PBS ‘Local’ — Building From the Bottom Up

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Sesame Street and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood might bear resemblance to an idyllic (or frightening) vision of the hyperlocal ideal — but the network behind these standards of our pop-culture recollections has its own ideas about what it means to be out there on the street. PBS wants to bring culture to the neighborhood; to share among others. To be local while not being hyper. To cooperate.

Street Fight spoke with Jason Seiken, PBS’s SVP of “Interactive, Product Development and Innovation,” to learn more about the cooperation that could one day turn the network into a tight network of hyperlocals. He’s not from these parts, exactly: Seiken cut his teeth on commercial news production, as an editor and reporter for daily newspapers, then as founding executive editor of washingtonpost.com and later AOL.

His high-level take on the strategic goal of PBS and local? “To strengthen the bond between the American public and PBS stations by serving local communities.” Generic at first, but likely something many startups trying to crack “local” fail at — developing authentic bonds cannot be bought, forced or faked.

PBS is made up of 360 local television stations across the U.S. (reaching 99% of the U.S. public), and 170 local websites. It is collectively an enormous network with varying degrees of local programming — all of which is wholly “owned” by its affiliates.

Details of the complex arrangement are not important. What’s important is that a significant infrastructure is in place for creating localized communities and sharing content from small towns that suddenly become the story (think Joplin). And surfacing that to much broader audiences at the hub, PBS.org. Of course, the success of this project depends to a large degree on what state governments decide regarding funding.

I asked Seiken what he thought of the plethora of hyperlocal news/lifestyle sites emerging recently, such as Patch and TBD:

“One of the things I’ve learned from being at PBS is that America doesn’t lend itself to cookie-cutter solutions. The country is too diverse,” he said. “One of the reasons PBS is so successful is that we’re a bottom-up organization — our locally owned and operated stations are at the heart of the organization. A local network that’s top-down has to first overcome the challenge of ‘How does corporate headquarters devise a strategy that works in Massachusetts and Mississippi — or even western Massachusetts and eastern Massachusetts.'”

PBS seems to be in the midst of shaping its plans for national-local content display, but today you can clearly see earmarks of things to come: roll over to http://pbs.org and you’ll have your IP address sniffed (if you’re among the 50 regions thus far implemented) revealing content from your nearby public broadcast station woven neatly among “Clifford” and “Garbage Dreams” and “Frontline” WikiSecrets (oops, touchy subject).

But again, there’s no strict structure in place, according to Seiken, who said “There’s no standard template, though PBS national provides some tools, such as a video platform, to stations for use on their sites.” He reiterated, “Each station is locally owned and run.”

For the time being, the content you’ll find could be local news or pointers to upcoming arts festivals; there’s not necessarily a strong theme here, given some markets either do not have (or choose not to emphasize) local news. Staffing varies from station to station, which can make unified local services tricky to produce.

“Most stations create local content, both for on-air and online,” said Seiken. “Some focus on news, others on education or culture.”

Efforts to make things perhaps a bit more uniform while maintaining local flavor and control include a new CMS platform which both the national division and affiliates now use – it gives small markets the power to create rich, video-focused environments with seeding from “national” as well as the centralized group to have video fed by locals. For example compare these side by side: http://video.pbs.org/ and http://video.mpt.tv/

One of the things I’ve learned from being at PBS is that America doesn’t lend itself to cookie cutter solutions

So what is the editorial focus of the affiliate sites, you ask? And who makes the call?

“All local decisions are made at the local level by the station,” said Seiken. “One of the great strengths of the PBS system is that we have powerful local brands and a powerful national brand. The editorial focus varies from station to station, but most concentrate on news, education and/or the arts.”

And that’s not only at the desktop, notes Seiken. Those brands are reaching out via multiple platforms. While PBS.org has traditionally been focused on the fixed viewer, there are several mobile and nomadic apps already available, from the flagship tool down to one or two from affiliates. But Seiken tells us this summer will see an integration of services on iPhone and iPad to further elevate national-local video in particular. No hard dates yet.

“We’re going to continue putting resources into developing … our mobile platform,” he said.

Given that PBS is quasi -non-profit, and its funding is being called into question, the issue of revenue is a natural one. Seiken said by far the largest revenue stream is the millions of Americans who are members of their local stations. However, “we also have online and on-air sponsorships, both at the national and local levels, that play an important role in offsetting the costs of producing programs,” he said. Creating a bond with your audience at any level requires authenticity, but it also requires money.

Good thing Sesame Street’s still in a great neighborhood.

Rick Robinson’s Turf Talk column appears every Wednesday.