The PBS public editor’s mailbox is a free speech corner. In exchange for your real name, you’re allowed to offer me all manner of opinion, complaint or conspiracy theory related to the system’s shows and news programs. The inbox often yields an important question or comment that leads to deeper exploration of the state of affairs inside PBS.
One such message recently came from Mission, Texas, a community that hugs Interstate 2 and the United States – Mexico borderline in the nation’s southeast corner.
“We would love to be able to stream live PBS programming through one of the OTT (Internet) providers, like Hulu Live. We understand that some local PBS stations are working on this. However, not everyone has a local PBS station. We live in Mission, TX. The Rio Grande Valley used to be partially served by KMBH in Harlingen, but it has not been broadcasting for months now. Please make the national PBS feed available for those of us who do not have a local PBS station.” Lee Marks, Mission, TX
Ask And Ye Shall Receive
Soon after this message landed, PBS announced that, in the fall, at least 75 percent of the nation’s local, PBS-affiliated stations will start live-streaming content via YouTube TV, a fee-based alternative to cable and broadcast television. That’s most of PBS anytime, anywhere, for less than what cable charges.
This is a good thing.
Immediately there was criticism that public broadcasting viewers were going to have to pay to watch – even if they already donate to their local stations. Yes, YouTube TV is not free, but most of us now pay a cable company to see PBS shows, regardless of how much we give to our local stations. And yes, YouTube collects viewer data to help it sell commercials. Every online social media and streaming service wants to push ads your way, but YouTube will not do so to fee-paying PBS viewers.
The winners in the PBS-YouTube deal will be viewers who these days must hunt around to see which online service offers the show they’re looking for. Today, access to PBS news and public affairs shows are on the free PBS app and at PBS.org. Some local channels live stream shows to viewers who’ve donated to the station. You can even pay $6 to Amazon to watch current seasons of PBS shows and specials.
But live streaming is the true goal. Live streaming means being able to watch PBS live, anytime, from your laptop or mobile phone.
Digital Streams In News Deserts
In my mind, what was most significant in the note from Mission is that viewers there can’t easily find a PBS signal. It’s startling that in 2019, a town that size – population 84,000 and next to larger communities – doesn’t get a traditional PBS feed.
The question led me to measure the reach of PBS – how much of the nation can access the main broadcast channels or can find current programming online?
About 95 percent of U.S. homes get a PBS signal. That means more than 100 million households watch some PBS programming (children’s shows are the most popular). The system ranks fourth in network viewing count.
In June, according to PBS, there were some 271 million views online and on television not via cable, most of it of PBS KIDS shows.
But access to public media is increasingly important. Public broadcasters must be aware that they will be counted on to help fill a growing information vacuum left by a dwindling number of American news outlets. There are some 1,300 communities in the United States without a local newspaper, according to a recent study by the University of North Carolina’s School of Journalism. Dozens more publications have been gutted because of dwindling advertising revenue, so much so that they’re commonly called “ghost newspapers,” publishing, but without much local content.
Against that backdrop, honoring viewer Lee Mark’s request has potential impact beyond southeast Texas.
Live, online streaming offers the potential to make PBS accessible to anyone. But it hasn’t been easy for the system. First, commercial networks like ABC are backed by deep pocketed corporations like Disney. PBS relies on you and me to cover costs. Moreover, PBS is like a host – or a facilitator – bringing global and national content to allied local stations. In this arrangement, everyone has complicated relationships with filmmakers, journalists and producers who create the shows we all watch. Producers don’t all share the same desire to grant PBS or local public stations the right to present their shows on anything other than a traditional television. (PBS has been helping local stations negotiate new rights from production companies that will allow them to stream content.)
Any Time, Any Device
Despite the challenges, PBS executives say their goal is similar to that of most other major broadcasters: Programming viewed by everyone with an Internet connection, any time, any place, on any device.
The most popular online shows are news and sports. But more and more kids are now watching their favorite shows, on demand and on devices other than a television. That’s a clear sign of the overall market’s direction.
“Live streaming does not belong behind a pay wall,” said Ira Rubenstein, chief digital and marketing officer for PBS. “Streaming opens the system up to more people. That’s the goal.”
And, for sure, a donate button will follow PBS programming to the streaming world. On the web sites and apps of some local stations, the donate button is already the most clicked. So true streaming success for PBS will also mean the real-time ability to instantly channel donations to local stations.
Thank you, Lee Marks in Texas.
See you on the Web.
Posted on Aug. 9, 2019