New digital network relies on collaborative comms among national and local PBS stations
The upcoming deadline for TV broadcasts to switch to an all-digital format has opened up space on the dial for one media field not known for being rapacious in its expansion: public television. Last month, in advance of the format shift and the 2008 elections, a new national public television network launched that could help significantly expand the reach of PBS' high-quality, but somewhat underappreciated, work.
The new network, PBS World, came together as a project of opportunity. But the success of its launch depended - and the future expansion of the network will certainly depend - on a collaborative communications effort between its national and local branches, supporting one another to bring news of the network to the fore.
PBS World is designed to aggregate much of PBS' original public-affairs-oriented programming and make it available to member stations across the country in a network format. Its content emanates largely from two stations - WGBH in Boston, which produces shows like Frontline and Nova, and WNET in New York. The new network is based at WGBH headquarters, and the bulk of the communications duties fall on the shoulders of its staff.
Leading the work is Jamie Haines, director of national promotion for WGBH. "We were looking at... ways to take advantage of our digital convergence and ways that really would meet with the interest of our viewers," she explains. WGBH and WNET started talking about content sharing in the 1990s, and the partnership first led to the launch of PBS Create, a network dedicated to lifestyle programming. But polls showed that the public looked to PBS in particular for its public affairs programming, and the network wanted to take advantage of that to get its content distributed as broadly as possible.
The content sharing has spread among several PBS stations over the past few years. "The more we were looking at digital opportunities, as well as the opportunity to bring this kind of programming to the viewers, the more logical it seemed to look at a national launch," Haines says.
PBS World officially launched August 15, with 55 member-station subscribers across the US. John Wilson, SVP and chief TV programming executive at CBS, says via e-mail, "The transition to digital broadcasting creates the opportunity for PBS and member-stations to expand reach, target new audiences, and make more efficient use of its content through multicasting," a term used to describe TV stations introducing multiple digital channels into their broadcast signal.
WGBH's staff handled the bulk of the launch promotions, including messaging, developing informational material for member-stations and the media, and internal communications. But PBS' own communications team also played a role. The two teams worked together to target the media and craft and distribute the launch announcement, notes Carrie Johnson, PBS senior director of prime-time publicity.
On an ongoing basis, "WGBH and PBS will work with the publicity teams associated with all of the programs presented on PBS World to maximize individual show publicity and build recognition for the service overall," says Johnson. "As the 2008 election gets into full swing, PBS will continue to provide a range of election-related programs that we will also promote as part of PBS World."
A bit of outside help on the launch came from Chris Kelly, director of Fifth House PR (and a former publicist for Frontline). He worked on outreach to all of the member-stations before the launch, planning how best to reach local audiences.
"I talked to each of these [stations] about whether they would prefer to get in touch with the press in their own market... it was very collaborative," Kelly says. Stations in smaller markets tended to turn to PBS and WGBH for publicity help, while those in larger markets preferred to handle it on their own. But all had a legitimate local pitch because PBS World builds time and flexibility into its scheduling for local programming.
"There is a national hierarchy of television critics and others who write for trades in particular about a new channel, a new offering being made available nationally," notes Haines. "But because it really is a subscription by market, we really wanted to be sure that the individual stations had tools that they could localize and modify to work within their own markets."
Now that PBS World is up and running, the focus of the team has shifted to managing the day-to-day tasks of a digital network and selling its benefits to more PBS stations across the nation. It expects growth both as a result of its promo efforts and as a natural result of increasing bandwidth in smaller television markets. The relative success of the network will go a long way toward demonstrating PBS' true influence on the public debate.
At a glance
Company: PBS World
President/CEO: Paula Kerger (PBS)
Key Trade Titles: TVWeek, Variety, The Hollywood Reporter
PR Budget: Undisclosed
Jamie Haines, director of national promotion, WGBH
Daphne Noyes, senior publicist, WGBH
Carrie Johnson, senior director of prime-time publicity, PBS
Kelly Chmielewski, director of brand management, PBS
PR Agency: Fifth House PR, Boston