TCA: Network embraces digital media

PBS is going full throttle into multiplatform offerings, with the belief that digital media offers an opportunity to expand the pubcaster’s reach rather than cannibalize it.

Speaking at the Television Critics Assn. press tour Wednesday, PBS president and CEO Paula Kerger cited research that indicates not only adults but young children are frequent users of computers and smartphones (whether their own or their parents). PBS is innovating accordingly.

“We’re doing for digital media what we’ve done for TV, which is to use it to expand horizons,” Kerger said.

“We have been innovative on our technological side since the beginning. We created closed captioning. We were the first with national satellite transmissions. We were early adopters of HD in a significant way. … We’ve really always tried to think about, as technology evolved, not just ‘This is pretty cool,’ but, ‘This is pretty cool, and how can it help us connect?’ “

As one example of progress in this area, Kerger cited an educational iPhone app aimed at single-digit-aged viewers of the PBS Kids series “Super Why.”

“As we have thought about how to reach children, we see that as an opportunity to bring content,” Kerger said. “The ‘Super Why’ app gives kids an opportunity to play some basic games, trace numbers (and) fill in basic vocabulary words, and takes the learning that we have developed as part of the series and brings it to a format where kids can play with it themselves and interact with it themselves.”

This prioritizing echoes PBS’ on-the-air focus, with Kerger saying that PBS embraces a responsibility to provide educational content to supplement America’s struggling schools.

“If you compare the PBS Kids schedule from five years ago with the one that we offer today, you’ll see that it’s much stronger,” she said. “We’re focused on creating programs for young children, because those are the viewers that need us most. We know that there are millions of children that never see the inside of a pre-K classroom, but those kids will have access to PBS. … The projections for needs for prison cells in California are based on third-grade reading skills.”

While the early multiplatform explorations have focused on children’s content, Kerger said that PBS is looking at developing apps related to its news and primetime programming.

“The goal for us, as it is for other media organizations, is to bring our content where our viewers are,” Kerger said. “I’m not sure that people will watch an entire ‘Masterpiece Theater’ on a small screen, but it isn’t (impossible) to contemplate.”

The apps could represent another income source for the publicly funded network, but not a business model change, Kerger said. And she notes that PBS viewership is growing amid these tech evolutions.

“What we’re seeing is by creating all these different options, we’re bringing our work to new audiences,” Kerger said. “As you think about people who are the heaviest users of online content, they do tend to be younger. A lot of people come to us through search. Part of the reason our ratings are up is that we are bringing in a large audience. Our online audience continues to grow. I think those are all complimentary activities and not cannibalistic.”

Further on the grownup front for PBS, Kerger touted the makeover of “NewsHour” – “a much different show than it was six months ago” – with more correspondents and field reporting.

PBS will celebrate the 40th anniversary of “Masterpiece” in 2011, beginning with a Julian Fellowes-written “Downton Abbey” in January and also including the previously announced “Upstairs, Downstairs” remake in April.

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