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NewFronts 2014: PBS Digital Enters Scripted Fray, Touts Prestige and Reach

In its first NewFront pitch Monday, PBS Digital Studios kept it brief – as in, 15 minutes brief – in making the case that its 30 original series get the public broadcaster’s brand in front of an influential and highly interactive audience.

The event in Midtown’s Hudson Theatre introduced four new series and highlighted the growth of the digital arm since its 2012 launch. It now has more than one million total subscribers watching an average of 4 minutes per session, a 200% increase in view time since launch.

New shows include Frankenstein, M.D., the first scripted effort on PBS Digital and a partnership with Pemberley Digital, known for breakouts such as the Emmy-winning Lizzie Bennet Diaries. Press material for the show promises it will chronicle “the obsessive, eccentric prodigy Victoria Frankenstein through her medical experiments,” with viewers following the action through her YouTube channel.

Other new series include Pancake Mountain, a reboot of a music-themed cult favorite that has previously featured artists including Katy Perry, Kings of Leon and Jason Mraz; Bongo Bongo, about the history of the English language; and Food Buzz, about happenings in the food world.

Few clips of the new series were shown Monday. Instead, the net opted for a greatest-hits reel showing a handful of returning mainstays such as PBS Ideas ChannelBlank on Blank and Everything But the News.

PBS president and CEO Paula Kerger, one of two people to speak onstage, said digital content is a major overall priority for PBS, given how it “encourages critical thinking and community building.” Many of the network’s series, she noted, stemmed from partnerships cultivated by local PBS stations, such as one at New York’s WNET taking viewers inside the dioramas in the city’s iconic Museum of Natural History.

Matt Graham, senior director of PBS Digital Studios, struck a tone similar to that of the New York Times, Dow Jones & Co., Time and other traditional media players in their NewFronts: audience quality means as much as quantity. While many digital players emphasis scale, PBS attracts viewers who, for example, leave high-quality YouTube comments. “The bar is low,” Graham conceded. “But these really are great comments.”

In a soft-sell typical of the to-the-point, low-key event, Graham noted PBS is offering advertisers/underwriters “premium content opportunities” to align themselves with the network’s content. And unlike so many others in this razzle-dazzle week of digital heavyweights touting how their platforms have helped move more peanuts (Yahoo), cars (New York Times) and soft drinks (YouTube), Graham simply left it at that.