Web: best medium for local/national convergence?
Originally published in Current, Oct. 18, 1999
By Steve Behrens
What NPR has made routine and almost transparent on the air, PBS is now going to try on the World Wide Web. The feat, when achieved, is seamless integration between national and local in a combined service to users.
Hundreds of public radio stations do it every day, by the clock-inserting local news reports and breaks into NPR's newsmagazines.
Next month, PBS Online will try much the same thing, using web technology to combine local and national material into a seamless offering that bears the brands of both the network and the local station on nearly every page.
"We can demonstrate the strength of the local-national combination more effectively than we've been able to do with television," says Cindy Johanson, PBS's senior v.p. for Internet and broadband services.
Preparing material for the web is much more affordable than producing broadcast TV, of course, so more stations will be able to add pertinent local material to supplement national features. But more importantly, Johanson says, web technology permits convergence of local and national material in ways that linear television can't match.
Localized pages will begin appearing on PBS Online when it launches its third major redesign before Thanksgiving. But the pages won't be customized for the visitor until he or she gives the computer a zip code. PBS's server will leave a tiny data "cookie" on the visitor's hard disc so that the visitor's station can be identified on the next visit. (If there's a choice of local public TV channels around that zip code, the visitor is asked to select a particular station.)
To come up with instantly customized pages, PBS is fundamentally changing its online procedures. Instead of creating fixed pages with all-national content, it will rely on a database to instantly assemble localized pages when visitors come calling-pulling together national content with local material submitted to the database by stations.
PBS previewed its localization plans at its annual meeting in June and published a detailed guide for stations in mid-September, aiming for a roll-out on Nov. 1. As of last week, 116 stations had submitted their logos for localized pages. But technical problems were delaying some components of the redesign, and others have been rethought in recent weeks.
For example, PBS said in September that it would put a "bridge page" between its site and the pages maintained by stations--just as it now alerts visitors when they are moving from PBS Online to an underwriter's site.
The concern had its parallel several years ago in public radio, where NPR News was eager to distinguish its programming from Marketplace Morning Report and other material that stations insert into Morning Edition. In the end, few stations shared NPR's concerns about clarifying its authorship and responsibility.
Similarly, PBS was persuaded not to worry about the bridge page. Several stations objected to imposing an extra click-and-wait cycle on web visitors, and some thought the bridge page would confuse them, according to Johanson. PBS brought in focus groups. Web users were more savvy than PBS expected, she says. They weren't confused about whether they were leaving the PBS site and they agreed unanimously that the bridge pages were unnecessary.
When PBS debuts Phase I of its redesign next month, actual broadcast schedules, for the first time, will be just a click away from the PBS home page. For stations that don't want to compile their own schedules, PBS is offering to do it for $50 a month (free at first, with the fee imposed when the service is fully developed).
Also in Phase I, stations will have their first opportunities to insert content on PBS pages-in the PBS TeacherSource area, where they can lure visitors to their sites to read more about upcoming teacher workshops or new curricular material.
The home page will have a new look, full of circles, based on the round head-in-the-circle PBS logo now used on-air. Gone are the Oklahoma-shaped images that reflected the shape of the PBS Online logo. Indeed, PBS Online itself will be gone as a separate identity, says Johanson. Instead, the main label will be the PBS logo plus the appropriate local call letters.
Links to a couple of the day's top news stories will take visitors into the Online NewsHour sub-site.
Parts of Phase II will be unveiled for station reps at the annual PBS Online Summit, Jan. 10-12 in Washington. Increasingly, PBS pages will feature links to related local content--most prominently in Election 2000 coverage.
The network will provide video clips of upcoming broadcasts that stations can offer through their web sites. The first clips will be digitized for Real Video G2 players; clips for Microsoft Windows Media Player will come along later, according to Johanson. And PBS will offer higher-quality video streams at faster-than-modems speeds between 80 and 400 kilobits-per-second, for the growing number of users hooked to the Internet through cable systems or DSL technology.
For stations that want someone else to handle the technical work of hosting their web sites, PBS is looking into the options of contracting with a server service or offering to host sites on PBS servers.
And for stations that have caught web fever, PBS is offering a "Premiere" level service with more localization and the opportunity to use online auction technology for local fundraising auctions. PBS said its auction vendor, FairMarket, is developing software to permit fully synchronized local auctions on-air and online.
In exchange for the new services, PBS is asking some reciprocity. Johanson is requesting that stations put a PBS logo and link on their home pages. Premiere-level stations are also asked to do twice-a-day on-air promos for the web service.
Web page created Oct. 23, 1999
The newspaper about public television and radio
in the United States
A service of Current Publishing Committee, Takoma Park, Md.