My apologies in advance for what will be an unusally long post. I hope some of you will stick with it to the end. Although I'm a long-time public broadcaster and so are many of this weblog's readers, it's also read by people not familiar with our acronyms so I'm liberally adding links so non-pubcasters can follow the players.
We have a seven-year history of talking about the need to collectively provide a utility -- let's call it a content delivery network (CDN) for public broadcasters to distribute their content online. For most stations and producers, though, online content means putting their own stuff on their own sites. Even among those who "get it" in terms of collective action, the working assumption seems to be built on super-serving our existing audiences and earning new revenues, so the bias is for a radio CDN or a television CDN, depending on with whom you are talking.
Lest what follows be read as only a whine about inaction, here are some early positive efforts in content delivery are underway in public broadcasting:
- NPR has used the power of iTunes to bring together an unprecedented collaborative of public radio podcasters and has been able to bring in underwriting to support the effort.
- Open Media Network, a gift from long-time Silicon Valley executive and investor Mike Homer to public media, has been shaped by a group of radio and television stations and independent producers that I've chaired for two years.
- PBS has also put up audio podcasts of some of its shows and has placed a half-dozen download-to-own programs on Amazon, Google Video, iTunes and OMN.
- Many stations and producers, both radio and television, are doing innovative things online. There are many more good ones than I can name here but check out Cincinnati Public Media's CETconnect, Hearts of Space, KCET's Web Stories, KQED Online On Demand, Open Source, Public Radio Exchange (PRX), and WGBH's 6:55 Shorts and Forum Network. And, although it's (gasp!) commercial, no one localizes better than Nashville's WKRN-TV (with Nashville Is Talking).
- There are a number of other developments within public media but outside the club of transmitter owners or their producers that I'll mention in the Urgency section below.
If there are these efforts and others that we can point to as current best practices, why not just build on them? Because they mostly reach just a small subset of existing audiences. Because we mostly repeat our one-to-many culture online. Because online is a greatly better tool for doing some things that we do poorly or not at all on the air. Because national programming can bypass the local stations, it's how well we do our local mission that will determine whether public media continues to be based on community insitutions.
I'd like to make some points here about (1) process, (2) urgency, (3) why either having legacy medium go it alone won't work, (4) why we should look beyond super-serving our existing audiences, and (5) why we should hold mission high among the benefits of doing a public media CDN, not just revenue generation.
Counting two television communities dealing only with digital rights, by my count I just joined my 11th committee to discuss digital distribution within public broadcasting since 2000. I'm aware of a dozen such committees in that time. So let's work backwards in time. Don't worry, I won't cover all of them.
The 12th, of which I wasn't a member, is the public radio Digital Distribution Consortium. It just posted its report online, capping several months of study and analysis. The group was generationally right-on and included some of the best and the brightest on this subject in public radio. The DDC, which was funded by NPR, came out of two overlapping series of phone committees that met last spring organized by the IMA and SRG. On its heels is a new CPB digital consultation panel (I'm a member) which has the virtue of being a joint radio/television group.
This DDC report and formation of a new panel come just over two years after the Public Service Publisher group, which I chaired, finished work on a vision statement and what we called a "request for preliminary proposals" for a digital distribution engine for public media. The PSP, in turn, emerged from a group that Mark Fuerst of Integrated Media Association put together to discuss Stephen Hill's Public Radio Online proposal from 2003. I also served as a half-time consultant to CPB from 11/01-10/03 running its Digital Distribution Implementation Initiative. I had a great advisory group there, many of whom also went on to serve on the PSP group. Two of the reports issued by the DDII were, Radio Digital Investment Scenarios and Television Digital Investment Scenarios. In the 2000-05 timeframe, there were three more such committees sponsored by CPB, NPR and PRI/PI of which I was a member.
In 2000-01, at the peak of the dot-com bubble, I chaired a group of 19 public television licensees in a nascent streaming media effort we called publictelevision.org. At roughly the same time, CPB convened a broadband/interactive media study group with McKinsey & Co. consulting. The study group liked the idea of content over broadband but McKinsey was then cool on it (in that context at least). Perhaps it was the McKinsey effect, perhaps the bursting of the dot-com bubble, or perhaps we didn't write the best proposal, but CPB did not approve funding and the project went into hibernation until awoken in more sophisticated form for the PSP effort.
I go through all this history to make the point that we have many years of history of planning for what's next with comparable results. That's not to say, of course, that each group didn't add something to what came before. The DDC report was consistent with the PSP work -- with the notable exception of largely omitting video. The various committees that have met in the interim also make similar conclusions. The DDC and the PSP work are also entirely consistent with the earlier DDC work and PRO proposal.
While all these meetings have been going on, our world has been awash in disruptive change. Public radio audience growth has stalled and apparently begun a small decline. Public television's audience continues a slide of more than a decade -- somewhat less than commercial television, but troubling nevertheless. The numbers of individuals who are members of our stations are declining and we're squeezing more out of the ones who are left. When analog television ends in February 2009, it's likely that, even though public radio member numbers are currently stalled, public radio contributors will exceed public television's for the first time. Audience-based underwriting has been a bright spot, but it's threatened by Internet-based disruptive innovations in advertising.
In television, production underwriting, both from corporations and foundations, is becoming more difficult. Station push-back on dues is significant in television, causing substantial cut-backs of staffing at PBS over the last few years. If the radio trending follows television's -- and it's facing a disruption from Internet radio and, to a lesser extent, from satellite radio -- we're going to revisit the dues wars of 15 or so years back in public radio also. Stations will choose survival even if it means the mediocratization of NPR and PBS. I think online content partnerships with community non-profits are much more effective and much less costly than using our air for addressing that local mission.
Public media content delivery is happening without us. The barriers to entry are low, and many organizations apparently have much less process through which to wade. I'm probably missing some, but just to name some that have come online while we've been talking:
- Brian Lamb's C-Span.org
- Doug Kaye's Conversations Network
- Participatory Culture Foundation's Democracy player
- Brewster Kahle's Internet Archive
- Mike Homer's Open Media Network
- J. D. Lasica's OurMedia
Building a CDN only to super-serve our audiences risks failure
In the past two years, I've spoken to 8-10 stations or groups of stations about becoming digital public media organizations, by which I mean serving our mission through a combination of legacy services and services enabled by the disruptive influences overtaking electronic media today. My takeaway is that people in public broadcasting seem to view the role of new media primarily as a servant to their legacy services, not so much as a new way of accomplishing our mission. I'd argue that this misses some of the most compelling benefits that new media can provide.
That’s not to say that new revenue isn’t an important goal, because there is significant new direct revenue to be had from digital distribution modes. The DDC work on revenue for audio, OMN's analysis for video, and Stephen Hill's extrapolation of his experience with Hearts of Space, all point to real money. If only for this reason alone, we should be pushing forward on a collaborative DDC-like CDN – though I think that prevailing notions about execution risk failure.
First, public radio by itself does not have enough scale -- nor does public television, nor do the many transmitterless public media entities. I'd be very liberal about who we admit to a public new media consortium as have PRX and OMN. If public radio and television can't come together on this, then we deserve the failure we’ll suffer. Further, I'd argue that we should greatly expand our content nets to other non-profits, educational institutions, government agencies, etc. in part to gain scale for public service media and access to their own web constituents..
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, new media users come to our content via search, referrals, syndication and heuristics. People use new media differently -- they just don't start out looking for something by thinking, OK, I'm going to go here to see what public radio is offering, and then I'm going to go there to see what public television is offering. Television and radio broadcasting are historical communities based on transmitter contours that mean a lot to us but mean absolutely zero to the on-demand consumer. A single-medium CDN doesn't respect how people use the web. New media communities are often not geographical but rather built on other common interests. To the degree we re-segregate ourselves online to the same degree we continue to do so in the broadcast world, we will quickly fail.
We should hold mission high among the benefits of doing a public media CDN
Success will require that most players in the system believe they are benefiting from a CDN, not just the content owners at the fat end of the power curve. Most local stations and small independent producers know they aren't going to make enough new money online to shore up their declining legacy revenue. But even though the direct revenue from new media sources is compelling and benchmarks exist, relatively few players will share in the benefits in a compelling way -- at least if you just look at payments to producers. The potential of revenue from retailer roles for stations is untested, without benchmarks (arguably, income from NPR productions or from PBS distribution might benefit stations more democratically), and likely less than stations achieve by retailing national programming to members and underwriters. The distribution of direct revenue is likely to vary in significant ways from the distribution of needs, so I think we need to look beyond direct revenue to other benefits.
So if there is a misdistribution of salable on-demand content versus financial need, one thing that's not maldistributed is the connection that exists between stations and their communities. Every station, especially in radio, operates as the Godzilla of community service, dwarfing the delivery of contact hours with our true competitors -- other non-profits, governmental and educational institutions in our communities. In public radio, not quite half of our revenue comes from other than listener-sensitive sources -- sources that give us money because of our social or educational mission. We've focused for years -- rightly -- on monetizing our listener-sensitive and viewer-sensitive revenue, but the archival value of new media distribution is, I think, a very powerful tool for improving (and in some cases just keeping) revenue from tax-based and foundation sources. It's here that the distribution of benefits becomes more equitable.
We're not building Wal-Mart here -- more like Mall of America. It's not necessary to get everyone to a single kumbaya moment, to agree on a single business plan, or to get enough "stores" lined up at the beginning to fully populate the "mall" before we start. Ultimately, one might have a few hundred stations and producers participating under multiple brands -- their own, a collective one, and the brands of their public service partners. Wal-Mart has one brand and one entrance. The Mall of America has many brands and many entrances. We want people to find us who don't even know they're looking for public media content -- and they will.
Public broadcasting should have been operating a unified CDN for two or three years by now. A candidate CDN exists (OMN) which I think is very good and highly adaptable to the individual needs and business plans of users. If not that, then we should look toward assembling one from off-the-shelf parts. We don't have yet two more years to gain the satisfaction of building it from scratch, much less two more years of talking about it before we start building.
Finally, I'm not sure that a candidate operator within public broadcasting exists for a wide variety of reasons (that's not to say that candidates don't exist with good technical qualifications). Our major national organizations are culturally tied to one medium or the other and there is little trust exchanged among their constituents. And I think single-medium CDNs are doomed from the start. I came into public broadcasting in late 1969 as NPR and PBS were being founded. We did the right thing then. Sometimes history repeats itself.
It's time to call the question.