PBS branches out into new demos, new platforms and new revenue streams to stay strong in 2002 and beyond

Times change, and so do television networks. Therefore what strikes one as extraordinary about PBS's thirty-odd years of programming history is not how much has changed, but rather how much of its fundamental mission, born in the era of the Civil Rights Movement (when attention was on education as a means to help children escape poverty) and The Great Society (with its emphasis on federal leadership in the funding of education), has not.
March 1, 2002

Times change, and so do television networks. Therefore what strikes one as extraordinary about PBS’s thirty-odd years of programming history is not how much has changed, but rather how much of its fundamental mission, born in the era of the Civil Rights Movement (when attention was on education as a means to help children escape poverty) and The Great Society (with its emphasis on federal leadership in the funding of education), has not.

Launched in 1969, the Public Broadcasting Service was established to provide entertaining, cultural and educational programming to the American public. A combination of private and public funds was earmarked to produce this programming sans commercial bias. And, as John Wilson, senior VP and co-chief program executive of PBS, is quick to emphasize, the original mandate still holds today: ‘We believe that the non-commercial role we play is important all day, but most particularly with kids. We treat kids as citizens, not as consumers.’

PBS’s preschool republic

While the past decade has given rise to the proliferation of children’s programming on commercial networks, PBS Kids remains at the top of the preschool pile. In addition to racking up an average season-to-date rating of 2.1 among kids ages two to five, PBS shows from the Ready to Learn Service block airing on weekdays make up nine of the top 10 programs among preschoolers, including Clifford the Big Red Dog, Arthur, Dragon Tales, Sagwa the Chinese Siamese Cat, Caillou, Barney & Friends, Sesame Street, Zoboomafoo and Teletubbies.

PBS is putting its Department of Education grant to good use, looking to develop two new RTL shows to keep ratings strong during the 2003 season. Wilson says one will target the two to five demo and the other will likely aim for six- to eight-year-olds in Spanish-speaking households that use English as a second language. This represents an astute programming move for PBS, given that the U.S. population of five- to nine-year-old Hispanic kids is pegged by TGE Demographics to reach 3.4 million next year.

A big part of the Ready to Learn block’s success can be chalked up to the off-line driving force of the Ready to Learn literacy program. Launched in 1995 and renewed in 2000, the initiative supplies free books to kids and offers extensive outreach services–all based on the properties found in the on-air block, of course–to parents, childcare providers and other early childhood professionals.

Community outreach and education remain high on the priority list even outside the RTL program. Production partners used to commercial broadcasters notice this key difference when working with the pubcaster. ‘The level of involvement of the educators is really stepped-up when you’re talking about a PBS show,’ notes Irene Weibel, VP of marketing at Nelvana, PBS Kids’ production partner on the literacy-based Bookworm Bunch weekend block. ‘The educational consultants are involved with the writers before the writers even begin the script.’ This fine balance between entertainment and educon has worked wonders for the Bookworm Bunch block, which consistently beats the Big Four networks in preschool audience share on Saturday mornings. The block has worked so well, in fact, that PBS is planning to strip a couple of its shows from Monday to Friday starting in January 2003. (For more on the programming relationship between PBS and Nelvana, see ‘Economies of scale and kid author access make Nelvana a natural PBS block partner,’ on page 56.)

Keeping eyeballs beyond the preschool years

With its preschool stronghold secure, PBS has turned its attention to the next age group up the kid demographic scale. Looking forward, Wilson says the pubcaster is looking to target six- to 11-year-olds with curriculum-based programs that can literally follow them to school. The plan is to develop properties with broadcast components for kids ages six to eight and then follow up with in-school curriculum programs for the eight to 11 set. New PBS initiatives that fit into this game plan include DIC Entertainment’s Liberty’s Kids, a fall-launching animated history lesson set during the American Revolution and featuring celebrity voicework from Walter Cronkite, Billy Crystal, Ben Stiller and Whoopi Goldberg; and Cyberchase, an on-line/on-air project from Nelvana and PBS member station Thirteen/WNET that features a group of kids trying to save the virtual universe from the nefarious villain Hacker.

The January 2002 launch of Cyberchase represented another departure for PBS–this time on the show promotion front. Cyberchase announced its arrival loudly, with the kind of kid-targeted media buy usually associated with commercial broadcasters, including ads on kids networks like Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network and popular websites like Yahoo! and AOL Kids. Wilson says this new breed of launch strategy goes hand-in-hand with targeting older kids. ‘As soon as kids are in school, by and large, they’re making their own TV choices, so we knew we had to speak directly to them in their language,’ explains Wilson. The new approach appears to be working: Cyberchase netted 3.3 million kid viewers ages two to 11 the week it launched, and AOL banners touting the show averaged click through rates of between 2% and 3%–above-average results for on-line ads.

In keeping with the general kid broadcast trend towards programming for tweens, PBS Kids may be looking for an even taller audience in the future. ‘At the moment, we really don’t have broadcast programming that speaks to the 10- to 12-year-old crowd,’ says Wilson, ‘But we’re the number-one source of in-classroom video and on-line content for that demo.

‘Right now we’re at a crossroads. We’re having an in-house think with a cross-discipline team from programming, from education, from on-line and from advertising and promotion to determine if and how we should pursue this audience,’ explains Wilson.

PBS hacks into kid consciousness on-line

One medium with which PBS is hoping to attract older kids is the web. Launched in 1997, has quickly become a popular web destination, netting more than 80 million page views per month. But that monthly tally grew significantly with the addition of Cyberchase games and activities in January, bringing February’s page view total to 100 million. Although the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act makes it illegal to gather personal info–like a visitor’s age–from web users under 13, ‘we can assume that most of the increased traffic is coming from older kids, since the Cyberchase site is very much designed for readers as opposed to non-readers and the games are meant to challenge a third or fourth grader,’ says Michelle Miller, director of PBS Kids Interactive.

Building on this traffic surge that’s likely comprised of older surfers, the PBS site is launching two web-only projects for the eight to 11 set this April. Produced by member station KCTS in Seattle, Don’t Buy It is a media literacy program that teaches kids how to disseminate advertising and marketing initiatives targeted at them. It’s My Life, meanwhile, is an on-line community hub developed by Castleworks, the prodco behind In the Mix, a general-audience magazine show that airs on PBS.

PBS carves its own edu-centric licensing niche

Although education is an honorable reason for producing a show, international sales and lucrative licensing deals on the back end are the more likely motives for most producers partnering with PBS. ‘Because PBS has such a powerful reach into the two- to five-year-old market, many producers are willing to let us have their projects for less money (PBS puts up between 0% and 33% of production budgets) because they know they’re going to be able to fire up a lot of licensing deals based on the show’s level of exposure,’ explains Wilson. ‘We will expect a passive revenue share, though, because we know we’re bringing value to each arrangement.’

Almost as a matter of course, PBS steers away from obtaining full merchandising rights to its programs. ‘It’s not something we’re really geared to do–or looking to do,’ says Tracey Beeker, the pubcaster’s VP of strategic partnerships and licensing. In fact, Zoboomafoo is the sole kids property for which PBS manages licensing rights–and they were obtained by default after the companies handling the production collapsed, leaving PBS to take over in order to get the show on the air. Working with licensing agent Cinar Licensing, PBS began with a successful 2000 launch of home video titles and books, followed by the recent debut of Zoboomafoo plush dolls from Prestige Toy and Animal Alphabet, a CD-ROM from Brighter Child Interactive.

But product for product’s sake is anathema to PBS Kids, which prefers to concentrate its little licensing activity around educational categories like video and publishing.

Through a PBS Kids Home Video label that was launched in 1997, the pubcaster has sold more than 10 million videos, including titles from popular kid franchises like the Teletubbies, Zoboomafoo and Caillou. PBS Kids plans to launch George Shrinks and Seven Little Monsters titles under the Bookworm Bunch banner on PBS Kids Home Video this fall.

PBS also has book publishing ambitions on the brain. The company recently secured storybook rights to Sagwa the Chinese Siamese Cat from Sesame Workshop and Liberty’s Kids from DIC. At press time, PBS Kids was in negotiations with publishers, working towards releasing a Sagwa title in fall 2002 and a Liberty’s Kids book in spring 2003.

PBS assumes digital dimensions

Streaming content to digital platforms has become a source of fresh revenue for commercial nets, and non-commercial PBS is no exception. The pubcaster’s 24/7 PBS Kids terrestrial channel made the digital leap in May 2000, when it launched on broadcast satellite service DirecTV. Wilson says satellite subscriptions help PBS pay for the diginet’s upkeep, allowing the pubcaster to offer the channel for free to member stations, the majority of which have not converted to digital yet and continue to air it terrestrially. Although satellite subscription fees pay for terrestrial channels, PBS remains mindful of its mission: ‘First and foremost, we’re here to make sure that our terrestrial broadcast stations have quality content. But we think there’s going to be a big role for us to play as these stations fire up their digital transmitters.’

So what does the future hold for PBS Kids? Says Wilson: ‘We’re going to have to depend on a diverse and varied stream of revenue, everything from grants from the Department of Education and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, to corporate sponsorship, to making sure that we’re getting our fair share of the value from passive and direct licensing streams, home video and publishing.’

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