Playing Catch-Up - Part One

Posted by Madhulika Sikka on

I’m someone who prides myself on being on top of the cultural zeitgeist. I watch a lot of TV and generally can hold my own in a conversation about the hottest shows. But I’ll admit, there are a few that slip by me and I have to play catch up.

At the moment I’m trying to catch up on Game of Thrones. HBO’s lavishly produced drama series is one of those shows that you can’t help noticing references to from business, to media to even President Obama making a joke about “the red wedding.”  I didn’t understand that one either.

As a subscriber to HBO, it’s easy to catch up. The entire library of HBO produced programming is available on their app including such iconic shows as The Wire, Sex and the City and The Sopranos.  

But what about the great PBS shows I missed that I’d like to catch up on? I never got round to watching Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies, which I’d like to watch now.  One of my favorite Masterpiece Mystery shows was Zen with Rufus Sewell. What are my options?

Well, I can buy the DVDs of Cancer on Amazon or at the PBS store.  I can also stream the show on Amazon Prime if I am a member. That membership costs $99 a year and includes all sorts of Amazon perks including free shipping and sales in addition to the streaming video.

As for Zen, I can buy the DVDs on the PBS shop and on Amazon. It’s not available for streaming on Netflix or Hulu. But, it is available for streaming on a service called Britbox, which costs $6.99 a month

The current PBS Masterpiece hit, Poldark,  is in season 3. The good news is that if I missed Sunday’s episode I can stream it on my local station website today. But I missed the last episode of season 2, and I’d like to watch that to remind myself of key plot points.

Luckily, I’m a Passport member for my local station, WETA. I donated $75 to my station and one of the benefits is that I became a passport member.  You may have seen this icon on the website of your local station: 

PBS Passport Logo.jpg

It’s a perk, like a tote bag or a mug, a thank you gift from my station for supporting them.  As a passport member I have access to a range of streaming video of popular shows that air on PBS nationally, and also some of the local shows produced by my home station. All past seasons of Poldark are currently available to Passport members, too.

But what if you are not a Passport member? What can you access online of past shows that aired on PBS?

Well, if you are a fan of Frontline, they have years of programming on their site, available to stream for anyone.

But wait, what if you're not a Frontline fan, but a Nature fan – and want to catch up on what you've missed.  Well, that’s a little hit or miss. Some of their old shows are available on the site for anyone, others, available just for Passport members. And yet others seem like they are available but then you click on them and you get this message:



It’s the same with Nova. There are some complete episodes available for everyone, some only for Passport members, and other videos that are delightful shorts that are topical and sometimes irreverent AND universally available, like this one:

If it all sounds confusing, it is. It is all to do with rights and clearances. In order to stream various content on a site, that site must have permission to do so. That also goes for overseas streaming. So for Canadian fans of PBS who can get PBS over the air along the border, or as part of a Canadian cable package, they obviously feel that they should be able to stream online too. Unfortunately the worldwide web isn’t quite as wide as we’d like to think. So for viewers like Yves Bertrand in Quebec, it's frustrating that he can’t stream PBS programming online at all because he does not live in the U.S. and PBS doesn't have rights to stream much content in Canada. 

I’m putting some questions about this thicket of rules and permissions to the best people at PBS to explain how this all works and I hope to have some answers for you next week.  If you have specific questions you would like answered send them via the link in Submit Your Comments or tweet @PBSPubEd and I’ll try and get some answers.

Posted at 11:30 a.m.

As public editor, Ricardo Sandoval-Palos 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 Ricardo or contact him at 703-739-5290. You can also follow the public editor on Twitter @PBSPubEd.
The public editor 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.

E-mail Update

Sign up to receive an email notification when new columns are published.

Your E-mail address:

Unsubscribe from email update.

Public Broadcasting in the News

New Radio Collective Covers 2020 Vote

"Election 2020: Listening to America,” is a collaboration by public broadcasters in the heartland and across the country that will feature community engagement activities and a focus on local reporting on various platforms. ... 

At 50 Maryland’s MPT Pivots To The Future

At middle age, MPT looks to a bright future … Even in Preakness country there’s no such thing as a sure bet. But the broadcaster is laying down $9 million for a studio upgrade to match the demands of a rapidly changing media landscape. ...