In a recent presentation at WOSU in Columbus, Ohio, John Proffitt, who blogs about public media, painted a gloomy picture. In slide after slide, the stats mounted. New gadgets, new social media habits, new channels for distribution and consumption all added up to one conclusion: public TV stations are rapidly losing both value and relevance.

In addition to that, urgent demand for wireless bandwidth — as demonstrated by the recent woes of AT&T in serving iPhone users — presents a particular challenge.

“This is a threat to the incumbents that own spectrum and own towers and own all of the infrastructure for creating and distributing television over the air,” said Proffitt. “Broadcasters, you can’t fight this very well … when an industry is driving a 5,000 percent growth rate that’s driven by consumers, I don’t know how you can outlobby it.”

Instead, he advised station managers to adopt “a martial arts mindset similar to jujitsu,” working with the force of massive change rather than against it.

The Future is Public Service Media from John Proffitt on Vimeo.

But while single stations and independent producers may at times be able to act with such martial agility, the system as a whole can barely make it onto the mat. The problem is an increasingly urgent mismatch between current infrastructure investments, and those needed to keep pace with the volatile digital media ecosystem. While federal dollars are, in large part, mandated to support existing station operations, little money is available for multimedia content creation, innovation in rising areas like mobile apps, or engagement tools for new platforms. There is a critical infrastructure gap.

The stakes are high. As Center for Social Media fellow Ellen Goodman noted in a recent letter submitted to the FCC’s docket on a national broadband plan:


The possibilities for transformative investments in education and local journalism become clear when one considers what public television stations spend in just one day on broadcast master control. In 2008, daily operation of master control cost the average small public television station $11,384 and the average large station …
$72,247. As a point of comparison, the New Haven Independent, a local community
newspaper established to combat diminishing local news coverage, operates for less than $2,000 per day. The award‐winning investigative news site, Voice of San Diego,
operates an eleven person newsroom on a daily budget of less than $4,000. And the
average city hall reporter reportedly makes less than $150 per day.

Broadcasting remains an important transmission technology and, until there is
universal broadband, the only source of universally available electronic media.
However, the broadband future demands a better balance between broadcast
(particularly television) infrastructure investments and investments in public media
content and engagement strategies.

Update/Correction Jan. 15: The comparison below appeared in a subsequent letter submitted by Goodman to provide an alternative to the master control calculations in the struck text, above, which were based on incorrect data:

Content distribution and delivery expenses are 16.2% for large licensees (many of which operate multiple stations) to 18.6% for small licensees. This amounts to $2.9 million‐
$27.3 million in annual expenditures per licensee on broadcast delivery of content.
These numbers suggest two things: (1) if some stations and other entities were free to
deploy a portion of these resources towards broadband infrastructure (perhaps as
anchor institutions) and/or content and other applications, we would advance on the
goal of a more participatory and productive public media network; and (2) even total
redeployment of these resources would not be enough to meet community needs for public media infrastructure and content, so we must consider other ways (besides a
shift from broadcast infrastructure) to fund public media activities.

Unless (or until) there’s legislative action to reset the funding priorities for public media, organizations are going to have to find ways to fill in this infrastructure — and innovation — gap. Here are a few ideas.

Public Broadcasting Infrastructure Projects

Despite limited resources, players within the public broadcasting sector are working on new infrastructure projects that could create common platforms, standards and tools for public media 2.0. These include:

Shared archiving of legacy content: Current reports that a new head will soon be announced for the American Archive project, which will digitize, aggregate and serve up stations’ historical video and audio content.

Shared metadata standards: This fall, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting issued an RFP for a program manager to tackle the next phase of the PBCore project, which would standardize and push out protocols for tagging public media content. Establishing such data standards is crucial not only for cataloging and storing media, but for breaking it down into modular pieces that can be easily searched and reaggregated across various screens.

Common distribution tools: Both the NPR API and the PBS COVE Player project provide new pipelines for distributing, sharing and embedding public broadcasting content.

While such projects may not seem like “infrastructure”— they lack the physicality of wires, transmitters and routers — they play the same role as previous system investments: establishing connections between local and national programmers in order to more efficiently provide relevant content to publics. What’s more, they are crucial pieces in the puzzle of how to create a system-wide portal for public media content, a prospect being discussed by public broadcasting entities.

But Who Will Own the Tubes?

These and related new-era infrastructure projects assume that the future of public media is multiplatform broadband distribution. This raises at least two clear issues: new dollars will be needed to support data storage and transfer costs, and hard questions will need to be asked and answered about how end-users will get access to public media content.

Many hope the FCC’s National Broadband Plan will provide at least part of the answer, by underwriting the build-out of a national system that will provide free or subsidized access to the web for members of the public. This would be a boon not only to public broadcasters, but to struggling community media projects and commercial news providers working to find viable online business models.

Another model might be for public broadcasters to buy into their own high-speed, nonprofit network, leapfrogging over current slow transmission speeds. The concept of such a “public interest Internet” is laid out in a whitepaper by the National Public Lightpath project, which provides a compelling vision of a national data autobahn linking schools, government and public broadcasters. With speeds up to 8,000 times faster than the broadband available to consumers, this network would facilitate collaborative production, real-time communication between students and experts, educational gaming, and more.

But while the NPL project could help to underwrite dedicated connections to schools, community centers, and other access points, it wouldn’t cover the costs of serving up public media to end users who are on the move or at home. For now, both stations and national public broadcast organizations are stuck negotiating with commercial broadband providers to serve up content, and the public is left paying whatever rates the market will bear for access speeds that fall well below those in other developed countries.

And What About Infrastructure for Engagement?

What’s more, many current public broadcasting infrastructure projects are still focused on the old business of moving content around. In order to match the needs of 21st-century users, parallel investment needs to be made in creating vibrant and appealing contexts for public participation — either through partnerships with existing social media platforms, or the open source development of customized tools and interfaces. Both are already underway in experimental forms at stations and national public media sites, but no clear standards have emerged.

In his presentation, Proffitt described the “new scarcities” emerging in the digital media ecosystem, including trust, the need for community, and user time and attention. He made a distinction between the old, broadcast-driven public broadcasting model, and user-centric, issue-driven “public service media.” He lauded projects like the Public Insight Network as inspirational models for more networked public media, but emphasized that new skills, along with new tools, will be needed:

“Building and managing communities really is going to be the new 21st-century skill … Learning how to convene people, how to host and participate in those communities, how to engage people and get them to engage with the community, how to interact with people — [these] are incredibly powerful things from a social perspective that we need to understand if we’re going to become public service media people.”

Calling all FIrst-Class Operators

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Rob Bole

For station leaders, navigating this new terrain requires multiple, jarring swerves: not just learning new technologies and skills, but maintaining existing, still-valuable operations while making strategic decisions about which new platforms to invest in.

On his personal blog, Rob Bole, CPB’s vice president of digital media strategies, laments the failure to recognize “first-class operators” in public broadcasting. Such leaders, he explains, are just as focused on keeping their outlets functioning efficiently and sustainably as they are on retooling for every new platform that comes along. While innovation is important, he suggests, digital visionaries have their eye on a different ball than station execs:

The risk equation for a Ken Ikeda at Bay Area Video Coalition or Avner Rosen at Boxee looks very different than the one held by a CEO at a public media station. At the moment if BAVC or Boxee craters it would be a shame, but the impact would be limited. If KQED [SF] or WNET [NYC] disappeared there are far deeper consequences beyond the immediate loss of jobs and programming. We are talking the potential loss of spectrum, the livelihoods of hordes of independent producers and, while depreciated, a couple of hundred of millions of dollars of assets.

Instead of rushing headlong into the future, Bole called for “a bit of guts” to take new risks, a bit of “new blood” among managers, and “a bit of sense” among funders, allowing them to develop measured, strategic responses to change.

In other words, jujitsu may just be a bit too dramatic — perhaps some Tai Chi is in order.

Jessica Clark directs the Future of Public Media project at American University’s Center for Social Media. There, she conducts and commissions research on media for public knowledge and action, and organizes related events like the Beyond Broadcast conference. She is also the co-author of a forthcoming book, “Beyond the Echo Chamber: Reshaping Politics Through Networked Progressive Media,” due out from the New Press in February.