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Viewers like you: How PBS is adapting to the streaming age

The public broadcaster has had considerable success on YouTube and other digital platforms. Now, it is looking to revamp pledging.

Viewers like you: How PBS is adapting to the streaming age

PBS has begun to talk to ad-supported video services, including some that distribute programming via free 24/7 channels, to help it compete in the streaming age.

Image: PBS

If there were a playbook for the streaming wars, it might read something like this: Take your most valuable assets, slap a plus behind your most recognizable brand name, and start counting the money.

For PBS, things aren't quite that easy. While the public broadcaster has made some inroads in streaming, it has been slower to embrace digital business models than some of its commercial competitors. But that could change in the coming months. PBS is in discussions to bring its app to additional platforms, including a new crop of ad-supported video services, and has plans to turn smart TVs into donation machines that could ultimately make the old-fashioned pledge drive obsolete.

For much of its existence, PBS and its 300-plus member stations have enjoyed an elevated profile in the media landscape. Cable companies, for instance, have been forced to distribute PBS alongside commercial broadcasters like Fox, ABC and CBS, ensuring that PBS NewsHour, PBS Kids programming and shows like "Antiques Roadshow" were always just a channel or two away from "American Idol," "Survivor" and "Good Morning America."

Fast forward to the streaming age, and PBS suddenly competes with Netflix, Hulu and HBO Max, whose viewers have no idea what broadcast call signs like KCET or WGBH even stand for. That's why in 2019, coinciding with its 50th birthday, PBS unveiled a rebranding that was made with digital in mind. The broadcaster's logo was optimized for different screen sizes, and local stations were encouraged to incorporate PBS into their own brands.

PBS Chief Digital and Marketing Officer Ira Rubenstein estimated that to date, around 70% of its member stations have adopted the new brand identity, with some even undergoing a complete rebranding. "KLRU in Austin is now Austin PBS," he said. "UNC TV is now PBS North Carolina."

The brand refresh has helped to raise PBS' profile and made it easier for consumers to associate a PBS show they may stream on YouTube or Facebook with their local station. It has coincided with an expansion across digital platforms. Dedicated PBS apps are now available on five of the major smart TV platforms; deals with additional platforms are in the works and could be announced within weeks.

PBS has also begun to talk to ad-supported video services, including some that distribute programming via free 24/7 channels. The industry has seen a lot of growth for these kinds of channels, with consumers embracing them as free replacements for the kind of curated lean-back experience offered by the basic cable grid. "It's an ongoing discussion," Rubenstein said. "But I hope that we'll have some announcements in the next three to six months."

Since PBS doesn't carry traditional advertising, any presence on these ad-supported services would primarily be about fulfilling the broadcaster's mission of informing the public. That's also how PBS has been using YouTube, where it has seen its audience grow significantly in recent months. Take PBS NewsHour, for example. The daily news program grew its digital audience by 80% year-over-year, to the tune of 53 million viewers in January. On YouTube alone, PBS NewsHour streamed 101 million videos last month, with total watch time growing by 239% year-over-year.

However, eyeballs alone don't pay the rent. Around 50% of the PBS budget is being paid by local stations, which rely on donations from individual viewers for a good chunk of their respective budgets. Back in the old days, that's where the pledge drive came in. Getting those viewers to open up their wallets is a lot harder when they jump back and forth between YouTube, social media and a bunch of streaming subscriptions every night.

That's why PBS introduced one-click donations on Amazon's Fire TV platform last fall. Fire TV users can now donate to their local station right from within the PBS app, using the credit card details that Amazon already has on file, and even join to become a sustaining member. The simplicity of this approach seems to be a hit with consumers, with Rubenstein pointing out that it has had a higher conversion rate than any other donation page for local PBS stations. "There's a very strong future for this," he said. "My vision is that we expand that one click to every platform."

This process may take some time. Accepting donations comes with legal strings attached, and routing them to the right affiliate adds extra complexity. "None of these platforms are taking donations yet," Rubenstein said. "We're really breaking new ground."

However, Rubenstein argued that the results could be transformative for public media. "Digital fundraising on these platforms can become the most powerful way stations fundraise," he said.

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