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PBS Digital Studios Is Not Your Grandfather’s (Or Toddler’s) Public Television

PBS unpacks how to successfully adapt a beloved legacy brand for a YouTube world.

Could kangaroo farts cure global warming? How do different diseases make you smell? Why does a certain parasite castrate crabs? If these questions keep you awake at night, turn to PBS. Or more specifically, subscribe to Gross Science, a new short-form YouTube series from the producers of Nova that tells bizarre, disgusting, fascinating stories from the worlds of science, engineering, and medicine. The show is also a recent addition to the growing slate of PBS Digital Studios, the public broadcaster’s experimental digital arm that is successfully bringing the YouTube generation into the PBS fold with 20 million views per month.

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The various series in the PBS Digital Studios network, which range from animated explorations of neuroscience to lessons in Texas barbecue, are “purposefully YouTube in tone and in format, but distinctly PBS in sensibility and in its engagement of the audience,” says programming director Lauren Saks, who helped found the project in 2012. “It’s all of the subject matter that PBS is known for, but made for an audience that probably never watches this on television and is watching the majority of their content online.”

Another example of this creative marriage of the PBS ethos and modern digital content is Blank On Blank, which takes old recorded interviews with celebrities and sets them against engaging, humorous, and sometimes poignant animation by artist Patrick Smith. A recent episode features a 1991 interview with Robin Williams, in which the late comedian talks about what he thinks the world will be like in 2020. The clip was released just a few months after Williams’s suicide, and communicates tremendous humor and emotion in just five minutes.

“PBS has a really strong foothold in early childhood education, and we have a very loyal audience in the older adult demo,” says VP of marketing and services Don Wilcox. “But we have this big swath of people that go off the radar. We wanted to speak to those folks, those elusive millennials, where they are, engage them, and make PBS relevant to them, with the hope of bridging that generational divide, knowing they are the next generation of members. Our goal would be for these people, as they get older and start having kids, that PBS is a more relevant element in their lives.”

A key element of PBS Digital Studios’s strategy is to build programming that is digital first, as opposed to putting shorter cuts of broadcast shows online. They’ve done this in part by finding creative experts who have already been successful on YouTube or other online platforms, particularly in science, and exposing them to a wider audience–in some cases turning YouTube hobbyists into full-time PBS hosts.

“We’ve tried to program to audiences that already exist and on topics that we know have an online audience,” says Saks. “Science is tremendously popular online, and frankly we were trying to program in a way that a lot of other creators were already doing. There are a ton of science programmers on YouTube that were doing what PBS should have been doing years ago, so we knew that we needed to be in the space where they already were and had a tremendous following.”

Animation still from Blank On Blank

One of these rising stars is Joe Hanson, a molecular biologist and host of It’s Okay to be Smart, a series that started as Hanson’s personal Tumblr, which attracted a large readership of curious science newbies that attracted PBS’s attention.

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“Working in a lab surrounded by other scientists and only talking to other scientists, I realized that most people have no idea what we’re doing or how it works or why it’s important to their lives,” says Hanson. “Carl Sagan famously said, ‘We live in a society absolutely dependent on science and technology, and yet have cleverly arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology.’ That’s a recipe for disaster.”

Episodes of the series include “The Science of Game of Thrones,” “Why Vaccines Work,” and “Is Ultron Inevitable,” told with dynamic visuals and Hanson’s endearing humor. It’s Okay to be Smart is now a full-time job for Hanson, supported by a small production team. “PBS knows how to make the best educational content in the world,” says Hanson. “They gave me a platform, creative freedom, support to make a quality production, all that, but most importantly we share a common goal.”

The science of everyday life is clearly a sweet spot. Building on the success of series like It’s Okay to be Smart, PBS Digital Studios’s next series will be You’re Doing It Wrong, hosted by comedian twins Jason and Randy Sklar. Slated to launch later this month, the series will feature the Sklar brothers, known for their frequent podcast and TV appearances, explaining the science behind things we do every day but usually do wrong, like peeling an egg.

PBS CEO Paula Kerger sees the Digital Studios as critical to PBS’s future, not just in terms of audience development, but content innovation as well. “I came into this business about 20 years ago, and I always heard stories about the early days when people just did all kinds of interesting work because they could,” says Kerger. “The audiences were small and the technology was new and so forth. I always thought to myself, how exciting it must have been to work in public media at that time, and I feel like that we’re in that time again.”

Paula Kerger

Saks and Wilcox say that experimentation drives their digital programming strategy, and that there’s little to lose by trying weird things.

“Early on, we were watching a lot of YouTube to figure out this space, and we stumbled upon a creator named Melodysheep who was doing these wonderful remixes of a lot of creators, particularly Carl Sagan,” says Saks. “We asked him if he would be interested in remixing Mister Rogers, as Mister Rogers continues to be one of PBS’s best known and most beloved characters. We gave him 10 or 12 episodes of Mister Rogers and really let him do his thing. People absolutely loved it. It was our first viral hit, and still our most popular to date [the video currently has almost 11 million views]. It really let people know that we were trying to understand this space.”

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Another big goal of PBS Digital Studios is to empower the organization’s 179 local affiliates to experiment with digital programming. “We’re really trying to push the value out into the system,” says Wilcox. Locally produced shows on the digital network include WNET New York’s First Person, which focuses on gender identity and sexuality, and BBQ with Franklin, an instructional series from KLRU Austin hosted by local smoke expert Aaron Franklin. That show, in fact, is being adapted for broadcast–but Kerger says that evolution will be the exception rather than the rule.

“I was really pretty clear, and the team was really clear as we started working on this, that success does not always mean broadcast,” says Kerger. “I think that as a media organization that started in broadcast, it might seem that you would want to then drive everything towards that ultimate outcome. From my perspective, I think success is creating really great, interesting, unique content that connects to an audience. If we can do that better in the digital space, then I don’t necessarily see the programs becoming broadcast programs.”

But the experimental format is still designed to fulfill the mission that PBS has always had. “The sense of mission to serve the whole American public is really important, so to fall off the radar of a fairly large swath of the potential audience is not great,” says Wilcox. “So when we see the behavioral changes of consumption patterns evolving over time, we know we need to adapt.”

“We are very focused on building fans almost more than just strictly viewership,” adds Saks. “Everything we do has the intention of bringing people back week to week, and instilling that sense of loyalty, and that’s very traditional PBS.”

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About the author

Evie Nagy is a former staff writer at FastCompany.com, where she wrote features and news with a focus on culture and creativity. She was previously an editor at Billboard and Rolling Stone, and has written about music, business and culture for a variety of publications.

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