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How PBS — That’s Right, PBS — Learned to Thrive on YouTube

·Tech Columnist


We are deep into the digital era, yet so-called “old media” companies of every stripe continue to grapple with their strategies in the Internet age. But not all of them. One of the coolest, most successful, and frankly surprising digital experiments has come from the Public Broadcasting Service.

Yes, PBS. Its PBS Digital Studios has launched a slew of shows on YouTube in the past couple of years, all completely distinct from its televised lineup. Last year these shows collectively passed the 100 million-views mark.

Much of this online-specific programming walks a very fine line. You wouldn’t mistake it for PBS broadcast fare that’s been refitted for the Web. But it still feels like it came from the same motivations that gave us Cosmos and Kermit the Frog.

Programming includes The Idea Channel, in which creator Mike Rugnetta offers rapid-fire, image-thick dives into cultural topics like the power of Taylor Swift and the popularity of the absurd viral hit “Too Many Cooks” (and its relationship to the philosophy of Albert Camus). Then there’s “It’s Okay To Be Smart,” a science show that addresses topics from climate science to your dog’s cognitive abilities in a determinedly accessible tone; and “Blank on Blank,” which pairs archival audio interviews with imaginative animation.

Most recently, PBS Digital has teamed up with other Web-savvy producers to add to its stable. “Frankenstein, M.D.,” a quirky scripted comedy loosely based on Mary Shelley’s novel, sneaks in lessons about medicine and biology. That comes from Pemberley Digital, which specializes in adapting classics and often attracts a young, female audience — not a traditional PBS target.

The channel’s newest offering — debuting Thursday, Jan. 15 — is an astronomy-focused iteration of the Crash Course series created by John and Hank Green (best known in YouTubeland as vlogbrothers).

These mini-shows seem to be connecting with exactly the kind of audience traditional media brands are desperate to engage. According to PBS Digital Studios, 79 percent of its viewers are between 13 and 34 years old, and more than a third of them watch on their phones. 

Maybe you’re a PBS devotee; maybe you think of “public broadcasting” as the soggy peas and carrots at the modern news-and-information buffet.

Either way, you might wonder: What, exactly, is one of the world’s most serious-minded content-makers doing on the raucous, anything-goes platform of YouTube?

“Tailor-made for YouTube”
According to programming director Lauren Saks, PBS Digital Studios evolved out of efforts to extend broadcast arts coverage into the online realm. Securing digital rights to the broadcast performances that PBS is famous for proved difficult, however, so it decided to create its own shows specifically for the Web.

“We also saw an opportunity to find an audience that probably grew up with PBS, and had a real affinity for the brand, but really wasn’t watching it on television now,” Saks continues. “A more Web-native audience.”

An original show called “Off Book” began appearing online in 2011, focused on the techie arts subjects and Web creativity in general. Produced by studio Kornhaber Brown, the series picked up a following for its examinations of subjects from light painting to GIFs.

Separately, a series of “PBS remixes” appeared, mashing up classic broadcast content like Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. While fun, this sort of thing seems to have become a lower priority. After “Off Book” became established, Saks told me, “We really started developing things that were tailor-made for YouTube.”

Rugnetta, who had been a guest on “Off Book,” became the creator and host of “Idea Channel.” At first the idea was to come up with a music-focused show (that’s Rugnetta’s background; he has a podcast called Reasonably Sound). But this evolved into a high-energy riff on Internet culture that explicitly hews to a YouTube aesthetic — a vlogger-style host snapping out observations from what looks like the corner of a riotously decorated bedroom, in the style of, for instance, breakout super-’Tuber Ray William Johnson.

In fact, the “over self-consciously vlogging style, a little bit of a send-up,” was by intent: “I like to make things that are an example of what they’re talking about,” explains Rugnetta, whose background includes Know Your Meme and the performance/lecture group MemeFactory. “Otherwise, you run the risk of coming across as an authority on top of a tower. I have no interest in that.”

Today “Idea Channel” has nearly 600,000 subscribers. That’s not Johnson territory, whose channel boasts more than 10 million. But it’s impressive when you consider that Rugnetta’s takes on oddball and seemingly lowbrow subjects — the show has lately run a series on fallacies “to help you argue better on the Internet” — are laced with references to philosophy, psychology, and behavioral studies.

Who watches TV, anyway?
Another early PBS Digital show-maker wasn’t even working with video when he got an out-of-the-blue email sounding him out. While finishing his graduate studies in biology at the University of Texas, Joe Hanson had built up a following with his It’s Okay To Be Smart Tumblr — “exercising my communication and writing muscles,” he says, and addressing what seemed like a paucity of accessible online science content.

But Hanson had no video experience at all. So PBS Digital helped him put together a production team and develop the show he’d imagined: everyday approaches to big science topics, and science angles on the everyday.

Since then, he’s learned how to use a video camera and edit. But like Rugnetta, Hanson has no particular ambition to leap to broadcast. “Do people even watch TV anymore?” he jokes. “I’m very motivated to keep working online. I think a lot of us feel like we’re on the cutting edge of where people are going for their information and education.”

“Very PBS”
It’s possible you’ve bumped into PBS Digital without knowing it — maybe, for instance, by seeing the Robin Williams installment of the unusual series “Blank on Blank,” which made the rounds late last year.

The premise of “Blank on Blank” was always pretty straightforward: “Old interview tapes. New unheard multimedia stories.” That was part of the pitch for a 2012 Kickstarter campaign, seeking funds to make short animations, by artist Patrick Smith, synched to otherwise un-hearable recordings made by journalists who had interviewed figures like Williams, Jim Morrison, Grace Kelly, Kurt Cobain, Ray Charles, and John Updike.

It wasn’t conceived of as a YouTube channel. But the campaign caught PBS Digital Studios’ attention. As creator David Gerlach recalls, the inquiry boiled down to: “Hey, would you guys be interested in doing a series?” The YouTube channel launched in March 2013.

“I hadn’t imagined I’d connect with PBS,” Gerlach marvels. “It’s just a golden seal to have next to what we’re doing. Everyone knows PBS; everyone respects PBS.”

This is arguably the least YouTube-y thing in PBS Digital’s stable, but the videos play well on the wider Web: For the Williams episode, 70 percent of views came through embeds on sites like Rolling Stone’s and Esquire’s. And the 35 or so episodes to date have a cumulative 5 million views.

All these creators work as independent producers, similar to the model PBS uses for broadcast; all say PBS Digital’s process involves helpful input but also considerable latitude. PBS Digital also distributes shows made by local affiliates — such as BBQwithFranklin, out of Austin, and Deep Look, from San Francisco — adding to the diversity of material among its 30-plus offerings.

My lingering question after exploring PBS Digital boiled down to this: How, exactly, does this connect to the broadcast flagship? I watch a fair amount of PBS television programming and never see references to its YouTube presence. Indeed, if you visit the PBS Digital section of PBS.org, almost nothing I’ve described here is even mentioned. Why?

“That’s a great question,” Saks replied. “We are looking to have a full-blown presence on PBS.org in the coming months.” But really, she went on to suggest, what matters more is that PBS Digital’s shows stand on their own in the new media landscape, while reflecting the core PBS mission.

“We’re trying to create the same kind of loyalty that PBS broadcast has,” she told me. “We’re trying to create fans who love our content and want to be a part of it. To me, that feels very PBS.”

Write to me at rwalkeryn@yahoo.com or find me on Twitter, @notrobwalker. RSS lover? Paste this URL into your reader of choice: https://www.yahoo.com/tech/author/rob-walker/rss.