephen Gong, executive director of the Center for Asian American Media, said at the breakfast meeting that CPB is “visionary to get this under way in a time of scarcity of resources.”
A beta version of the World website launches July 1, while changes in the multicast channel start phasing in, though researchers on the project are still quizzing focus groups this month.
On air, World will fill nearly all of its airtime with replays of pubTV documentaries and public affairs shows, but its new identity will begin showing up during station breaks. There will be segments from video bloggers, for example, including Al Letson, a winner of CPB’s 2008 Public Radio Talent Quest and creator of the new State of the Re:Union radio show.
World planners also want to generate buzz, personality, coherence and online action by designating a theme for each month.
The channel has been cranking away since January 2007, but it’s likely there was no bitter factional struggle to protect it from change. Only 45 of the 170-plus public TV licensees carry the channel, compared with 107 for APT’s lifestyle channel, Create.
For CPB and others interested in broadening public TV’s demographics, the little-watched, faceless channel is low-stakes real estate where programmers can experiment with material for a broader and younger audience.
Investing to develop the channel may be an easier choice today than three years ago —
- now that two-thirds of cable households are subscribing to the additional “digital tier” of programming, where World is found on the multicast channels of those 45 licensees;
- now that a handful of pubTV stations are buying Nielsen ratings and finding that they have tiny but growing audiences for World, Create, V-me and other multicast offerings, and
- now that FCC reports are opining that broadcasters really need only enough spectrum for a single DTV channel, so the commission can take back the rest of their spectrum for sale to mobile telecom companies.
Not that it will be easy for World to win its target audience, even on the dimension of age.
Thirty-six is a vastly younger median age than PBS draws in primetime, which is up there in the 60s, along with the cable news nets.
It’s much younger, in fact, than commercial broadcast TV. The networks’ median age in primetime has been rising lately by about a year every 12 months, and has reached 50.9, as Advertising Age reported last month.
Thirty-six is farther down the age ladder in Young Adult Land, where attention is most scattered, and people are most frazzled by parenthood and breadwinning.
For purveyors of non-mass, non-pandering content, those young folks may be aggregated most readily in non-real-time, and on the Web.
So that’s the plan for World.
Some years from now, World may be regarded as a web presence that has its own TV channel, both designed for smart, curious, younger people, says Cynthia Fenneman, president of American Public Television, distributor of the channel and a partner in the project, along with WNET, NETA and PBS.
The jobs of rethinking World and stocking it with content is led by Rivero, who is WGBH’s g.m. for both radio and TV. Ron Bachman, the TV director of programming, schedules the broadcast side, and Bob Lyons, director of radio and new media initiatives, handles the web side. Kavita Pillay, a WGBH filmmaker in residence, is managing editor for the R&D phase, and thinks young besides.
To find material for Web online and on-air, programmers from WGBH and APT are trolling film festivals, scouring archives and fishing for median-age-36 material from the Independent Television Service, the minority consortia, indie producer hubs such as the Bay Area Video Coalition, the Sundance Institute, Youth Media International, Link TV, Philadelphia’s MiND TV, New American Media and public radio, where a number of producers have screaming fans younger than 36.
Rivero says World is trying a new low-cost collaborative model — eagerly reaching out to producers. Yes, World will seek foundation funding, but it won’t have a big budget to start. Mostly, Lyons says, it’s a platform for distribution, and the producers will have to raise the money.
That’s not so new.
Most of the programs will be familiar, too, at least initially. PBS stations will come closer to full use of their broadcast rights. Bachman says World will play some programs four to eight times a week, giving viewers more chances to catch it and giving public TV a larger cume audience for each program.
A core three-hour block of documentaries will play four times within every 24-hour period, Bachman says. Other programs will circulate during the 12 remaining hours.
Repeats aren’t a bad idea, even for the younger viewers, Pillay says. The target audience “really responds to PBS programming, but we hear over and over that they don’t hear about it.” So the programmers will alert them to appropriate tune-ins through Facebook and other social media. World won’t tweet press releases or in promo-speak, however. “It will have a voice, and Kavita is owner of that voice,” Lyons says.
On air, World initially has just 3.5 minutes an hour — station breaks — to exercise that voice. But Bachman says program starts can be varied to make room for longer breaks.
Online, Lyons says, World will have a website built with Drupal, a growing open-source content management system that WGBH already uses to power the Forum Network and PRI’s The World radio newsmag.
But planners call World a “web presence” instead of a site, because they hope the material will appear widely on station websites — syndicated through widgets and a new embeddable version of the PBS COVE video player. Station webmasters will be able to embed code in their sites “to create a station-branded window onto all the World content,” according to APT.
What characteristics will that content share? Fenneman says the designated “beacons” lighting the way are immediacy, innovation, interaction and inclusion.
Outside of a few news programs, pubTV usually isn’t jammed with immediacy, and Rivero plans for World to have more. “Over time, we will begin to add elements that feel like the news,” she predicts.
As an R&D project, World is working with pubradio’s morning newsmag produced at WNYC, The Takeaway, to figure out what it can show on the screen to go with the news program's immediacy.
Lyons says the Takeaway experiment aims to add “a layer of video” that’s not as “horrifically expensive” as standard TV news and would be better liked by a younger audience. The starting point: radio journalists talking without makeup.
As for interactivity, user-generated content fits the target audience, Rivero says. It’s a generation that knows digital media tools and can bring content to the public.
In some cases, World will go a step further and provide special media tools, Pillay says. For example, she refers to a Skype setup Seattle producer Jennie Asarnow used to collect recollections about a gentrifying neighborhood for her “very inspired” Makers Quest 2 project called The Corner.
Having monthly themes will help prompt interactivity, the planners hope.
“Everything around a theme will be organized like exhibit space,” says Pillay. “Each piece of content will have a call to action — take a poll, upload 30 seconds of commentary . . .”
Upcoming themes include The State of Our Unions, with a look at the growing normalcy of unmarriedness, and Do It Yourself, which provides an excuse (if any is needed) for a piece about the inadvisability of DIY hypnotism.
For July, the theme will be “The Skin You’re In,” which may get below the surface of topics such as albinism, biracial hair and Pacific Islander tattoos. With tattoos Rivero is anticipating noticeable Facebook activity.
Comments, questions, tips?
Web page posted May 8, 2010
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