Q&A John Boland
Current: This month, PBS announced its pick of Wired Science over two other new science series piloted by other producers. How well did the process work—showing competing pilots, getting input online and having your pick?
Boland: We’ve gotten very good feedback. The producers found it very productive. The audience found it very engaging. It helped us get the best possible series on the air, and it let us experiment with video-streaming and audience feedback.
We did all the usual research for evaluation — quantitative research, focus groups, our Internet panel — and we also heard from about 7,000 viewers online.
Did a majority favor one program or another?
I wouldn’t boil it down to a vote, but we found consistent trends in audience interests. Although all three of the pilots had positive feedback, Wired Science came out as a clear winner.
The viewers who commented on the pilots talked about things like pacing, the quality of the science. Was it an exploration? Did they learn something new? People are very smart, and they have a lot to say. We categorized their responses and combined it with the research and the professional judgment of programmers and stations.
Across all these groups, people liked the pace and the production values, and very much liked the discovery element. And I think the Wired name is a factor.
Did you break out how the noncore viewers responded as compared with the regulars?
We attempted to do an overlay of the segmentation from the CPB-sponsored research to assess the “Innovating & Inclined” audience segment and found that all these shows appealed to that group, and Wired Science appealed the most.
You’ve said there’s another show you’ll announce at Showcase: Has it been through a process like this, or will it go through a similar process?
No. Programs will always come to the schedule in different ways. Sometimes it’s an idea presented to us by a producer. Doing an RFP, as we did with Wired Science, is a process we’d like to use again, though we’re not planning to do it in fiscal ’08.
The commercial networks make dozens of pilots every year and throw some of them on the air to see which stick. They use competition to find the successful stuff, but it’s expensive. Is it worth the cost for public TV?
I think it was particularly worth it in this situation. Because of limited resources and schedule space, we don’t have many opportunities to launch a new series in a core genre where we know there is audience appetite. It was a great opportunity. We were only able to do it with the research and support from CPB.
You commissioned 10 episodes of Wired Science. Will there be 20 in a year?
Hopefully, assuming that the first 10 are successful. This is an ongoing test.
The proposed PBS budget would increase stations’ program fees by 5 percent. Altogether, how much more will you have to spend for programming and promotion than this year?
CPB has increased our annual programming payment as well as the Challenge Fund and the Opportunity Fund by a combined total of $1.5 million. With the NPS assessment increase, in fiscal ’08 we’ll have $7.8 million more than this year for the overall NPS. The NPS also includes $3.7 million from the PBS Foundation. And we’re going out to secure additional grants to fund the initiatives that cannot be accommodated within the NPS.
The important thing is that we’re being really strategic about allocating the available funds. During this transition from the analog to the digital world—a very long transition—we have to do so much on both ends that we really have to be careful in deploying resources.
We have a little more money to work with, but we have to look at every dollar. It’s really how do you piece things together.
This year, for the first time in years, we will be able to have a two-pronged strategy in both TV programming and promotion.
One prong is frequency—to get regular viewers to tune in more often and to stay tuned longer. For instance, last year we began promoting the icon series with “Save your Sundays,” “Save your Mondays” and “Save your Tuesdays” promotions, which actually lifted their ratings and have been very well received by the producers and the stations. The CPB-sponsored audience research made it clear we needed to tell viewers what’s on when.
But last year we didn’t have the budget for the second prong—the pop-out promotions that aim to increase reach, bringing in viewers who don’t come to PBS that often and showing them what’s here and, we hope, making them regular viewers. These promotions are for tent-pole programs like The War, Bob Dylan and The Blues.
This year we’re going to do these in addition. To do both pop-outs and ongoing series, it’s going to take about $22.8 million. If our budgets and plans are approved, that will include $16.3 million from the NPS, on a par with previous years, and $6.5 million from the Opportunity Fund, specifically to address the accessibility issue pinpointed by the CPB research around our ongoing series.
Is the packaged channel PBS World for stations’ multicasting going to launch this summer, as expected?
Yes. The formal offer to stations just went out. We’re planning to launch in August.
How much will it cost for stations to license PBS World to put it on their DTV channels?
The range is $3,000 to $32,000, depending on the market and station specifics.
How much time and money will PBS World have for original programming, such as the nightly world news program Global Watch, which was to come from a partnership of KCET and your former station, KQED?
When a Global Watch pilot is produced, I anticipate it will air on both the NPS and PBS World.
As for having other original programming, we had experience with early versions of World at KQED, WGBH, WNET and WETA, and we found you can use unduplicated programming that simply cannot fit on the NPS. To a great extent though, what World provides is additional opportunities to watch some of our best nonfiction programming.
Who will schedule the channel?
It’s a very interesting five-way collaboration. It’s a PBS offering, produced in partnership with WGBH and WNET, and in association with APT and NETA. We commissioned WGBH to do the program schedule.
Is there a World czar?
No, but there are World point-people at each organization. Scheduling will be handled in Ron Bachman’s programming office at WGBH, working with Steven Gray and Shawn Halford here. PBS is helping drive the strategy of the schedule, and WGBH is putting the grid together. APT has a significant role in marketing the package to stations.
How often will you take advantage of the opportunity to run the same episode multiple times across the World schedule and get more viewing per production dollar?
One of the great opportunities with the multicast channels is that we can do what our competitors on cable have done, to give viewers additional opportunities to watch the best programs.
We’ll definitely take maximum advantage of rights that stations have for unlimited repeats within seven days, and the rights they have for NETA and APT programming. That’s one of the reasons we’re all partners in this.
If you’re in a market where the NewsHour airs at 6 or 7, you’ll have a chance to watch it at another time in primetime or elsewhere when it might be more convenient.
The credits for the underwriters who helped pay for the programs—they’ll be the same ones as on the main broadcast channel?
The production credit is embedded with the program and will travel with it to World.
In commercial broadcasting, the advertiser would pay more for the additional exposure, which might help support these new services. Is that a concept you’ve broached with underwriters?
We haven’t, at this point. First you have to get the channel launched and build some audience. I know from having launched five digital channels at KQED, it takes time, particularly as digital cable is still growing in penetration.
But as the digital channels generate audience, letting underwriters know they’re getting more exposure is one of the ways we can address the decline in corporate underwriting for some of the primary series.
Will there be additional underwriting revenue that goes to the stations rather than the producers?
That’s something we can explore with stations, but not yet. There will be opportunities in the future, particularly for stations to sell adjacency underwriting that’s not embedded in the program.
There will also be opportunities for stations to insert local programming.
And I think we’ll get into some unique programming on World as we get closer to the elections. In the past, for example, we haven’t had airtime in the NPS for Iowa Public Television coverage of the Iowa caucuses. Next year, we’ll have the potential to carry it on World. We’ll have opportunities to carry programming from stations and to carry extended national coverage that we can’t fit into the NPS.
How many stations do you expect to sign up?
We don’t know, but I’m figuring we’ll have a three-year ramp-up period, with more carriage as stations convert to digital and implement their cable carriage agreements.
We have Ford Foundation support for at least the first year of the channel, so World is not in the situation of PBS Kids Go!, where we needed a certain number of stations to sign on the first year—and we didn’t get it.
The cable operators won’t want to carry World as a multicast on two public TV stations in an area, and the stations wouldn’t like the overlap, either. How will you determine which station can air World?
A station has to meet certain criteria to have rights for the programs on World. To sign up, a station has to be a 100 percent participant in PBS, as well as a subscriber to APT and NETA. The World schedule has programs from APT, NETA, the NPS and PBS Plus.
We hear PBS has been talking with stations about putting high-definition programs on the main PBS digital channel rather than showing them only on the HD Channel. Last week a group of public TV stations, the University Licensee Association, asked PBS to establish targets for increased amounts of HD programming, and the larger Affinity Group Coalition was to consider the resolution.
We’re planning for more HD. For a lot of people in the system, it’s always been in the back of our minds that, assuming that HD would begin to predominate, our primary service would be mostly HD. Some people are calling it the HD NPS. Essentially, the NPS and the HD Channel would merge.
We’re now figuring this will happen in fall 2008, a little more than a year from now.
There are a lot of unanswered questions about what the HD NPS would be. Depending on how we define it—such as whether it includes PBS Kids, for example—the five time-zone feeds could require a lot of satellite bandwidth. What does that mean for accommodating other services? Could we do all the time zones we do now? We need to answer all these questions in order to move forward.
Are you saying it would be an all-HD service? So, even if a program is not originally shot in HD, it would be blown up to synthetic HD?
That’s what we’d have to do. We’re hearing that what stations would like—and to some extent what commercial stations have conditioned consumers to expect—is that the primary service would be all-HD. For the foreseeable future, while we have a limited supply of true HD programs, that must be a combination of true HD and upconverted content.
Some years ago, PBS raised its tech standards for program submission and required producers to submit in digital. Do you foresee a gradual ramp up toward that?
It’s gradual, and it’s already happening. For the seasonal tent-pole programs, which are often funded by the CPB-PBS Challenge Fund, we don’t accept anything that’s not HD. You’ll see the effect of this in the future because those programs are funded two or three years in advance of broadcast.
How much more does it cost to make a program in HD?
It varies. If you’re doing a largely field-produced program, the cost of HD field equipment is coming down rapidly. But if you’re producing in a studio, completely outfitting a studio with HD cameras and an HD production switcher—that’s much more expensive.
In major PBS series, the trend is definitely underway. This next season of Antiques Roadshow will be produced in HD for the first time, and those programs will reach the air in ’08. The NewsHour will convert its operation to HD around January ’08. Series like American Experience that work with a lot of independent producers are coming in as a mix of HD and standard definition.
But you’ll always have older programs from the archives, so upconverting will go on for a while. Does the upconverting happen at the stations or at PBS? That’s one of the questions we’ll grapple with over the next months.
One of the chief engineers in the system, David Felland at Milwaukee Public Television, found by examining the video files that the upconverted HD takes up much more transmission capacity than true HD. For any stations trying to deliver more than one program stream at a time, this hurts their capacity.
I read his article in Current and that’s definitely something we’re looking at. That would be one of the reasons to do the upconverting at PBS—if we got the best possible encoding equipment here and paid attention to minimizing what he calls “noise” in the upconversion process.
Downconverting would not be a problem for any station that did not want HD, because all of the stations have downconverters now as part of the Next Generation Interconnection System equipment package.
And if a viewer doesn’t have an HDTV set, the public TV signal in analog or digital will still be watchable, right?
Yes, when television switches to digital in February ’09 you would have a digital box, for cable or satellite or over-the-air reception, which would convert the HD signal to a signal that could be seen on your TV.
Soon after Paula Kerger became president, PBS began releasing dozens of programs on-demand, through cable and the Internet. You offered both free streaming and paid downloading. What have you learned about who wants what programs and in what form?
We’re continuing those experiments with more platforms. It’s still a learning process. The most popular programs on YouTube are viewed millions of times, and the Moyers Journal podcast has been in the top 10 of all iTunes podcasts for the past week. But the audience using these platforms is still small when compared to the number who watch a broadcast program in one night.
What’s very clear is that streaming and download are two very different things. If you download a program and have the right technology, you can send it to your TV. If you stream a program, you’ll probably watch it on your computer.
What’s interesting is that people want short programming. One of our most popular online segments is a short “Be More” promotion spot. Yet you also have people interested in a subject using search engines to find hour-long Frontline programs.
We want to launch a PBS broadband player in ’08, and we were already developing our plans when Jason Seiken came in as head of PBS Interactive [separate article]. He took a fresh look at things. He said, let’s just step back. What’s the strategy? How does it work for the stations, the producers, the consumers? Should we build it ourselves or customize something that comes off the shelf? Should we focus on icon series initially, in line with the CPB-sponsored research?
But why would an organization like public TV want to have its own player when there are free streaming players available online — from Real Networks, from Microsoft? Will it be able to display a rotating selection of underwriting credits? Isn’t that a major objective?
Of course, and also a local station could have its local underwriting credits. All of that is possible.
The question is then what? We need to work through various possibilities as digital audiences grow. Is there an opportunity to give access to members of local stations, as a membership benefit? If you’re a member, you could have access to the archive. If you’re not a member, you might pay a fee.
What do you think about that?
I think that’s a good possibility. The audience doesn’t have critical mass so far, and we don’t have the technological connection between the membership database and the online service.
We will still provide free universal service for a reasonable period of time, which is our mandate. Under present practices, broadcasting of the program eventually ends and you have to buy a home video to see it, so this would be similar.
You could also seek sponsorship from major foundations or corporate sponsors, and make it freely available to the public.
This discussion about access to archived programs has very exciting potential, particularly in education. But you get into all kinds of questions about rights. WGBH hosted a conference last fall, called Open Content. For instance, if consumers can download programming, what will they do with it? What kinds of rights will they have?
Downloading may be akin to home video, but with a DVD you aren’t able to re-edit the content for your school project. We’d like to experiment with it. From an educational point of view, it seems like a wonderful thing. But would you put limitations on it?
You talked last fall about on online interactive service called PBS Engage. Is it close to beta phase?
Hopefully we’ll be in beta by this fall. PBS Engage is the online initiative that evolved from a project originally called Public Square.
There’s still the television side, and there’s funding for the pilot of Global Watch, but there’s more fundraising to do before launching a regularly scheduled television series.
Meanwhile, on the online side, we already have funding from the PBS Foundation to address our second big online priority for fiscal ’08 besides online video. PBS Engage will be our first significant effort in social networking and probably as an experiment in user-generated content.
We have to design or acquire the software tool and also to develop best practices for running social networks in a public media environment.
There are a zillion social networks out on the Web. They already amount to a vast laboratory. What can PBS bring to this that’s not already being done?
Social networks form around areas of common interest, and we believe we can leverage PBS content to do that. Millions of people watch Nova and could engage online around science. Particularly with the elections coming, we can engage people around public affairs issues. Stations could engage people around topics of local interest.
The protests about the lack of Latino soldiers in Ken Burns’ World War II series have moved into underwriter-land. Are there any other developments about the series?
The War’s going to be a major part of [the PBS Showcase conference, May 18-21, Dallas], with a whole day of breakout sessions. And in September, I think it could possibly have the biggest audience in public television history. It’s a massive undertaking on multiple platforms, and it touches people in very personal ways.
Regarding the recent controversy, with this kind of situation we need to strike a delicate balance between serving the public and listening to our audience, and protecting the editorial independence of PBS content developers.
In regard to The War, I am hopeful we have achieved that kind of a balanced solution. Ken Burns is in the process of producing additional material that incorporates the contributions of Latinos and Native Americans to the American effort in World War II, and he is incorporating that new material into the series without damaging the artistic integrity of the content that had been previously produced.
Work is now underway to complete and add the new material and keep production on track for both the fall broadcast premiere on PBS and distribution of the series DVD. The new material will be part of all versions of the series as well as the Web and educational materials.
Burns could take this uproar as a real compliment that so many people expect the film to become the best-known monument to the war in the future. But it puts him in a position where he has no choice but to make the kind of program that people expect.
This would not be happening if this were not such a great program from such a great artist. And if it was not on PBS.
Is this the right issue on which public TV should take a stand for editorial independence? It’s not as if the Latino groups are pushing Burns to distort history. They’re saying, let’s have a little more about us.
And Ken is responding by producing and adding content to the series.
You were one of the first chief content officers appointed at a public TV station, I think. Such a job might mean nothing more than having too many people reporting to you. When things worked well for you in that role, at KQED and here, why did it work well?
What it really does is insure your viability for the future. That is how I see the role. Because we have multiple media platforms and an environment that’s changing so rapidly, we have to achieve a level of collaboration and integration that has not been necessary in the past.
We can’t just go produce a TV program anymore, we really must consider how it will work on different platforms, because that’s where our audience is.
It is complicated and confusing at first, having all these departments reporting to one person, but over time it becomes a much richer experience for people working in multidisciplinary teams.
I very much endorse our Next Generation PBS Kids Media Initiative, which was started before I got here. A cross-disciplinary team — people from TV programming, interactive, promotion and education got together — developed the initiative, and its first element, the preschool block, was a success in the first year! It has lifted our audience in that age group and lifted PBS as compared to Disney and Nickelodeon.
The initiative is similar to things we did at KQED and how we structured ourselves. The Interactive people assigned to the Kids initiative still get to work with their colleagues in Interactive, but they also have the synergy of working with TV programmers. They’re not just sent away to do the website. We end up serving the public better.
Because each of these media serves them in different ways?
It’s really learning what works best on each platform. My hope is that PBS will become more effective, that PBS as a content organization will be more than the sum of its parts. That was what I experienced at KQED. You definitely could just do more.
This year the strategic plan and the way we’re allocating the budget reflects that.
My experience at PBS has been a very pleasant surprise. I’ve been a change agent at many times during my career. Truly, PBS has been the most receptive of any group where I stepped into a new role and was expected to help people do things differently.
And everybody’s said: “Sure, let’s try it!” And very supportive of each other. It’s made a challenging job much more pleasant. That’s not the way established organizations like PBS usually are.
I’ve also been really thrilled with the relationship with CPB. I’ve come at a very opportune time — having a real collaborative relationship with CPB that, based on what I read, didn’t exist a few years ago.
Web page posted May 16, 2007
Copyright 2007 by Current Publishing Committee