PBS’ most-of-the-above digital-video strategy

One of the oldest ingredients in the American television diet remains off the menu on over-the-top streaming services. But PBS isn’t engaged in the kind of holdout that kept HBO confined to traditional pay TV services until 2015.

Instead, public television—to be exact, both the nonprofit corporation and the 350-odd member stations it does not own or control—has pursued a most-of-the-above digital strategy. That’s made it easy to keep up on PBS favorites online, just not all in one place and not in real time.

PBS’ form of a federal system has made fixing that a difficult task, but change may finally come this fall.

Where to watch

“They’ve launched a bunch of apps—they’ve been very proactive about that,” summed up Alan Wolk, co-founder and lead analyst at the consulting firm TV[R]EV. "That, they’ve done a good job of."

Indeed, PBS viewers will struggle to fault the platform choices available. You can catch up on shows in PBS apps for Amazon Fire TV, iOS, Android, Android TV and Roku—plus its websites.

Streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime Video carry episodes of such PBS viewer favorites as the Great British Baking Show, the PBS Kids series of apps offer educationally minded screen time for children, and fans can buy digital downloads of shows on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes and Vudu.

And all of this has happened relatively quickly.

“When I arrived at PBS in early 2007, they didn’t even have a video player or rights to most of the signature PBS programs,” emailed Jason Seiken, a former PBS executive who founded PBS Digital Studios and is now CEO of the digital consultancy QCatalyst.

The network moved to build a video platform, secure those rights and create Digital Studios.

Don Wilcox, PBS vice president of multiplatform marketing and content, credited the more recent addition of its Media Manager—“a centralized CMS that then distributes content out to all the various endpoints,” as he put it. “That CMS populates every one of those experiences. Do it one time and you’re kind of done.”

PBS members have yet another viewing option: PBS Passport, an extra library of video content—"long-tail, fan favorites,” Wilcox described—that now makes up 17% of overall PBS streaming.

“You don’t pay PBS; you get this extra access,” he said. “That’s proven a great way for stations to retain their donors.”

The one thing you can’t do on these PBS digital outlets: watch live. For now, viewers have to stick to traditional MVPDs or tune in over the air.

Not on OTT

Availability of local channels on OTT services like DirecTV Now, Hulu with Live TV, PlayStation Vue, Sling TV, and YouTube TV remains spotty enough that it takes a spreadsheet to untangle your choices. But with PBS, the answer is all too simple: zero.

The absence of a service that consistently does well in the “Must-keep TV” surveys run by Solutions Research Group Consultants can be problematic for OTT viewers. But it’s not doing PBS any favors either.

“It’s too bad because as everybody’s shifting over to vMPVDs, they’re not there,” Wolk said. “It would be easy to get left behind.”

The biggest brake on PBS moving to OTT appears to be a federated organizational structure absent of the commercial networks’ owned-and-operated stations and top-down control of prime time.

“We are a collection of independent stations,” Wilcox said. “They’re all community-based, independent nonprofits. We basically syndicate content to these stations.”

Just visiting PBS’ website will remind a viewer of this: The site will suggest the nearest station, then feature that local’s logo and schedule on the homepage.

Seiken said that local stations feared being shunted aside online by the Washington-based mothership back in 2007, describing them as “up in arms about PBS.org disintermediating them.”

That argues against the launch of a centralized, standalone OTT public-television service along the lines of the one NBC plans to launch this year.

PBS must also deal with a tangle of digital rights.

“The challenge of clearing rights for linear streaming is not insignificant,” Wilcox said. “We do feel like we’re getting much closer to a recipe where we could start to explore deals with these folks.”

Stay tuned

One of the oldest PBS locals, Boston’s WGBH, confirmed that it’s making progress on that front and forecast results by the end of this year.

“When our viewers in Boston choose to go to one of the over-the-top top live linear streaming services for content, they expect to find a live local stream from WGBH,” Jon Abbott, president and CEO of the WGBH Educational Foundation, wrote in an e-mail sent by a publicist.

He credited PBS for being “very supportive” in making this happen, saying “Our goal is to be available on 1-2 providers this fall, with more to follow.”

PBS viewers elsewhere may have to wait, but the network seems willing to take that extra time to ensure that it brings its members along in this digital transition. Said Wilcox: “We want to help our stations become healthy and successful, because when they’re successful, we’re successful.”