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public TV and radio in the United States

With online video players, stations retake presenting role
PBS strands, local brands

Originally published in Current, Dec. 12, 2006
By Jeremy Egner

Public TV stations, which had no way to stream national programs on their own websites a few months ago, will be able to choose among three customizable video players by next spring.

New tools from Frontline [earlier article],and soon Nova and PBS.org, will enable local stations to wrap their logos around video streams of some of the system’s most popular programs.

With the players, stations can seamlessly incorporate signature national series into their sites, a big step as they strive to become content-rich online video hubs for their hometowns.

“People now have the expectation that when you go to a public TV site there will be video there,” says Susan Howarth, president of Cincinnati Public Media, formerly WCET. “It’s just a natural fit.” In March the Cincinnati station got a head start over most of its peers, launching CET Connect — an extensive site for local video.

Until recently, fans seeking to click-and-watch a PBS program had to go to PBS.org or to their local cable system’s on-demand service, if there was one.

“Most stations would prefer their viewers to get everything they need from their local sites,” says David Lowe, v.p. for marketing and development for KVIE in Sacramento, Calif. “They’d rather not launch someone off to PBS.org for online video.”

With the new players, PBS.org will still host the streamed content on its servers, but to users it will seem to come from their local stations’ sites.

Frontline led the way in October, offering full episodes—18, as of last week—for streaming on a player co-branded with the series and station logos. A link offers 40 additional archived programs on PBS.org.

Underneath the player’s skin, it’s a player for video in the QuickTime format. WGBH will add the option of Windows Media playback early next year.

WGBH offers the voice of Frontline narrator Will Lyman for station promos pointing viewers to online streaming.

As of last week, roughly 20 stations were actively using the service, said Sam Bailey, WGBH’s director of new media.

Nova will begin testing its own player with a handful of stations this week with an eye toward launching a permanent version early next year, says Lauren Aguirre, executive editor, Nova Online. The Nova tool, developed with funds from a CPB Opportunity Grant, will actually be a stand-alone “widget” that will sit on Nova fans’ desktops and can spring to life when stations send video clips via e-mail newsletters, Aguirre says.

PBS, meanwhile, has been gathering feedback from stations about what features a broader PBS player should incorporate and which programs should get priority for streaming, says Mary Kadera, v.p. of education.

“We’re trying to make sure that as we move forward on a national level we offer clear ways for stations to benefit,” Kadera says. “But if a station feels that it’s hearing about this for the first time and wants to become involved, it’s not too late,” she adds. “We welcome their involvement.”

Just how many video players will stations have to attach to their sites to handle the major programs?

Though Frontline’s well-received tool is already off and running, PBS envisions its player, still in its earliest conceptual phases, as a sort of one-stop shop for integrated public TV video.

Station input gathered via survey and the fall Round Robins indicates “there’s not a desire for 20 different players attached to different solutions,” says Kadera. “As much as possible,” she adds, “we hope to move in a direction to create a common player.”

But Frontline’s player isn’t going to stop working, Bailey says. “We made a commitment to stations to see this one through.” There’s no conflict or competition with PBS, he says; both sides share information frequently. “There’s just maybe a minor disagreement between PBS and us” about whether pubTV needs only one video player, he says. “The challenge is in finding how to unify these things or at least make them complementary,” he adds. “To the viewer none of these boundaries matter.”

Potentially adding to the confusion is the fact that stations such as CET have already made great strides in local broadband video. PBS has said that whatever it does would be compatible with local efforts, Howarth says.

“It’s tough when you have a lot of different organizations using a lot of different standards,” says Peter Morrill, g.m. of Idaho Public Television and a PBS Board member.

Station reps say they’d like to present video online as seamlessly as on the air. “If there could be one PBS player that offers not only Frontline and Nova but also local and other rich PBS content,” says Lowe, “that’s the one I would highlight on my site.” At the same time, Frontline- or Nova-only tools could be useful in designated public affairs, science or program-specific areas of a station site, he says.

“What is the ultimate answer going to be?” Morrill wonders. “I don’t know, but if the Frontline site is a glimpse into the future, it’s a pretty exciting glimpse.”

Plenty of questions still need answers before the PBS player gets off the ground, Kadera says. Should it be a broadband channel or more of a turnkey player for station sites? Should stations program it themselves? Should some content be reserved for members? What are the sponsorship and underwriting implications?

And then there are questions about handling nettlesome rights issues. Frontline’s player, for example, blacks out footage in episodes for which the producers couldn’t acquire streaming rights, Bailey says.

PBS has just begun to hear from stations on this in the “past two weeks,” Kadera says. “The next step is to distill the feedback.”

The network once hoped to have a player ready for stations to customize and use by February, but Kadera says it now seems likely to debut in the spring.   

Frontline plans technical upgrades for online video

Originally published in Current, May 30, 2006

WGBH plans a series of upgrades for video streaming, starting with the online version of Frontline’s “The Age of AIDS.”Online viewers will be able to stop watching at any of 20 chapter breaks and resume viewing later—a big practical advantage with a four-hour report, says Marrie Campbell, editorial director of Frontline’s websites.

On the broadcast dates, media players used for watching the show online will appear in a new “wrapper” displaying the viewer’s local station call letters, the Frontline logo and the AIDS report title, says Sam Bailey, Frontline’s director of new media.

In June, Frontline expects to begin streaming 30 percent larger video images by accelerating transmission from 220 kilobits per second to 350 kbps, Bailey says. The option of nearly full-screen streamed videos is within reach, he adds.               

Web page posted May 16, 2007
Copyright 2006 by Current Publishing Committee

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