Commentary

Public TV Needs To Join Media Revolution

Public media has a dilemma. It has been one of the most culturally, intellectually, socially and politically unique entities in the U.S. But it is woefully under-monetized in today's burgeoning digital world. It doesn't need to be that way. The powers that be at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Public Broadcasting and public media outlets can lead change by embracing it.

The dialogue among them appears to be rooted in the notion that Public Media is in culture shock against its will. In fact, the challenge to achieve digital transformation and reinvent or die is for all media. It is not a conspiracy against Public Media. It is a media revolution that is nothing short of the Industrial Revolution in its dramatic economic, social and cultural ramifications. It demands new rules of play, business models, assumptions and expectations. That means making fundamental changes in the way the public media does business if it wants to remain in the game.

A recent issue of the Sunday New York Times featured Charles McGrath's essay, "Is PBS Still Necessary?" It made the point that some of the niche content historically identified with public media is increasingly provided in varying degrees by cable and online media entities. In the same issue, an essay by Patricia Cohen bemoaned the sorry state of American intellectualism, culture and knowledge. More media has not produced better. This is a void that public media continues to fill.

Many of public media's identifying factors make it a perfect fit for digital interactive applications within flexible definitions of what constitutes non-commercial media. Some of the key change agents public media can leverage are:

• The elevation of quality niche content • Building social and community networks around particular topics, crusades and events • Capitalizing on the participatory nature of interactive media • Connecting related content providers, consumers and purveyors of commerce • Advertising and sponsorship migrate into interactive marketing and transactions • Relevance and personalization almost always mean local • Smart mobile devices will dominate and make everything-to-go

For instance, public media's planned fall relaunch of its well-regarded children's program block, extending deeper into the digital space, represents an opportunity to apply many of these catalysts. Quality children's programming--that teaches while it entertains--is a public media hallmark, even with competition from Walt Disney and Comcast.

Social and community networking online can be built around specific programs, issues and events that are important to parents and families. That will yield an ongoing interactive dialogue between content producers, consumers and the providers of products and services. These connections can be mined for new forms of feedback and financial support. They can be strengthened by common affinities. They can have local extensions. This new platform can make the leap from conventional sponsorship and advertising to ongoing interactive marketing and related e-commerce that generates new third-party revenue streams. Alerts, messages, information bits, video clips, music and photos are among the applications that public media's Children's Block can deliver "to go" to mobile devices.

The children's initiative is indicative of a public media enterprise well-suited to the new media space. Its engaged audiences, local connections, distinctive premium content and anticipated individual and corporate support can easily be put to work. There is more risk in public media failing to leverage those advantages than if it boldly tries and stumbles. In fact, public broadcasters can be their own worst enemy by trying to drag old labels (like "members" and "pledges") and old limitations (what it means to be non-commercial) into a new space.

And it needs to act. As CPB's David Liroff has outlined, public media has branding issues, funding shortfalls and important deteriorating metrics on revenues that have remained flat for more than 15 years. Membership revenues, public television broadcast viewership, underwriting revenues and non-federal funding are all in decline.

The calls for action are coming from the blogs of long-time observers, like Dennis Haarsager (Technology 360: Public Media) and Doc Searls (The Doc Searls Weblog), to constructive examinations from the Center for Social Media at American University. The insights are superb: Community engagement should be public media's front-place strategy rather than a back-end tool.

The Center's June 17 Beyond Broadcast conference will explore the ways that interactive and social tools can be used to reinvent and grow public media content.

There have been some promising efforts to integrate new media ways throughout public radio--and in particular, broadcast ventures such as the multimedia series "P.O.V." and the Open Media Network, which brings public and non-commercial content to the Internet. Some serious, material efforts are being made--but public media needs more of it, faster.

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