PBS takes a big leap forward in online video and reaches a much younger audience

PBSVideo If there’s any network that should be thriving online, it’s PBS.

Freed largely — though certainly not entirely — from the financial concerns that keep television networks and studios hemming and hawing about how much content to put online, where, and when, PBS can afford an aggressive digital strategy. Its goal is to gets it content in front of as many people as possible and, through a combination of government, corporate, and individual funding, try not to lose money while doing it.

Some PBS programs are already on Hulu and YouTube. And many episodes were on PBS.org, organized by show (click on the “Frontline” section to watch a “Frontline” episode, etc.)

But public broadcasting is taking a big leap forward today with a new video hub that’s arguably the most innovative and well designed on the market. With its tiles arranged horizontally by show and third-dimensionally (one behind the other) by episodes of each show, it’s an incredibly intuitive and easy to manage system. It’s amazing what Web designers can do when they’re not trying to maximize page views at all costs.

It’s being driven in large part by a new backend content management system PBS has installed that lets it do a lot more digitally. Most notable to me is the way it’s bringing together the previously divided content produced by the national network and its local stations into one platform.

“All our national video is now available to our 357 local station websites and we can allow the best content being produced locally to bubble up onto our national website,” said Jason Seiken, PBS’s senior VP of interactive.

Unlike the commercial networks, which tend to put episodes online soon after they air then take them off as soon as a DVD is available for purchase (and then sometimes put them back on the Web again after DVD sales have faded), Seiken says PBS’s plan is to put episodes online and keep them there for as long as PBS has the rights, typically two-to-three years. It’s also adding some library shows that have, as he put it, “lots of nostalgic interest,” like Julia Child’s cooking program.

Since PBS isn’t looking to maximize profits, it doesn’t have to be quite as concerned as networks like CBS and NBC are about the fact that programs streamed online generate a fraction of the advertising revenue as those on-air (not to mention subscription fees for cable networks). But Seiken said PBS will start looking for digital-specific video underwriters in the future, though for now the sponsorship are the same as those on-air.

The new PBS video site is the second step in a three-part strategy that has already launched a new video site for kids and will soon introduce one for teachers.

More than any commercial network, PBS certainly has a brand problem with certain demographics. The median age of its on-air viewers is a near-elderly 62. Online it’s pretty dramatically different. Two-thirds of PBS.org’s 12.8 million monthly visitors are under 45 and almost one third are between 18 and 34.

Which makes sense when you think about it. Speaking as someone in that last demo, I watch TV entirely via my DVR. Which means I mostly watch the series I like and occassionally special events I have heard about. But PBS has very few scripted series. Its best programming is documentary series like “Frontline” and “Nova” that are entirely different every week. I only watch those when I know I’m specifically interested. Which means I probably hear about it after the fact. That makes it the perfect on-demand programming for digital platforms.

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