PBS Pre-Streams First Full Episode

PBS is trying a little science experiment.

The noncom programming service will announce Monday that it will, for the first time, stream a show online before it is available on-air. The move comes as the network explores program delivery on multiple platforms and looks to boost its online presence.

PBS will stream pilots/specials for three potential new science series at PBS.org Jan. 1, then air them on member stations starting Jan. 3 and ask Web surfers and viewers to weigh in online with their favorite.

Although the the effort is being dubbed in-house as "PBS Science Idol," the online vote will not actually be determinative. PBS will take the surfers’ top vote getter into account along with other reseach in determining the winner, which will get a 10-episode slot in fall 2007 on member stations.

"Ultimately, we are going to make the call," said Wilson, who said he hopes one emerges as a slam dunk winner. "We have a programming team and this is what we do for a living. But we are looking forward to having multiple feedback loops."

The three pilots are Wired Science, a co-production of KCET Los Angeles and Wired Magazine; Science Investigators, a co-production of WGBH Boston and Lion TV; and 22nd Century, from Tower Productions and presenting station Twin Cities Public Television.

Wired Science is from executive producer Tod Mesirow (MythBusters and Monster Garage), and wil translate the magazine into a "stylish and irreverent" take on the latest discoveries and innovations.

Science Investigators is from, among others, Tony Tackaberry (History Detectives), and features four young hosts providing solutions to a series of scientific mysteries like what secrets a Neanderthal’s DNA could unlock, can bacteria power an iPod, are disappearing frogs something to worry about, and why the knuckleball does whatever it is that knuckleballs do.

22nd Century will look at the shape of scientific things to come, posing such questions as: Will lifespans increase to 250 years, will machines get so small they can do a Fantastic Voyage like repair of the human body, and the Borg-like premise of brains one day being linked much as computers on the Web are today. Taking viewers on the tour of tomorrowland will be an actor playing Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World, which was about the possible dehumanizing effects of technolgoy; an "everyday viewer" character, and a resident of the future who paints a rosy picture of the possibilities.

Each will get a free screening on PBS.org as well as a free podcast on Apple iTunes. Each of the three will also air on three succeeding Wednesdays on PBS at 8 p.m., starting Jan. 3 with accompanying promos asking viewers to vote online for their favorite.

Could this be the vanguard of a development strategy of pre-streaming pilots? Perhaps. "This is a first," says John Wilson, senior VP and chief TV programming executive for PBS, "we’ll see if there is a second."

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.