I am increasingly believing that the best bet for the future of public media is to forsake the old fortress mentality of purity and sanctity and throw the lot in with the barbarians of commercialism and supposed nihilism. When the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was created in 1967 we believed that our democracy needed to "enhance the knowledge, and citizenship, and inspire the imagination of all Americans." However...things have a way of changing don't they?
When television is good, nothing — not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers — nothing is better. But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there for a day without a book, magazine, newspaper, profit-and-loss sheet or rating book to distract you — and keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that you will observe a vast wasteland.The Internet as English Ivy
-- Newton N. Minow on May 9, 1961
Victor Kamber quipped that with the growth of the Internet that "the wasteland has only grown vaster", but at the same time, like a virulent case of English Ivy, it has grown into the cracks to bring information to new audiences and new ways. While one could argue that this, this and this are Minnow's worst nightmare on steroids as a distribution channel the Internet has tended to prove itself out as not so bad.
And what about the Public Broadcasting side? Umm, not so good. As one example, in a recent NY Times article stated "The average PBS show on prime time now scores about a 1.4 Nielsen rating, or a little over half of what the wrestling show “Friday Night Smackdown” gets." (To be fair, they pointed out that NPR listeners are up to over 30 million from just 2 million in 1980.)
Laughing Babies Drive Me Crazy
While there are literally thousands of opportunities to distribute content that are open to mass audiences, the ability to actually reach those masses is not such a sure thing. You can post a great, solid piece of work on You Tube, but that damn laughing baby is going to kick your butt.
If a public purpose media entity wants to move to scale they are going to have to look to infecting their content into existing media channels.
As media distribution companies proliferate online they are increasingly searching for authentic, quality content in areas we might consider for a "public purpose". For example Think.MTV (broadcast), Good Magazine (publication) and Current (cable) are all examples of what would have been traditional outlets that are aggressively online creating and aggregating content for mass audiences, but with a clear monetization strategy in mind.
Top Reasons to Infect Commercial Channels
We need to become public media viruses, infecting the host body with high quality, in-demand, authentic content. We use the infected system's infrastructure to distribute our content amidst commercial content that is engaging, entertaining; something that much of public media - still - needs to learn.
Multi-Modal Marketing - love the triple play of publishing, .tv and mobile.
Standing Next to Angelina Jolie - if there is someone gorgeous next to you it makes you prettier
Be More Interesting - a little competition with a bit of celebrity here, a little ironic humor there...it's not going to hurt you for pete's sakes.
Ad Revenue (Share the Wealth) - a little money to help fund the mission isn't going to hurt...
Co-Production - ah, the ultimate potential, working with Viacom on a four-part series on diabetes in America, the other triple play: cash flow, distribution & leveraing talent.
New Skills Required
The traditional skills of the film documentation need to be adopted by online public media producers to increasingly court these hybrid channels for opportunities to co-produce and distribute their content. Current's Make a Pod content is a great example of the new medium of scalable public media distribution. And now just compare that with PBS's producers site.
Laws & Money
The mad, mad, mad new world content producers are going to have to start to get comfortable with a new world of digital copyrights, creative common licenses, promotional rights, etc. We are also going to have to increasingly understand and present content with clear eyes towards monetization strategies that provide targeted web-based products and increasing potential for advertising dollars. That means starting with the niche audiences and keying on the trends that drive traffic and dollars. Lastly it will mean at least a passing understanding on the underlying technology of online monetization, including Google's AdSense and Microsoft's adCenter.
I don't believe that the future of public media will be rosy unless we start breaking the molds. Let's not recreate the traditional broadcast world online by a go-it-alone approach. For public media producers at scale we need to reset both the legal, monetary and creative landscape. Start to pick up the phone and start dialing those 27 year old New Media, Business Development folks...they are waiting for your call.