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PBS Expands Digital Offerings

WGBH and WNET create new venues

NEW YORK

WGBH-Boston and Thirteen/WNET-New York-public television's most prolific producers of national PBS programming-currently are in the process of launching two channels targeting local digital-tier cable subscribers and terrestrial viewers in both stations' major markets.

The two new channels-World and Create-will repackage existing public TV programs and some new, still-announced shows into genres that its creators hope viewers beyond traditional public TV will find convenient to watch, or at least time-manage via PVRs.

The World channel will be a science, history and public affairs channel that will feature some of Thirteen/WNET's locally produced, nationally distributed analog programs such as "Charlie Rose," along with PBS-distributed "BBC World News," "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer," "NOVA," "Frontline" and other longtime public TV staples.

Create is being marketed as a "one-stop resource for personal interests" and will include public television's most consistently popular weekly program-WGBH-produced "Antiques Roadshow"-as well as "This Old House," travel and cooking programs like "Lidia's Italian-American Kitchen," and other how-to offerings. Both digital channels plan to operate on a 24/7 basis.

Because the Public Broadcasting Service (unlike its radio counterpart, NPR) primarily is a distribution service and does not produce any of its own entertainment or public affairs programs, per se, it relies on its member stations and independent production companies, often based in Great Britain, to provide national programming. WGBH is by far the largest program provider in the national system, with a library that includes thousands of hours of programs over several decades, besides such public TV hallmarks as "Masterpiece Theatre," "Mystery!" and the traveling antiques show franchise.

"These new channels allow us to work our wide-ranging library of programs to the fullest," WGBH General Manager Jon Abbott said. "We don't have nearly enough time to broadcast or rebroadcast many of the programs we could on our [analog services], and these new digital channels will afford us that opportunity."

(Both the Boston and New York public broadcasters operate two analog channels each.)

Abbott, a former PBS executive, said both digital channels (and an additional multicast channel in Boston called "GBH Kids") will offer traditional 4:3 aspect ratio, SD-quality programs-not HD. Both stations' local high-definition channels, which have been on the air for several years, will remain separate from the two new SD multicast channels.

Coincidentally, PBS began repackaging its limited HD fare in early March into the PBS HD Channel, including some programs that are more than five years old. Since 1998, it had been feeding HD programs to its stations for mostly demo purposes on a simple loop.

"Personally, I think now having to choose between HD content and the new digital [SD] content of multicasting is kind of Faustian" with this newfound wealth of available knowledge on the air, Abbott said.

As a possible timely solution to perhaps viewers literally facing too much of a good thing, Abbott said he's "excited about PVRs and what they will mean, especially once these convenient hard-disk recorders are routinely built into set-top boxes."

Time-shifting, he said, after several years of speculation in the industry, could soon become a major engine propelling digital media content-both by consumers using PVRs to enable viewing of desired content in accordance with their own lifestyles, as well as by broadcasters running sometimes-identical programming across different dayparts on several multicast channels in order to enhance viewer convenience, without the need to record and play back.

WHEN IN DOUBT, HEDGE

Paula Kerger, Thirteen/WNET's executive vice president and COO, said the New York broadcaster "wanted to do something with our digital spectrum beyond just HD. I think everyone is trying right now to guess exactly where the market is going. At the moment, there are people out there with digital boxes. Like WGBH, we also have two analog stations, but no one has yet come up with the 'great business model' of how do you sustain all this [analog , digital multicast and HD] scenario. And there is, of course, no must-carry for digital stations right now during the transition."

Thirteen/WNET, in serving the largest TV market in the nation (with the help of recently merged sister station WLIW on Long Island), includes in its own vast vault of programs, among others, the projects and series of Bill Moyers, "Great Performances," "American Masters" and "Nature."

Because there is no proven business model to point to yet for the digital age (something commercial broadcasters have muttered about for years), Kerger said public broadcasters are attempting to do more than just getting digital content on-air.

"Our goals with these channels are to provide genuine services, as well as something that can be used, even short-term, by the public," she said. "Not just get this content off the shelves. As everyone tries to hedge their bets and decide what stake to put in the ground, we're trying what we can right now."

"But also, quite frankly," Kerger said, "we thought maybe with the programming fare that we'll be offering, especially on the Create channel, we could start to attract other viewers who may not be regular public TV watchers now."

Public television now typically attracts only a small percentage of the 18-49 demographic that most advertisers and underwriters covet, and the proliferation of more cable and satellite channels in recent years has only diluted this demographic even further.

As far as possible plans to offer the two new digital channels to viewers on a national basis, Thirteen/WNET and WGBH have had conversations with PBS, but Kerger said any potential arrangements for widespread distribution are still in the very early stages.

"Primarily we have developed both World and Create as two local digital-channel solutions for the greater New York and Boston [markets]," she said.

Kerger said all affected cable companies are cooperating in the digital-tier venture in both markets. Yet given the relatively high churn rate of digital cable in recent years, Kerger acknowledged that discerning viewers have long since let their feelings be known that "200 channels of anything doesn't mean much" if the desired content isn't available on a consistent basis. Kerger believes public TV's fare, old and new-offered in thematic, convenient formats-will still be seen as attractive enough by viewers to prompt a serious sampling of her new digital multicast venues.