PBS ponders podcast

Digital plan offers added revenue stream

Technology may finally help PBS do what all the partisan wrangling couldn’t: ease it from its dependence on Congress for funding.

In its halting, PBS-esque way, the pubcaster has been pushing ahead with a digital strategy that could have far-flung effects. It already makes large chunks of popular shows like “The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer” and “P.O.V.” available on the Web and iTunes, and the network’s digital strategists say they’re making plans to offer a range of VOD material.

And while more desirable programming like a Bob Dylan special stay chained to the set, PBS is in negotiations to make those available too.

With funding a constant source of controversy — a point incoming prexy-CEO Paula Kerger, a vet of the pubcaster, knows well — digital coin could be a magic bullet.

At the moment, all content is free. But the pubcaster acknowledges it has considered various pay models. Already, streaming has enabled PBS to draw advertising that might be trickier on the air, with Google-sponsored links. And outgoing prexy Pat Mitchell recently said PBS could see $25 million-$30 million annually from downloading and VOD services.

But might parents pay so they can order up “Sesame Street” whenever they — or their children — demand?

“PBS could actually package it so that we’d feel good about paying a little extra, instead of at the networks, where we just think ‘It goes into their coffers,'” says Syracuse U. media professor Robert Thompson. “And consumers would get something a lot more useful than a tote bag.”

Added revenue, of course, is just one reason PBS is making a shift. As Kerger takes over (and faces the usual shouting about funding and bias), the pubcaster is quietly being shaken by a more profound concern: staying relevant in an on-demand, 800-channel age.

For most of its history, PBS solicited money from patrons and programmed in a vacuum. Viewer satisfaction? Ratings? Who knew? As long as the pledges came in, it didn’t really matter.

And it’s true that without ratings worries, PBS avoids the short-term pressure of sweeps or upfronts. But it also lacks a feedback mechanism that keeps nets competitive — and relevant. And with cable nets like Discovery and A&E horning in on its turf, and broadcast nets using technology to further squeeze viewers’ time, the network needs relevance more than ever.

Of course, much of PBS’ programming — longform viewing for a niche audience –isn’t exactly the stuff of an on-demand, slice-and-dice world. Consumers might watch NASCAR highlights on their cell phones before takeoff. But a “Nova” episode?

Experts, though, say episodes’ length could work in PBS’ favor.

“Watching pieces of Ken Burns’ ‘Baseball’ instead of sitting through the whole thing sounds pretty good to me,” Thompson says, adding that if the net packages its shows right, auds might treat PBS iTunes bits as they do an audio self-help book: a pellet of self-improvement on the go.

VOD could also suit PBS. As Cindy Johnson, senior veep of interactive and education, says, “One of the great frustrations audiences have is finding out when our shows air.”

And PBS has fewer reasons to fear backlash from its affils, who aren’t worried about ad viewership.

The network’s changes aren’t limited to digital maneuvers; programming has also moved, fitfully, into the 21st century. While its schedule still consists largely of serious and educational programming, net’s “House” series, for example, involves producers placing non-pros in manufactured periods of the American past. Producer WNET calls it “hands-on history” but it is, essentially, a reality show.

The spring’s “Texas Ranch House,” which re-creates the Wild West (Tagline: “110 Degrees. 200 Cows. 47,000 Acres. And Fifteen People.”) contains its strongest reality flavor yet: house members can actually get fired.

With this show and others, there’s a sense from execs the net must evolve to encompass larger interests — even mass tastes.

Says co-chief programming exec Coby Atlas: “We need to balance our mission with programs a lot of people want to watch.”

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