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PBS Digital's Graham on Scripted, YouTube and a Unique Set of Goals #TCA14

PBS Digital Studios announced Wednesday, the final day of the TCA summer press tour, the premiere date for its first scripted series. Frankenstein M.D. will launch Aug. 19 on the PBS Digital Studios YouTube channel. The series is a coproduction with Pemberley Digital—producer of the Pride and Prejudice-inspired and millennial-targeted webseries The Lizzie Bennet Diaries—and was first announced at PBS Digital Studios’ first NewFront presentation in May.

Matt Graham, senior director of PBS Digital Studios, spoke with B&C about how PBS is using its digital unit to experiment with content, attract younger viewers and engage potential sponsors.

How did you come together with Pemberley? They do seem like a good fit for you as a producing partner.
We had already produced a number of shows for YouTube. We were really excited that we were reaching this young, digital audience, and were looking for ways to expand that. With The Lizzie Bennett Diaries just blowing up, Pemberley had what felt like a really good hook for PBS with this literary adaptation. They were reaching young people and getting people excited about original texts, so we started talking about ways that we could work together, and different texts that we could use for different adaptations. We arrived at Frankenstein as a vehicle that would allow us to integrate science, technology and math content, which is obviously an important educational pillar for us. They’ve been fantastic to work with.

How important a platform is YouTube for you going forward? Multichannel networks like Fullscreen have talked about moving away from it as they begin to produce premium content.
For us, we’re in a really great position, because we have, an owned and operated video platform that is really successful, growing really well. We have OTT apps on Xbox, Roku and Apple TV, and those are growing really well. We’ve got mobile video apps, of course. And then we’ve got this massive broadcast footprint. So we see great opportunity for us to develop content—truly multichannel, digitally native multichannel content that we can leverage all of those platforms for. YouTube is great for certain kinds of content, depending on the show. Some things will always be native to Youtube. Some things YouTube will be a marketing mechanism for and its primary home might be somewhere else.

Paula Kerger talked yesterday in her executive session about the ability you have to experiment with different types of programming in digital than you can in broadcast. What do you have the flexibility to do on the digital side that maybe you can’t do in broadcast?
Pragmatically, the production cycles and the budgets that we’re dealing with are a tiny fraction of what it takes to put together a broadcast television show. So especially developing for YouTube, our approach has been to use a live audience as our test audience and to approach projects with an open mind about how they might evolve based on the audience reaction. And we’ve done a lot of things that just haven’t worked. What’s sort of nice about that is that you can learn quickly and move on without sinking huge amounts of resources into things.

What does the breakdown of your audience look like?
Our audience, the core is really 18-34. Because each show lives independently, each show can have very different demographics. They don’t have to necessarily work together the way that they do when you’re programming prime time. So we have shows that have really significant teen audiences, which is really exciting. Shows like The Idea Channel and The Art Assignment have big groups in the 13- to 18-year-old range, which I think is one of the most exciting things about this. But Idea Channel in particular also has a big chunk of teens, a lot of 20 and 30 somethings, and we also have a significant number of 40 and 50 year olds who are watching that show. We think, tactically, if you we can get young folks who tend to share a lot and consume a lot of media exited about our content, then we can get everybody.

Considering how unique PBS’ model is, how does that make your strategy different from what other broadcasters or even cable networks might be doing with their digital units?
Essentially, what we think is that the disruption in video content production and distribution lowered barriers to entry and created an opportunity for PBS member stations and PBS to create this new slate of content that reaches new audiences. What’s really important to us is that it’s an opportunity to extend the same model that we’ve always had—working with member stations, creating local and national content, creating a comprehensive offering. So a lot of our work out of Digital Studios is working with local stations to help them figure what kind of content they can make to help them be successful. The distinction between local and national gets funny when you talk about YouTube. But the way that we actually work together is very similar, and our ultimate aim is the same as it’s always been—to create fantastic local and national content.

PBS has underwriters, but it's not really an ad-supported model. So what are you looking for when you look at the numbers to see how many folks are watching your digital programming?
Reach and engagement are great. Really what we’re trying to do is, for a lot of folks, create another opportunity to have PBS content be a regular part of their diet. The business goals, that’s one of the things that makes us different from the MCNs and the other players in that space. We’re not just looking to drive views so that we can build up an advertising business. But we do want to build to a scale where, in partnership with certain select brands, the same way that we always have on broadcast, we can help create more great content and reach more audiences with it. We threw this NewFront event in the spring. So we’re looking for the opportunity to work with brands that align well with PBS’ brand.

What forms will those sponsorships take? Will they look like the broadcast underwriting announcements, or will it be something more integrated, like the way that Comedians in Cars works with Acura?
The spirit of it will be the same [as broadcast], but obviously the platforms call for different tactics. So we anticipate having meaningful conversations with brands about how we execute those kinds of things in ways that uphold PBS as a national resource and a non-profit and the most trusted brand in media. Paramount to those conversations will be maintaining that trust, but I do think there are ways that we can work with brands creatively to help bring value to them.