Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Why PBS moved from 'owned & operated' media to YouTube

There was a time when the mandate of public broadcasters was clear. Their job was to cover topics deemed to be in the interest of, and for the good of, the public at large. Sometimes that meant the high-minded, sometimes it meant the culturally diverse, and sometimes it meant giving voice to the marginalized. Think of it as the take your vitamins, eat a balanced diet version of media. We all know it’s good for us, but we also know that kale doesn’t exactly taste great.

At the same time, over the past few years the terrain once trod upon almost exclusively by public broadcasters has found itself imprinted with the footprints of others – namely podcasters, YouTubers, and bloggers. Chart topping podcasts like Hardcore History and YouTube science channels like Vsauce  have proven that there’s a huge audience for content once primarily referred to as ‘educational’. Podcasters, bloggers, and YouTubers have amply demonstrated that an unconventional approach to content and production can, and does, work. Hundreds of milions of views and downloads don’t lie.

In this new reality, shows, or content, (whichever term you prefer) can be made by enthusiasts, not just by broadcasters. And the product is available to anyone, at any time, via laptops, tablets, and phones. The question then becomes: how and where do public broadcasters fit into this picture?

While in Austin for SXSW 2015 I attended a session called “NPR & PBS: Public Media, Reaching New Publics” that addressed this question. The main presenter was Lauren Saks, Director of Programming at PBS Digital Studios.

As so many conference sessions do, this one began with the people on the panel throwing out one of those ‘can I have a show of hands’ questions to the audience. This one asked how many people in the room grew up watching Sesame Street.  Almost everyone’s hand shot up.  The next question was ‘how many of you either listen to NPR or watch PBS now’. What looked like about 2/3 of a room filled largely with people between the ages of 25 and 40 had their hands in the air. This was not typical, we were assured. As Saks informed us, most people in the U.S. grow up watching Sesame Street then don’t tune in to PBS again until they’re in their 50s or older. As for NPR, the radio service, we learned that the average listener is 55, upper middle class, and affluent. “Our mission is to speak to the public. And we’re not doing that with these demographics”, admitted Saks.

And so, in the spirit of decentralized media explored in the preceding blog post, PBS figured out that they needed to be where audiences were. This is a definitive move away from the old school thinking that says audiences must come to us. To the media properties we own, and have grown, over years of building reputation and brand. That’s a nice idea, but in an age of abundance (if not overabundance) of content it just isn't happening that way. Those in the content game are figuring out they have to go to where the attention is going. And that means places like YouTube, Tumblr, Twitter, Instagram etc. This is why even august organizations like the New York Times are entering into content-hosting partnerships with Facebook. For many, if not most, the primary destination is now Facebook, not a specific newspaper’s website. A similar change is afoot for broadcasters who are seeing their audiences move en masse to sites like YouTube.

Consider the case of PBS Digital Studios. 

It launched in 2012 and according to the blurb on its YouTube page:

PBS has long brought you original, thought-provoking programming. With PBS Digital Studios, we take that same mission and apply it to the Internet age. Working with creators from across the web, our network of short-form video series will showcase the best of the Internet while also celebrating the best parts of public television.


“For PBS Digital Studios we moved off our 'owned & operated' platform to YouTube”, said Saks recently at SXSW. And this turned out to be a good move. As of the end of March 2015 PBS Digital Studios on YouTube has 4.7 million subscribers and just under 350 million views. It offers 60+ channels, covering arts, culture, and science, and as Saks puts it:

“We’re bringing an audience we’ve never had to our brand. And we match the tone to the platform. We don’t try to shoehorn something into a place it doesn’t fit.”




Among several dozen others, PBS Digital partnered with pioneering YouTubers Hank & John Green aka ‘The Vlog Brothers” for a channel called Crash Course, which has become one of the most popular in the PBS digital network.


Saks said bringing Hank & John Green on board was an easy decision to make. “They were doing PBS type content on YouTube before we were even thinking about it, so people were doing it with or without us, and we’ve learned so much from John & Hank. We’ve learned about loyalty, about the conversation in the comments. People come back every week because they think of John & Hank as their friends. And these people may well turn into PBS viewers and donors in the future.”

The trade-off here is this: sacrificing the owned and operated PBS platform for access to YouTube’s 1 billion+ monthly users. The costs? Well, for starters, YouTube takes 45% of the ad revenue, but they’re the elephant in the room, and as such they can take (close to) the lion’s share of the revenue. And apologies for the mixing of animal metaphors but I couldn’t resist. 

The other beast in the room is Facebook, where YouTube video is commonly shared. It's responsible for about 25% of all traffic referred online.


And finally we have Twitter, where, from a marketing perspective, we find distribution done by the public at large, as seen here during a momentary glance at a column on Tweetdeck. This kind of circulation of comments, links, images, and videos goes on, of course, 24/7, and is driven by fans and enthusiasts, not the content creators themselves.

This is a very different supply chain. 

Distribution is essentially free. Plus you’re not buying media for promotional placement, as was the case in the past. Instead, you’re contributing content to a platform that generally doesn’t create its own. Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are not like the BBC or the New York Times in this way; they are the pipe, and others fill the pipe. 

And why do we fill it? Because the pipe has a global reach, and because the content that flows through it can achieve exponential, not just linear growth, thanks to its circulation in networks with many, many outward reaching nodes and hubs. 

Kudos to PBS for recognizing the value of being where audiences already are and partnering, rather than competing with, creators whose work a) complements the PBS brand and b) is already resonating with viewers.

Related Posts:

Platform Capitalism, or Why Your Parents Don't Understand The Internet
What Buzzfeed got before anyone else: Decentralized Media
YouTubers in 2015: A King of Trivia & A Girl Next Door Beauty Blogger
You Tubers in 2015: The appeal of the Annoying Orange
The Stars of YouTube: Buffer Festival 2014