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Is PBS.org ready to earn its keep?

Originally published in Current, Oct. 31, 2005
By Louis Barbash

Despite successes in its first 10 years, PBS’s award-winning website has seen its budget and staff shrink, prompting new network plans to bring back online advertising and begin charging for video downloading.

Both measures worry Frontline Executive Producer David Fanning at WGBH in Boston. Online advertising would violate public broadcasting’s freedom from commercials, he says, and selling content would violate its promise of free and universal access to what it offers.

How would new online practices coexist with ideals known in shorthand as public TV’s “noncommercial nature” and “universal service?”

"There should be a debate over what is the appropriate way to balance mission and universal service and the need to earn revenues,” says Tim Olson, director of KQED Interactive in San Francisco. But Olson and most execs interviewed at major producing stations largely decline to take public positions on the PBS proposals, which are submerged in broader, confidential and ticklish negotiations over stations’ production contracts with the network.

For years, Fanning says, “there’s been lots of talk about making PBS work like a business. The fact is that it’s not a business.”

Business or not, the PBS website can’t keep spending more than it takes in — and it’s being given less to work with even as more and more is asked of it.

PBS.org’s budget has dropped by nearly a quarter, from $3.5 million in fiscal 2003 to $2.7 million this year. Staffing has been reduced by 20 percent in five years, says Cindy Johanson, PBS senior v.p., interactive and education.

In addition, the website will have to do without $1.2 million provided last year by the Department of Education’s Ready to Learn grant, which went into subsites for Clifford, Dragon Tales, Maya & Miguel, Postcards from Buster and PBSparents.org, according to Johanson. The funding ended when the department restructured the RTL grant.

"Monetization” once meant a government declaring that gold henceforth will be money. Now it means turning a website into gold — or in PBS’s case, covering costs. Sales of DVDs and other merchandise on Shop.PBS.org grossed $12 million last year, but that doesn’t count entirely as website income.

This year, Johanson aims to cover just the startup and operational costs for new Internet businesses and hopes new revenues will cover all growth in website spending.

PBS declined to release its business plan, though it did provide an excerpt describing its content priorities, and Johanson described several steps designed to help PBS.org achieve monetization:

PBS’s webheads plan to focus on the “double bottom line,” Johanson says, aiming to do well at generating revenue while doing good as a public service.

By many measures, PBS.org has done a lot of public service. The big site of 200,000 pages and 1,300 subsites is averaging more than 35 million unique visits a month and nearly 400 million page views a month in 2005 — gains of more than 55 percent and 28 percent, respectively, since 2003.

PBS has won the Webby award — the Web’s version of the Oscars and Emmys — as the country’s best TV site four times. No one else has won more than once.

Ervin Duggan was president of PBS in September 1995, when Johanson took PBS Online live, but he and most, if not all, his vice presidents have left. Johanson is now a key executive with major responsibilities for safeguarding both public TV’s past — remaining elements inspired by its early alliance with formal education — and its digital, interactive future.

Perhaps PBS.org’s greatest achievement has been to keep public TV programs alive long after their fleeting broadcasts.

It’s been nine years since The Great War premiered on PBS, but at PBS.org, it’s still on. You can also find subsites based on Frank Lloyd Wright, 1900 House, The Farmer’s Wife and scores of other distillations of history and human experience. In any given month, PBS says, half of the 20 most-used sites at PBS.org are from programs no longer aired.

Frontline and Nova offer video streams of many of their most popular programs. The NewsHour offers video and audio streams and transcripts of its segments the day after broadcast and keeps them there indefinitely.

The result is an ongoing institution for informal adult education that public TV’s founders envisioned. Formal education, too, has benefited from the teaching games on PBSKids.org and the teacher guides on almost every program subsite and PBSTeacherSource.org. The best-financed shows, like Evolution and Commanding Heights, have full education sites, complete with program excerpts, original graphics, essays by experts and six-figure budgets.

The Web has also let public TV host a free-wheeling national keyboard-to-keyboard conversation about issues and culture. “We thought we could be a community,” says Lee Banville, who came to the Online NewsHour in 1995.

And so they were. “Twitch and Shout,” a 1995 P.O.V. documentary about Tourette’s syndrome, produced an online dialogue site that attracted so much interest within the Tourette’s community that when its funding ran out, it morphed into an online support group.

But Johanson and her team have also said “no” to some cool but problematic features. Some were lost, for example, when they standardized the technology used by online forums, grouping them at Discussions.PBS.org, to avoid technical complexities and conflicts. Like gardeners, they contend, they pruned branches to save the plant.

This pragmatic Johansonian decision-making may explain why PBS.org thrives in 2005 while many other 1995 startups are long gone. As many dot-coms demonstrated, vast digital edifices created with millivolts and megaHertz can collapse when their builders make grand bet-the-ranch gestures and burn through capital like there’s no tomorrow.

Public TV has never had capital to burn. Johanson’s team took calculated risks, but they also recognized and admitted dead ends, cut their losses and moved on. PBS.org proceeded with first steps, next steps and accomplishable objectives.

In 1998, PBS wanted to be a first mover in interactive TV, and Intel Corp. wanted to sell plug-in cards that would enable home computers to become interactive TV sets. At the annual meeting that year, Duggan announced a partnership with Intel that would lead to a 24/7 interactive program stream. PBS and Intel collaborated on an elegant interactive version of Ken Burns’s Frank Lloyd Wright, seen by only several dozen viewers in seven cities gathered around specially outfitted computers.

Intel and PBS bet wrong. It was too early for interactive TV to take off. Producers had no experience in developing interactive content—and a vested emotional interest in not letting viewers rearrange their minutely edited work. And it was too soon for viewers, who were seemingly content with linear stories and none too eager to watch TV on their computers. Less than two years after the Intel pact was announced, Johanson pulled the plug. The project had seemed like a good idea, she said at a conference for station programmers, but it didn’t work out as hoped. PBS pulled out, even though Intel was still willing to invest money in the project.

When the little text ads start appearing on some PBS.org pages, they’ll come with chaperones. Near the ads will be links to a message explaining why advertising is needed and assuring web visitors that sponsors won’t influence the content, Johanson says via e-mail.

"The last thing we want to do is jeopardize the trust that audiences place with PBS,” Johanson writes. “However, we know these same audiences visit similar content sites, such as National Geographic’s or the New York Times’, where there is support from sponsors and advertisers.”

Five years after the dot-com bust, some companies are making big money on the Web. Entering a medium without FCC rules has given some pubcasters confidence to cover deficits by selling products and carrying ads that wouldn’t fly on the air, but others say the public expects stations to stay in character — consistently noncommercial.

"We wouldn’t want our audience to go to the website and have a very different experience,” says Jack Galmiche, chief operating officer at Oregon Public Broadcasting, which didn’t run its first website ad until this fall. OPB is making changes slowly and testing audience responses.

"It’s like anything in public broadcasting,” says Galmiche. “It’s how you do it that matters.”

To some extent, added sponsorships and ads are only a step from present practices. Just a click away from the PBS.org home page, the Antiques Roadshow front page features a link to a website for Toyota, a series funder, that features pictures of the latest cars and more links with a plainly commercial purpose, labeled “Build and Price Your Toyota” “Find Local Specials” and “Request a Quote.”

Questions of noncommercialism and ads are familiar debates for pubcasters, but they’re just beginning to chew over the emerging questions raised by on-demand media, including video on demand and podcasting.

As PBS monetizes its website, it may be well served by Johanson’s inclination to tread cautiously and sometimes step back. That’s how media companies are trying out the Web—experimenting with various patterns of free and paid content. For example, newspapers and other news providers often allow free access to news (where traffic is great enough to support advertising) but charge for access to archives.

Charging for archived content could conflict, however, with PBS.org’s great success as a continuing resource for learning about the civil rights movement, words that start with “B” and how to bake fish. And it could change the audience’s view of public TV, which has long touted its commitment to serving low-income families.

Fanning wants to offer more Frontline as streaming video on PBS.org, but Johanson, who has to weigh the Internet server costs, has turned him down. He contends that PBS now is less likely to approve free online video because it’s planning to charge for it.

Johanson and Alex Hofmann, senior director of digital ventures, deny any slackening in PBS’s commitment to free television. “PBS is 100 percent committed to universal free access across breadth of our content,” says Hofmann, referring to free broadcasts and free websites at PBS.org.

But if users want the convenience of video on demand, or content downloaded to their cell phones, that means extra expense for PBS, which may have to pass on those costs, Hofmann says.

Johanson says she also wants to offer more video online. “Someone who was dazzled by a site with text 10 years ago now expects a rich media experience,” she said at the Development Conference this month.

PBS.org is “absolutely supportive of offering streaming content,” says Johanson, citing video streams on the NewsHour and PBS Kids subsites, but she notes that the trend is moving toward downloading. Streaming has minimized copyright issues—consumers can’t easily save or duplicate the files—but it carries higher per-user costs.

PBS.org will continue to offer free online video, Johanson says, but for limited time periods. After that, web visitors can purchase it through the ShopPBS inventory. Even now, if visitors ask PBS.org’s search engine for Boohbah content, they get small ads directing them to Boohbah videos on sale at ShopPBS.org. [See below.]

Ads for Boobah videos on PBS dot org web search

Johanson says PBS is discussing the limited free-window strategy with producing stations, which not only make the programs but also produce most of PBS.org’s content.

The market for downloaded video is growing, Johanson points out, with Apple adding video to its iPods and recent TiVo digital video recorders capable of feeding programs into handheld players.

Though PBS is focusing on delivering video on demand through the Internet, including station websites and possibly portals such as Yahoo, PBS also wants the programming available on demand though cable systems. More than 20 million digital cable subscribers have access to video on demand, Johanson says, and the vast majority will have access by the end of the decade.

Like Johanson, Galmiche notes that public TV has been selling videocassettes for years without a public outcry. Downloads are just a change in form. But he’s wary of a big shift toward paid online video.

Downloads may turn out to be the preferred way for younger generations to get their PBS, Galmiche says. If they are happy with getting narrow-interest video they can watch when they please, they could become quite satisfied members of OPB, he speculates.

When Galmiche downloads WNYC’s On the Media and transfers it to his iPod, the first thing he hears is the producing station’s pitch for support. On a bet that public radio’s audience support system isn’t broken and just needs an update, OPB is offering podcasts of two local news shows. If public TV can also revitalize its membership support through video on demand, he says, “we ought to explore how that might work.”

For people at public TV stations, it hasn’t been easy to watch PBS.org reach their viewers directly, control the content or get most of the credit for providing the service. Producing stations develop most of its web material, but final editorial control is held by PBS.org editors, who must keep libel off the pages and glitches out of the code.

Unlike the broadcast network, PBS.org goes directly to its audience, not only replacing the stations as gatekeepers but also disrupting public TV’s economic model. To broadcast viewers, the stations can say: We give you Sesame Street and Jim Lehrer and Ken Burns, and you give back donations. But if web users have good feelings about PBS.org, do stations still get their support?

Johanson and her team tried to defuse potential station opposition to PBS.org six years ago by introducing systems — vetted by an advisory committee of station web directors — to “localize” a national website for web users who identify their viewing regions. Localization entails putting the local stations’ logos on web pages and publishing local broadcast schedules. Links to stations’ websites allow PBS.org visitors to donate to the station via credit card.

Some national producers who have worked with material for months also resent the supervision of PBS.org’s staff.

“What expertise do generalist editors have to challenge content developed by scholars and other experts?” asks one of the system’s most talented web developers.

PBS’s business plan, approved by its board in June, codifies the green-lighting criteria for some of the website’s biggest decisions — which projects should get its limited resources.

These criteria will rule only with the cooperation of stations that pay most of PBS’s bills and produce most of its programs and website content. They do, however, point to difficult resource-allocation issues that lay ahead, even if monetization relieves the budget squeeze.

The “content investment framework” described in the business plan excerpt released by PBS favors proposed websites that fit with PBS’s content priorities. Funding will tend to go to sites that support ongoing major series, accompany programs that PBS promotes heavily or that arrive fully funded. The rules favor proposed websites that PBS expects will meet editorial and financial criteria, including depth, educational value, originality, developers’ skills and revenue potential. PBS said it will also consider fining web developers who miss deadlines.

By investing in new sites more selectively and choosing some to develop with simpler design templates, Johanson expects to actually launch more sites this year than before.

Websites for one-time specials will tend to have reduced spending, a station webmaster speculates, because they’d get less ongoing promotion and less traffic. Video streaming also could be affected, since streams carry high per-user costs.

When PBS.org points to its tight budget when it says “no” to a web producer, the producer may want to point back. Fanning, as a leading series producer, has the standing to do so. He wonders whether PBS.org needs so many editors. [PBS responds.]

PBS.org employed 28 people as of 2004, according to that year’s budget. PBS.org officials refused to say how many staffers they have now.

"Big series like Frontline don’t need the level of editorial supervision PBS.org provides,” he says. Other national producers privately second Fanning’s opinion.

Johanson bristles at suggestions that PBS.org exercises excessive editorial control over independently produced sites. No major content site offers producers the creative latitude they have at PBS.org, she says. Her staff does only what’s necessary, such as catching broken links and inappropriate postings and giving the site a unified look and navigation system.

There have to be “unifying elements beyond technology, to let viewers know they’re at PBS.org,” Johanson says.

Almost 150 years ago, a newspaper editor asked Abraham Lincoln what his plan for reconstruction was. “The pilots on our Western rivers steer from point to point as they call it,” Lincoln replied, “setting the course of the boat no farther than they can see; and that is all I propose.”

Since 1995, a decade that has seen countless dot-coms and dot-orgs launched at high tide only to run aground at low, PBS.org has survived and succeeded through just such a series of course corrections.

If PBS.org’s past is precedent, then, the great monetization debate will end in compromise. The question then will be not whether it is still afloat, but whether those aboard are happy with the destination they’ve reached.

Too many editors at PBS.org?

A PBS spokesman responded to David Fanning's suggestion that PBS.org was overstaffed. This is part of a letter published in Current, Nov. 21, 2005.

The article quotes a producer questioning whether PBS Interactive needs as many editors as it has. PBS would like to put that point in context: PBS Interactive has three content managers overseeing an average of 230 site launches a year, in addition to the ongoing content archive of 1,200 PBS.org sites.

This skillful, hardworking team is accountable for ensuring Internet content complies with PBS's comprehensive Editorial Standards, recently updated by a panel of journalists and approved by the PBS Board. Many PBS sites consist of 100 pages or more of content, and unlike television programs, websites are living documents that may require ongoing attention, as most on PBS.org are available for more than 5 years after broadcast.

— Kevin Dando, Director, Education and Online Communications, PBS, Alexandria, Va.

Louis Barbash is a Current contributing editor and a former TV programming project officer at CPB who supervised grants to numerous web producers and other interactive projects. Current editors Steve Behrens, Jeremy Egner and Karen Everhart contributed to the article.

Web page posted Dec. 30, 2005
Copyright 2005 by Current Publishing Committee

Johanson

Johanson and team took calculated risks but also recognized and avoided dead ends. (Photo: Current.)

EARLIER ARTICLES

PBS switches rapidly to the Web from earlier online technologies, 1995.

PBS announces a web alliance with MCI, but it doesn't develop, 1995.

The first three years at PBS.org, 1998.

PBS "localizes" a national website to aid local stations, 1999.

Web producers race to cover terror war, 2001.

ITVS withdraws controversial web pages, 2002.

Some productions appear only on the Web, 2002.

LATER ARTICLES

Commentary: For public radio, free podcasts are another broken business model, 2005.

LINKS

The PBS Kids site is accessible through a special domain for children: kids.us. Congress authorized the domain in 2002.

 

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