It's Not All About Commercial Content: Public Television Goes Online

We all know that Hulu and Boxee are the hot sites of the moment and that all the major networks are now streaming online, but did you know that PBS recently joined the party?

Yes, public television is now offering plenty of full episodes for free, and its portal site looks oddly high-tech for stuffy old PBS. To get there, though, PBS had to overcome some challenges that the major networks never had to face.

Early Efforts
While PBS Video launched in beta on April 22, it wasn't PBS's first online video site. That happened with PBS Kids Go!, which launched in September 2008. The launch was "wildly successful," says Jason Seiken, senior vice president for PBS Interactive. PBS Kids Go! offers more than 1,200 clips and full episodes, includes sections in English and Spanish, and currently serves 1.2 million streams per week. All in all, it's received over 40 million streaming video requests since launch.

In setting up PBS Kids Go, the organization made some interesting choices to tailor content for its audience. It uses Panache's ad-serving technology, but uses it to incorporate interactive games with the videos. Seiken says that videos average 2,000 views per week, but learning game-enhanced videos average 20,000 views.


Unique Requirements
The launch also gave PBS the opportunity to set up the backend video system it would later use for its grown-up video site. In planning both sites, PBS looked at all the major vendors and chose to go with thePlatform, which is based in Seattle, for the core backend. PBS Video was no standard setup, however, since the organization has some unique requirements. The biggest challenge was setting up the sharing system. PBS's 357 member stations have their own web sites, and they need to be able to pick up any available video, so that it integrates side-by-side with their local video. At the same time, PBS's national site needs the ability to pick up that local content, as well. And, naturally, local stations need the ability to pick up content from other local stations.

If that sharing arrangement sounds complicated, the controls needed to be perfectly easy. Member stations have scarce resources, says Seiken, so the administrative controls needed to be simple enough for anyone to use. PBS worked with an outside tech shop to create the administrative tool and a New York design firm to shape the front end.

PBS Video launched with 200 hours of Flash video, most in the form of full-length programs. The system is designed for a bitrate of 325Kbps to 750Kbps, with a target bitrate of 500Kbps, says Seiken. He's been surprised by the enthusiasm of the viewers since launch. Twitter users tweeted about the launch nearly 2,000 times.

"People were using words that you don't always associate with PBS, talking about how modern and cutting-edge the site was," says Seiken.

An Ongoing Experiment
While the site offers PBS's most popular evening programs, Seiken's team plans to experiment with content over the coming months. They've been getting strong requests for old Julia Child episodes, and plan to post the complete back catalog soon. Since PBS doesn't own the rights for its shows, however, there will be little from Masterpiece Theater, American Masters, or Great Performances. Masterpiece Theater is owned by the BBC, and for the other two PBS would need to secure rights from the individual performers featured. For many of the shows available now, PBS has distribution rights for two to three years.

PBS is already using the video portal to debut new shows. The first episode of Time Team America is one of the site's most viewed videos, even though the series won't debut on air until July 8. There's been much discussion in the PBS conference rooms, says Seiken, about whether online video will spur or cannibalize on-air viewing and DVD sales. Trials in coming months will help his team find the answers and gauge how online video effects viewership.

The portal won't be the only place to find PBS video, however, as the organization already has agreements in place with Hulu, YouTube, AOL, and Yahoo. These sites don't offer the full PBS video lineup, but have a sampling.

Going forward, PBS will continue to add new series to its video portal. It will also launch a companion site for teachers and will begin creating original web video, which may in time move to the on-air channel. It's the right move at the right time: the publicly financed channel is keeping up with the networks.

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