The Five Spot: Jonathan Barzilay

Few executives are more prepared to tackle the intersection of content, news and new technology platforms than PBS chief operating officer Jonathan Barzilay. He has handled First Amendment issues as a lawyer for ABC, oversaw Toon Disney and ABC Kids, was general manager of CBS Interactive, headed up content for Qualcomm’s short-lived Flo TV mobile video platform and even had the imposing title of director, freedom of expression, for the Ford Foundation, where he pondered the future of journalism in a new media world.

Barzilay conversed with B&C senior content producer (Washington) John Eggerton about public television’s evolution in the TV-everywhere era and other topics of interest.

What is your vision for PBS’ digital future and how does your PBS Passport on-demand service figure into that? LIke every media organization, the big strategic challenge for PBS is insuring that we are able to meet our customers on all the platforms where they want us to be. Passport is an element of that around sustainability and membership.

Membership video on demand, which is how we view Passport, is basically a benefit to encourage people to continue to support their PBS member stations. It has been successful in increasing the number of station members who are sustainers, which is to say recurring givers rather than one-time givers, and it has shifted the relationship from being transactional to ongoing.

Engagement is one aspect of the digital future. Another is reach.

Just [last] week, at our annual meeting, we announced the launch of the first PBS app for a Smart TV. The PBS ap will now be available on Samsung Smart TV’s.

So, we view the digital future as a combination of deepening engagement that helps drive membership, ubiquitous reach so we can be found on all these different platforms, and exploration with new kinds of content formats. That is the third piece of it.

For that I would direct you to PBS digital studios, which is our in-house skunkworks studio that works with member stations to offer short-form content such as Sound Field, a music-based series from Twin Cities PBS, or Deep Look, a science-based digital series from KQED San Francisco.

Are you doing anything to promote your digital side as “not your father’s” PBS in the sense of beyond what they traditionally think of the service? Maybe in a subtle way. We haven’t tried to grab the audience by the lapels and say that to them. But there is an older audience that is continuing to visit us on broadcast and a younger audience visiting us on these new platforms.

For instance, already in 2019 the numbers of viewers who connect with PBS children’s content on digital platforms has exceeded the number of people that connect with PBS Kids on broadcast, and that is a trend all across media. The inflection point has passed in our kids business and for general audiences we are continuing to invest in all these platforms so we will be ready as younger audiences find us in different ways.

Are you basically getting ready in case the broadcast side goes away entirely? I don’t think so. We remain dedicated to broadcast. A significant percentage of the country--60 million Americans--do not have broadband to the home. So, it is important to remember that part of our mission is to serve all American homes. We overindex in low income homes; we overindex in Latino and African American homes; and we overindex in rural homes. That is an important part of how the children in those homes are being educated and it’s an important part of how adults get a window on the world.

With so many outlets for video, including arts and education, why does the government need to continue to fund public broadcasting? Let me step back a minute to set the stage. PBS itself doesn’t receive appreciable funds from the government. Those funds go to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which it distributes to stations through a grant process. Stations in large urban markets are likely to receive only a very small percentage of their budgets from government funding. Stations in rural and lower income markets often rely on that government support. That is part of why the policy sphere has been bipartisan. We have always been able to make the case that, first off, we are a public-private partnership. Government funding itself represents only 15%--that’s one five percent--of the total funding for public media. That was baked into the initial conception of it and it is a good value for $1.35 per citizen per year. We are contributing much more than that in delivering educational and high quality programming to every American home.

So, there is the value piece of it. And as I mentioned earlier, the commitment to reach all communities is one that transcends streaming services and pay TV services because we are there delivering this mission-based programming in every corner of the country.

There is bipartisan support now, but it has not always been so, and even now the President wants to defund it. Why do you think that is the case? We have been in the position before where public broadcasting has been zeroed out of White House budgets and each time in the past, and in the first two years of this Administration, Congress has restored the funds because it is perceived by both sides of the aisle as being a very meaningful part of American culture.

There are surveys that show that PBS remains extremely high in value to taxpayers, second only to the Department of Defense. There is also polling that indicates it is the most trusted media brand and among the most trusted brands in the country, period.

I think it is appropriate to have the discussion, but we feel really strongly about our ability to defend the value of what we offer. We remain rooted in mission and that affects everything from story selection to time spent telling stories to the diversity of perspectives that are offered. And I think people appreciate that. When you watch a program on PBS, the difference isn’t merely editorial, it is almost biological. No one is here trying to rile people up. In fact, it is always thoughtful; it’s always paced to encourage exploration of really important ideas, and history, science, the arts. These are all areas that are neglected in the commercial context but that we are committed to.

Speaking of mission, how big a fund-raising plus is it to have all these platforms? That is a really interesting question. The traditional fund-raising model on broadcast continues, which is so-called ‘pledge programming,’ in which certain programs are interrupted by requests for support.

As we talked about earlier, the single biggest innovation we have introduced in recent years is Passport, which gives sustaining members access to thousands of hours of PBS content including all the seasons of Downton Abbey and Austin City Limits.

On the newer digital platforms we are continuously experimenting with new ways to donate and new ways to encourage younger viewers to support the innovative works that they find.

What did you learn from the rise and fall of FloTV and was that a technology ahead of the business model? FLoTV was ahead of its time. It was live TV to mobile phones developed before the iPhone had even launched. Another way to look at it was that it was an early iteration of the skinny bundle. It was a range of programs developed for a reasonable price on a mobile device.

I think that, more than anything else, what I learned from it was that certain programming--news, live sports--does exceptionally well on mobile devices, but other forms of storytelling are going to continue to thrive on broadcast and across bigger screens.

At the Ford Foundation you were clearly thinking about the future of journalism, whose content has gotten beaten up by the President and its business model beaten up by the Web. What is journalism’s future? Journalism is among the most important threads of our civic fabric and organizations like ProPublica and the Texas Tribune have found important ways to continue to do investigative work under an entirely new funding model.

Public media have also continued to invest in journalism through Frontline, which leads through its investigative work and transparency project and through the PBS NewsHour, offering length and depth that are not available elsewhere.

I think as we look to the future, public media along with certain ongoing leadership brands and innovative organizations are all going to play a part in ensuring that there is a vital fourth estate to move forward.

And you still see a way to make that commercially viable, or will it eventually need government support? I don’t think there is a requirement for government funding of journalism. I think certain brands have the scope and resources to continue to be leaders in journalism. I think new models are emerging that also have become leaders in their own right. I think public stations and PBS journalism brands and NPR all continue to offer leadership in unique ways.

I will note as well that one of the concepts that I was involved with in the Ford Foundation and that I am on the advisory board is Report for America, which is Teach for America for local journalism. That is an organization that has raised funds that have allowed journalists to be imbedded in local newsrooms but the newsroom pays only half of the salary. The other funds are raised philanthropically.

We currently have three PBS stations engaged with Report for America, Mississippi Public Broadcasting, West Virginia and Las Cruces, N.M.It is an interesting model.

Anything you wanted to say that we didn’t ask you? We just came off our upfronts without advertisers, rolling out the programming. When you see the range of what PBS offers, from science to history to the arts to thoughtful news and public affairs to independent film, it really is something to be proud of. PBS offers over 200 hours per year of documentary film. That is not necessarily universally appreciated but between POV and Independent Lens and the films from Henry Louis Gates and Ken Burns and others, we are America’s home for documentary.

Bonus Five

What are you bingewatching right now? We just finished Shtisel, an Israeli series on Netflix.

Who is your favorite Star Trek character? Capt. Jean-Luc Picard

Vacation destination on your bucket list? Australia and New Zealand

What book is on your nightstand or tablet?Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine, by Alan Lightman

Favorite songwriter? Neil Finn, best known for the band Crowded House. I have actually written an e-book about his songs.

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.