Searching, Streaming, and Sometimes Screaming at, the Sites

Posted by Michael Getler on

Over the course of any month, the ombudsman’s office—which is composed of me and my able and more technically-savvy assistant, Marcia Apperson—gets a small but fairly steady flow of email from PBS viewers complaining about one thing or another having to do with technical difficulties when trying to use or navigate the PBS website, or the site of a member station, or of a specific program.

Sometimes we answer these questions ourselves when we can, but more frequently we pass them along to stations or to internal PBS departments such as Audience Services or the specialists in PBS Digital for a response. Since the ombudsman's column deals with editorial matters, I don't normally write about technical issues, although some of those who complain do so because it frustrates their "access to current news and journalistic content," as one viewer recently put it.

So what follows is not a typical ombudsman's column but rather one aimed at recording the issues that, for some, stand in the way of absorbing what PBS has to offer online and angers them at the same time. About a dozen viewers, for example, wrote to us in recent weeks with complaints that seemed to cover most of the issues. So we felt it was fair, and hopefully useful, to air them out, along with responses and explanations from PBS.

This is not to become a habit. We don't intend to add technical or web design issues to our charter. Indeed, we are adding some language and a link on the right-hand side of the ombudsman's page, starting today, which will tell people where to address comments about technical, Web-related issues. One of the most frequent complaints we receive is from viewers who say they can't find any other place to write. So they write to us, who they can find.

And Furthermore…

Two other things are worth saying at the outset. One is that PBS itself is a strange and complex organism. It is a membership-organization, a distributor, not a network. All its member stations are independent. So there is the main site (with a separate page for video), as well as station websites and program websites.

The other is what former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld might call a "known unknown." In this case, we, in this office, don't actually know how many people are experiencing what the letter-writers to us say they are experiencing. PBS is watched on television and online by many millions of people and a handful of letters to the ombudsman may not prove anything. Most people who write to me do so to complain. On the other hand, the mail we do get may be a sign that the issues are more widespread.

Without characterizing them, officials in PBS Digital said they receive "hundreds" of emails a week from users of the website, in addition to "dozens" that are sent to PBS Audience Services.

What follows now is a collection of emails we received recently and some general and some specific responses from PBS Digital officials. That makes for a very long column but, again, we don't plan on doing this again. Despite the length, some of the letters and the responses are condensed so as to avoid too much duplication.

But before we get to the letters, PBS officials said there are two categories of questions that "we would like to provide a bit of context for."

On Design & Usability of the Website:

We are always working to make the site and user experience better. PBS Digital conducts extensive user testing to gain feedback and audience insights. The Digital team is constantly evaluating usage metrics, satisfaction surveys, and reports of user feedback from PBS Audience Services. With over 16 million monthly unique visitors, it is difficult to immediately fulfill every need, but we are working to provide the best possible service.

On Streaming Video:

Streaming video presents a host of challenges in an increasingly fragmented viewing world. Each platform (web site, tablet, phone, Roku, Apple TV, Xbox, and many others) has different technologies that have the potential to impact the streaming experience of our viewers. The complexity of the media landscape – combined with a whole host of other factors, from compatibility with various browsers, issues our vendors might be experiencing, individual computer setups and more – means there are many variables that could be slowing things down. Some of these are within our control and some are not, but we are working each day to resolve problems and continually improve our service.

Each month, PBS streams over 300 million free online videos to our audiences. Although we strive for a flawless experience for each viewer, there will unfortunately always be isolated instances where video playback issues may occur, for a variety of reasons like the ones mentioned above. We are always seeking to improve the user experience on our various websites and video streaming platforms.

Here Is a Sampling of the Letters, Followed by Responses from PBS

I'm writing to you concerning PBS's policy of not providing the best streaming of video because I refuse to have all my private information out over the internet. It is a sad state for PBS, who is supposed to be for the people, not to provide equal service to everyone regardless if they want to keep their information private.

East Point, GA

Response: As a non-profit membership organization, PBS local stations around the country rely on financial support from members to provide superior content experiences. In an effort to support local PBS stations, PBS has begun to experiment with offering an added level of customization and features for station members. As a public service, PBS will always be committed to providing free content and free streaming available to all of the American public. These added features, including recommended watch lists, HD streaming, etc, are meant to serve as bonus features as our way of saying "thanks" to our loyal PBS station supporters…We hope that you can understand our desire to serve both our public audience while also providing much needed membership support to our local stations. 

We ask for email in order to deliver added functionality, such as high-definition streaming, enabling users to mark certain videos as favorites, create a list of favorite videos and making it possible for viewers to pick-up watching a video from where they left off – all across different devices. Users do not need to be station members to receive these benefits. We do note when a viewer clicks the link to register that, "By signing in, you are authorizing PBS to share your email address with your local PBS station to send you periodic communications about station events, services and support." Viewers who do not wish to register are able to access thousands of hours of [standard definition] content for free.

~ ~ ~

Hello Michael, I have a problem. I do not want to sign in with Facebook or Google or any other organization, only PBS. How do I do that? Why is it a problem?

Pelham, AL

Response: We recognize that many of our online visitors would prefer to create a unique profile directly with PBS rather than use a social network such as Facebook and Google. As of October 2013, we have added a PBS login feature to our sign in options. Users who do not have a Facebook or Google account can click on the black PBS logo to login directly.


The Website Blues 

I have been a contributor to educational television and PBS for scores of years, through my various local pbs affiliates. It pains me to contemplate the frightful and useless web sites. Trying to locate information on that cluttered website for PBS or the NewsHour is a great effort of frustration. Why should I continue to support such bad design with my money?

Carl Brookims, Roseville, MN

~ ~ ~

The PBS web site and the PBS Video web site are not user friendly, are confusing, and don't take the user to where the user wants to go. The site deliberately obfuscates. There is no way to get responsive answers to problems/questions. The PBS Video web site has been altered again so that it now provides videos that stall, stutter, and don't load/play and are lacking the bps adjustment on the video control panel. It would seem that if PBS is going to have PBS Videos online that it would be ethical for PBS to provide them in a functioning manner so that they can be viewed by the public online audience. Also, they now have it set up that if the writer of his message cannot complete the almost impossible to read encryption in order to send the message, and, therefore, fails the encryption posting, instead of getting a resend opportunity, the sender loses the entire message and has to start all over again. PBS makes everything so unreasonably difficult.

(The writer asked to not be identified)

~ ~ ~

With due respect, I would like to comment on the PBS website; in particular there is absolutely no way to find programs on the PBS website. Maybe it is easy for you to use the listings, as you may be on it all the time, but the PBS website is so mixed up, so disorganized and a confusing mess - poorer than any other media site I have ever seen. I have watched hundreds of the PBS programs, which are absolutely the best. But tonight I was once again so confused, so incapable of locating any programs that I wanted to watch. I'll bet even teenagers can't find anything! I decided to write the two of you [the CEO and COO of PBS, via the ombudsman] because maybe no one has brought it to your attention. Please hire an "outsider" to organize your program listings so non-PBS people can find things.

Suffern, NY

Response: As noted above, each month, PBS delivers over 300 million free online video streams and welcomes over 16 million unique visitors. We are always striving to improve the usability of our website, and regularly conduct user testing and user satisfaction surveys to gather feedback on the best ways to improve our online offerings. Most recently, in response to feedback from our audiences, the PBS NewsHour website underwent a massive redesign and re-launched on January 30th this year. We hope you find the site easier to use.

Search functionality is a common complaint on many entertainment sites that offer a wide range of content. With over 7,000 hours of national content and 22,000 hours of local content available, from over 500 programs, it can be difficult to navigate. We're committed to constantly improving this experience and appreciate the feedback.


Three Before Two?

I do not find the pbs site to be user friendly. It is difficult to sort out just what is available at the moment. Further, things do not appear in order. For example episode 3 of the first season of Selfridge appeared before episode 2 and once at a video it is terribly difficult to get the darn thing going. And if you press the wrong button you must start all over again and suffer through the maudlin advertisement. Maybe you could offer a page dedicated to "Getting Around" or "navigation hints." Further I have asked for English captions three times via email to no avail. Terribly frustrating.

Barbara Lewis, Phoenix, AZ

Response: We organize videos by newest first which works for the majority of users. As of March 30, 2014, PBS is compliant with FCC guidelines for closed captioning, providing captioning for all full-episode content produced after September 2012 that originally aired on broadcast television. While we do acknowledge that any archive and legacy content that was produced and broadcast prior to September 2012 may not have captioning available, we hope that you'll enjoy the free streaming of all newly produced PBS content going forward.

~ ~ ~

I have recently begun to use Apple TV. One of the principal attractions was access to past PBS programs. The PBS presence on Apple TV is--in a word--appalling. Program organization is chaotic, it is not possible to find a series like Mystery Theatre in one place, many videos simply do not play or play correctly, and the Search function is next to useless. I think it would be best for the organization if PBS was taken down from Apple TV until it can be made to function professionally. If you cannot, or will not, fix it, I believe it will do great damage to your reputation and potential for audience growth.

Ted Towles, Fincastle, VA

Response: While using your Apple TV to view PBS, you can find all Masterpiece content that is available on the Apple TV platform organized under the "Masterpiece" heading. We hope these improvements will eliminate any troubles you are having and that you can continue to enjoy the free streaming of PBS programming online…We will investigate and work with Apple to address any streaming issues on their platform.


Show Stopper!

Your online streaming sucks, it's the worst I've seen for any streaming application. You cannot stream for more than a couple of minutes before it buffers. This is not an internet connection problem on my end. I can stream other applications like netflix, hulu, amazon prime, nbc just fine. I get the same issues whether it's wireless or wired DSL or LAN. You need to look into a better stream application for your online content.

James Colvin, Phoenixville, PA

~ ~ ~

For the umpteenth time while streaming video, one of the ads has completely stopped the original program. This happened throughout Downton Abbey, and other programs. Most recently it occurred with Antiques Roadshow. The ads are so repetitive and silly to begin with and to have them torpedo an otherwise decent program is absolutely frustrating. I already contacted my local station--WETA--but they passed the buck on to you. 

Margie Gibson, Washington, DC

Response: PBS is currently funded in a number of ways – from government agencies, foundations, associations, corporate sponsors, and most importantly, from viewer donations. In order to continue to provide access to a wide range of free, high-quality content and services, from television programs and Web sites to tools and training for teachers, PBS is always exploring new, responsible ways to expand our funding; the ads you see are one part of this effort.

…Although we strive for a flawless experience for each viewer, there will unfortunately always be isolated instances where video playback issues may occur, for a variety of reasons. We are always seeking to improve the user experience on our various websites and video streaming platforms. Most recently, PBS has worked hard to address streaming troubles by upgrading our systems to make use of more stable streaming technologies as well as working with content delivery networks to ensure that the video is being streamed to our viewers as efficiently and quickly as possible. We hope these improvements will eliminate any troubles you are having and that you can continue to enjoy the free streaming of PBS programming online.


NewsHour Issues

Why in the world can't PBS NewsHour manage to reliably stream its evening news program? Things have perhaps gotten even WORSE since the webpage update. The program is often not loaded at all on stream, and when loaded often sputters. Can you suggest a site which reliably streams the program with same-day (after 6 p.m. EDT) availability? Thank you. I would like to be a viewer. 

Bell Clement, Washington, DC

Response: To our knowledge the live stream has been functioning reliably and on time, which is 6 p.m. EDT Monday-Friday and 5 p.m. EDT Saturday-Sunday. When we first launched our new website in January, the live stream at times was delayed by five minutes or so. We have since fixed this issue. If for any reason you cannot view the live stream on our website, you may go straight to our live stream provider, Ustream. You can find our channel here: also post the entire show and each individual segment to our website and on YouTube by 10 p.m. EDT daily. Our YouTube channel is here:

~ ~ ~

I would like to bring to your attention a deficiency in PBS' service to a particular viewing community. I, like many others, do not subscribe to cable or dish network services. Rather I access media content through internet. In my case, an Apple TV decoder and DSL. This is a community I feel PBS is neglecting or at least treating as a second-class citizen. For many years I have relied primarily on two sources for news, the PBS NewsHour and BBC. I find the corporate news outlets to be distorted, deceitful and bombastic. Prior to Apple TV implementing a PBS portal, I would access news media though my PC and tablet. At that time I found PBS tended to delay the access to the NewsHour by 24 hours and make it difficult to access the entire program in a timely manner. I attributed this to the difficulty of maintaining a web page. With the implementation of the PBS port on the Apple TV, I expected I would be able to access the NewsHour in a more timely manner. Much to my disappointment, such is still not the case. In fact it has become less reliable than before. There are days when the program is not posted at all, there are times when it takes several days before the program is posted. Such inconsistency is frustrating, to say the least, especially considering the importance of the program content and the fact that my primary reason for seeking access to PBS is for access to current news and journalistic content. Why is it that those accessing the content through cable or satellite receive a consistent service but those of us who choose to make the internet our primary means of communication are not?

Albuquerque, NM

Response: If for any reason you cannot view our show on Apple TV, you may find it reliably on YouTube. We post the entire show, plus each individual segment, daily by 9:30 p.m. EDT. You can find YouTube on Apple TV or you can go to our page here:

Posted at 1:58 PM

Search Ombudsman Archive

As ombudsman, Michael Getler serves as an independent internal critic within PBS. He reviews commentary and criticism from viewers and seeks to ensure that PBS upholds its own standards of editorial integrity. Read More >
Have a comment related to the journalistic integrity of PBS content? Send an E-mail to Michael Getler or contact him at 703-739-5290.
The ombudsman does not replace viewers' long-standing ability to contact stations, producers and PBS.
If you have a comment related to PBS website design or user experience, please contact the Audience Services team.


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