No Ordinary Heroes

Last Updated by Ricardo Sandoval-Palos on
A still from 'Baseball: A film by Ken Burns'
Ken Burns Media, Inc.

Amid a pandemic, PBS specialists step up

As stuck-at-home audiences around the country cry out for more educational programming and news, engineers and journalists have emerged as PBS’ most important, public-facing staffers.

In the recent, turbulent weeks of our lives, how many of our school-age children have tuned into, or logged onto, the hours of educational shows and animated wonders opened up by PBS KIDS? How many have plowed through the Ken Burns library of documentaries? And, how many have turned to Judy Woodruff and the PBS NewsHour for the latest on the COVID-19 pandemic?

According to numbers from those who count such things, more than 215 million people — 83% of all U.S. television households — watched PBS on traditional television over the course of the past year. And then consider that 28 million viewers watch video on PBS’s site and apps, and more than 19 million enjoy PBS Digital Studios content on YouTube. (Note that some of the 215 million traditional TV watchers could be part of the 47 million who watch videos on both the PBS site and YouTube.)  

Within those numbers are record-breaking increases in TV views by children age 2-8 (+6%) and age 9-17 (+43%); in digital streamers (+23%); and in game play (+40%).  

Hundreds of viewers have emailed us to praise — and, yes, complain — about our pandemic programming. The common thread throughout the emails, calls and tweets: You all care deeply about what the Public Broadcasting Service puts on air and on your digital page.

And here’s the thing you should know about PBS and the special time we’re living:

As the nation grapples with the colossal COVID-19 threat — while most of us remain in necessary isolation — PBS’ heartbeat right now is coming from a nondescript building in Springfield, Virginia. The Technical Operations Center has been humming with urgency, 24-hours a day, since the start of the coronavirus crisis in the United States.

“(T)he technical team is truly the heroes of public television, said Paula Kerger, the service’s president & CEO, in an online staff meeting with hundreds of PBS employees, most of them in and around the Washington, D.C., area. “And (they are) not always seen, because when you do your job beautifully you’re not noticed by the outside world, but those of us who work at PBS know what you are doing and how critical it is to connecting our content to the people who need it, particularly right now.” 

That team has been pushed to the max since stay-at-home orders were issued by Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam. (PBS headquarters, the broadcast and satellite technology services building, and the NewsHour’s home station, WETA, are all located within short drives of each other in northern Virginia.)

Feat of engineering

Across the country, 172 local stations receive PBS programming via satellite signal, fiber optic cable or from Internet-based cloud servers. How a local broadcaster gets programming is based on an individual station’s technical capabilities. But it all comes from the same source, PBS’ Technology Center, where 35 engineers and technicians have been working continuously in shifts of 10 to 15 people since the Virginia shut down began. 

Inside the secured facility, PBS’ Interconnection Service and the servers that are the core of its Media Operations Centerand Network Operations Center operate around the clock, managed by skilled engineers who are PBS’ essential workers. They take in content from the world of public broadcasters and independent producers who generate the system’s content. That material is inspected for video quality and to ensure it meets technical broadcast standards. 

It is specialized work at the core of what PBS does for member stations around the nation. And, while some of the monitoring and communications duties can be done from home, there is so much signal monitoring and switching that teams are on-site, all the time. They’re even prepared to quarantine in the facility if they have to. 

The tech center is constantly disinfected and team members have high-quality masks and protective gear, and crews work two-week on and off shifts to minimize contact.

All this underscores the truth that, right now, PBS’ lifeblood is the flow of content to stations that’s sustained by these teams of engineers.

These people are specialists. There isn’t a line wrapped around the block with job applicants for this work, so it’s all about making sure the critical staff is protected and always available, said Mario Vecchi, PBS’ chief technology officer.

“We have been fortunate that our staff has been spared any COVID infection,” Vecchi said. “There have been a handful of alarms, fortunately all false alarms for COVID infection. But we nonetheless have taken quick action to quarantine and test to ensure the safety of employees and their families. We put in place protocols to protect all PBS staff, and we paid special attention to essential workers that come on site to perform their work.”
 

Rekindled love for good-old broadcast

Technological innovation and automation are transforming PBS, so much so that it won’t be long before even satellite distribution is considered passé. One day almost every station will first look to pluck content from cloud servers, or get it fed via fiber optic networks.

But there’s nothing like a pandemic-driven surge in demand for content to remind us that many public broadcasters are not technological juggernauts like WGBH in Boston or KQED in San Francisco. The old-school, over-the-air broadcast signal remains critical to viewers in places where digital access remains limited.

Indeed, viewers have reminded us that for millions of Americans, it’s still no or low-fi, not Wi-Fi.

“ … PBS is increasingly focused on streaming. I think it’s time YOU put the Public back in PBS. Instead of streaming everything. I want Ken Burns Baseball and the complete musical pieces of brief.com featured on the NewsHour … Ask viewers which movies from the last 60 years that they’d like to see … Stop trying to be a social network and put everything and more on TV. (I) Don’t want to say the younger generation isn’t the greatest, (I) just want PBS to fulfill its mission, as public television. What would Jim Lehrer say?”  —Mary Ridge, Pawtucket, R.I. 

The news beat goes on

I would dare not suggest what Lehrer would say about PBS Digital Studios or the streaming of Arthur over YouTube TV. But I bet he’d be happy with the mettle shown of late by the PBS NewsHour team.

The journalists, led by Executive Producer Sara Just, are working from home these days, except for a small team of in-studio engineers and producers who still make their way to the WETA studios.

Just harbored no doubts about the dedication and ability of the reporters and producers, from Yamiche Alcindor at the White House to Stephanie Sy at the anchor desk of NewsHour West at Arizona State University in Phoenix. But what she wondered about, as her team disbursed to homes and apartments around the Washington, D.C., region, was the broadcast quality of the broadcast, now based on technology that works well enough on laptop computers, but previously had limited use on television.

“While we will not compromise on the journalism, we are willing to compromise on some of the production expectations,” Just said. “For instance, we have made the decision to dramatically limit the number of guests and reporters on our set and you (see) more interviews by Skype connection. Even our correspondents have Skype set-ups in their homes.” 

What’s on screen today during the NewsHour time slots does not have the seamless look and audio you get from high-definition cameras and sound boards. So what? Skype, Zoom and Microsoft Teams have become the platforms for most of us. It’s how we meet with friends and family. There’s an out-of-the-ordinary feel to NewsHour that reflects the reality of our time. Right now, we’re not looking to NewsHour for a fancy studio.

(A side note, to Joe Suste, Medford, Oregon: No, Hamm’s Beer was not secretly sponsoring the NewsHour last month via political analyst Amy Walter. It’s just an innocent, vintage serving tray among a bunch of other tchochke on her home bookshelf. She nonetheless moved the artifact to a less conspicuous spot.)

PBS NewsHour's Amy Walter was not shilling for Hamm's Beer. She has moved the artifact to a less conspicuous spot on her bookshelf, nonetheless. 

Demand rises as challenges intensify

The broadcast and broadband audience numbers during the pandemic have solidified PBS’ place in the daily lives of American viewers. In normal times, that would lead to an influx of contributions to local stations. But these are not normal times. The great numbers have not translated to jumps in contributions, as the COVID-19 pandemic has claimed some 33.5 million jobs in the United States this spring.

A month ago, Congress passed the CARES Act, to address economic distress caused by the pandemic. That act sent about $75 million to public media —   including both radio and television to be distributed through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Under the CPB plan, each regional public media station will receive about  $200,000 in emergency grant money to help offset the revenue lost to the coronavirus crisis. That money is meant to cover both the television and radio components of each member station.

Still, PBS will not escape budget problems. The service has initiated hiring, travel and spending freezes, and even that might not be enough to avoid deeper cuts this year.

A vital service

You won’t, however, see cuts in what the engineering team is able to do.

That’s because many more viewers have come to rely on a PBS signal. More adults are engaging in comfort viewing. More children are spending quality time with Molly of Denali or Daniel Tiger.

In the first month of the shutdown, more than 19 million children and parents tuned into their PBS station during at-home learning hours. More than 20 million children, parents and educators engaged with digital content, said Lesli Rotenberg, PBS’ chief programming executive and general manager of children’s media and education.

“The shift to distance learning has been a difficult transition for all ages and for educators,” Rotenberg said in the PBS virtual staff meeting. “Our ed team set up a ‘base camp’ where (member) stations have collaborated to develop and share materials mapped to state curriculum needs.They’ve developed broadcast solutions, making sure every student can keep learning even if they don’t have reliable internet access at home.”

In March, school closures led to the doubling of traffic on PBS learning media with more than 2.6 million unique visitors. In April the PBS KIDS digital platforms hit 3.7 million users. Rotenberg credits the PBS digital team, who “worked around the clock to accommodate this increase in visitors.” 

But the new demand goes beyond the usual. Two viewers — younger ones  — have been very specific about what they want while they are stuck at home: 

“Hello Ricardo, my name is Marie Sitar and I am a 16 year old girl trying to enjoy my quarantine. And the way I want to enjoy my quarantine is by playing the dragon tales game. I remembered it today and I remembered it was on the pbskids.org site. I went to try and find the game and I saw it was removed from the site. I was wondering if you could do me a solid and restore my happiness by putting the dragon tales game back up please and thank you.” —Marie Sitar, Mount Pleasant, Iowa.

“My childhood has been ripped away from (me). The Berenstain Bears completed my life. The(y) made me who I am today. The education with the books and even playing the games on PBS and watching the shows. It needs to be back on the website so kids can fulfill there and have an amazing childhood. The Berenstain Bears teach so much and they need to be everywhere. Please put them back up on the website to help them.” Abigail West, Salem, Iowa (age not given)

Unfortunately, PBS does not have the direct rights to either of these creative works that it would need to make back episodes available to young viewers. But we did direct Marie and Abigail to websites where they could find the shows.

What the notes show, though, is that PBS is now a necessary resource for millions of viewers, where they routinely turn for answers. In this unprecedented crisis, talented people have made PBS essential.

Daniel Macy contributed to this report

 
ABOUT THE PUBLIC EDITOR
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 >
 
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