CES 2010 pointed us to the emerging media ecosystem. How should public media respond?
Public media has a long and proud history of being innovative in the terrestrial broadcast sphere with innovations like close captioning, and multicasting. This trend of TV innovation has happily not abated with PBS recently earning a Technical Emmy for their work on Mobile DTV workflow. [NOTE: I received an email from John Luff, Vice Chairman of Technology & Engineering Emmy Awards that I got the characterization of the Emmy to PBS wrong. Let me correct the record! PBS won the Emmy for "the important and ground breaking work done on distribution of the multicast and unicast pre-compressed and formatted ATSC streams used by early adopting stations to get on the air." Thank you John for the correction!] I applaud PBS, in particular John McCoskey and Jim Kutzner for keeping us at the forefront of the television spectrum world. However, if we look at innovation in the interactive world we have a different story.
Public media has not invested in innovation to the degree it should be, especially considering the rapid evolution of the consumer media ecosystem. In a previous blog post, The Mogul’s Dilemma, I noted that “public media is better placed as an innovative adopter that takes the best of media advances and applies it to the public service media mission.”
“Public media has not done enough to partner with media innovators. We don’t structure our technology or content plays to be compatible with consumer media manufacturers and providers. Nor do we spend enough time to find common cause with content and interactive companies that are defining the next generation of consumer experiences.”
I still stand by that statement, but would amend it with the following observations: Public media needs an innovation agenda. It needs to be clear, rational and focused on providing short- and medium-term value to the system and the consumer. The good news is that this is not hard. The bad news is that we have to change our ways, especially how we collaborate to get it done.
A Public Media Innovation Agenda
Building value through public service IPTV – while the consuming public (and the press) is getting their heads turned by 3D TV there is a quiet revolution of moving interactivity to the television. On the CES show floor either through direct TV Internet integration or through set-top boxes (check out Boxee’s new form factor) the cutting edge is still weather, sports scores, checking your EBay bid and seeing Facebook photos……………………………………….*snore.* Just as PBS Kids and PBS Kids GO are kicking tail in providing innovation of content and interactivity, we could start enhancing the value and utility of television programming by developing widgets, especially with set-top box manufacturers like Boxee. We should be integrating our public service media mission of informing, educating, inspiring and helping the public to take action. Just imagine an IPTV widget in partnership with Wikipedia or One Economy floating alongside NOVA, Frontline or the News Hour that socializes content, and provides “take action” resources?
Preparing content and technology for the converged mobile/television ecosystem – we produce television, we produce radio, we produce online, but we are producing all three separately. While the world is fragmented along proprietary lines it is no excuse for us not to jump into the marketplace. Let’s build our own partnerships to bring multi-platform content fitted for TV, online and mobile consumption. Heck, let’s make it easy and team up with Blip.TV and Boxee and just run a trial on some of our streams. This could be a low-bar move to get our producers aware and creating content that will fit over multiple platforms.
Investing in education gaming (but not what you think) – I split educational gaming into three separate layers divided by effort and price: Big-Time, those are the huge production games that cost more than movies to produce and distribute (think Halo, or Dragons Age); Environmental, these are relatively straight-line interactivity games, such as World Without Oil (ITVS), or the stuff on PBS Kids or the forthcoming work being done with the STEM collaborative; finally, Small & Disposable, these the quick flash games, the iPhone apps and all of the games equivalent to a disposable Swifter Duster-Upper.
Many people advocate going big in public media. While not on par with Electronic Arts, CPB has been investing in American History & Civics for quite some time with no appreciable output. (To be fair, I had access to a prototype of Mission: America and my seven-year old son played it and really liked it.) I think that the cost and lack of seriousness on the part of public media to build a game publishing enterprise suggests that we are not prepared to go this route.
Our friends at PBS and ITVS have shown how the middle tier of gaming can be done well. (More PBS than ITVS, but ITVS has a solid plan of action and a track record.) At the same time this capacity is not wide-spread; stations are still getting their sea legs and the cost basis for the development/production is the far over the average for the marketplace. While mass production of these games for public media seems unlikely, working with key players to build a production model seems like an appropriate level of investment for an innovation agenda, but this is really a ‘couple of times a year’ type of production schedule.
It is in the lowest tier of games where public media has realized a return on investment. These small games can be agile, fast and ubiquitous. Development of these games has a low barrier, there is a talented workforce and market pressures keep the costs of production low. PBS has shown us the way on how to address these problems. An innovation agenda should be investing in ubiquity of capacity at multiple stations, building the right connections to developers with national producers. We should do this wherever the capacity to produce low-cost educational games as a part of content production can find purchase. (Not EVERYBODY has to be developing games for goodness sakes.)
Creating interactive content for multiple platforms – again, this is staring us in the face so blatantly that we don’t really see it. There is one dominant mobile app platform at the moment, iTunes, but Google’s Android platform is quickly catching up, and everybody is launching an app store. Even our friends at Intel launching an app store for netbooks (brilliant idea, and as I found out recently that my old friend Molly Olson was the lead, go Molly!) Public media has some killer apps out on the iPhone: I love the Public Media Tuner, OPB music and NPR app, my kids love Curious George and my wife on her Android phone follows the NPR app every day. However, development is uneven across the system, and largely confined to radio producers/stations. This is an opportunity to really push the app world with high quality content, innovative interactivity and value to the public. It is another opportunity for low costs and high returns, so let’s really start our engines and make app development an essential part of television production, news distribution and music programming.
Increased accessibility to back catalogs of quality content – I love the American Archive project and this is exactly the platform for us to innovate. While there are big digital rights hurdles that need to be addressed we have to understand that the consumer media world, while awash in content, it is mainly complete crap. Distributors and manufacturers alike are incredibly hungry for good content that does not only drive virility (American Idol), but also drives long-term viewing. They are in competition with the traditional broadcast outlets and – I really sincerely believe this – this could include utilizing public media’s content to round-out a full offering. (Our updating of subject and presentation will only help fuel their interest.) Our content, especially our back catalog, is our key to unlocking a lot of doors, something our friends at Sesame Workshop and Florentine Films know only too well. They are making the moves to get out in front of the market.
Funding & Driving Innovation
Paraphrasing the uber-conference speaker Clay Shirkey “the Internet is the biggest collection of people concerned with words and culture ever assembled in the history of mankind”. However, the funding we dedicate to these channels overall is inadequate, especially in keeping pace with how this audience wants to consume our media.
At the moment CPB has identified funding for research and development purposes out of our digital appropriations. Through the newly created Diversity & Innovation department at CPB we add another million or so dedicated to innovation and my own department, Digital Media Strategies is trying to refocus our digital ‘content & services’ dollars towards future infrastructure roughly to the tune of six to seven million depending on how you count the money. Our friends at PBS and NPR, as well as stations, probably add another ten to fifteen million (this could be low) to work that develops innovation and infrastructure. If you add in production work at PBS for example, as well as the STEM and AHCI projects, you probably add another $15 million or so a year. In total that is approximately $24 million a year to building digital infrastructure and $15 million in the production of new forms of content. Mixed in to all of that is some true innovation development and adoption.
Out of a roughly $2.5 billion dollar system we are spending about 2% on innovation of any kind. And out of that I would guess that we are probably spending roughly 0.25% on true innovation, mostly in Digital TV, Mobile Digital TV and HD Radio.
Now before I have the engineers out for my head, let me be clear: continuing innovation in legacy broadcast is NOT A BAD THING. Under the goal of universal service we have to continue to reach our, albeit dwindling, terrestrial audience. Propelling this innovation forward is the fact that spectrum is still the lingua franca of our nation’s telecommunications policy construct…for the moment. Our decision makers know spectrum inside and out and the endless complexities of power maximization, broadcast compression and the vagaries of “high V versus low V” broadcast can fill the best of cocktail hours. (OK, I know I sound a bit snotty…)
Restructuring Public Media’s Innovation Approach
The times, they are calling for a different approach. As a system we need to demonstrate some collaborative leadership that reallocates our attention and resources to the emerging consumer media ecosystem. Here is my debatable formula for a Public Media Innovation Agenda:
- Reallocate resources to a yearly $10 million dollar public media innovation development fund. This fund would be constructed from multiple players, including CPB, PBS, NPR, as well as the potential for investment by stations and philanthropies. The goal would be joint investment and development of innovative projects across public media. It would be run as a true investment fund, and not a grant pool, meaning that we should get a refugee VC who would construct and manage the internal public media innovation fund just like an external venture or angel fund. (Note that this idea is informed by Ken Ikeda and BAVC’s “Public Pool” concept.)
- Build an open innovation agenda that incentivizes industry & the public. Innovation within public media will only work if we do it in partnership with manufacturers, content distributors and the community of technologists. We need to incentivize their participation, which can be done if we a) allow public media to become an R&D playground for partners, b) put some co-investment money on the table (see above), c) protect their rights and licenses, but at the same time extract value for the public, and d) leverage, wherever possible, the broad innovator community outside of corporate interests to help suggest solutions, develop prototypes that we take into production, and contribute code.
- Create a Public Media Research & Development Council. There are great innovators and technologists in the system, but they are not collaborating. Attending a recent PBS Hack Day there was a lot of code innovation flying around, as well as leveraging software from the private sector, but what was missing was anybody outside of PBS. Ditto over at NPR. And so on, and so on. Public media is too small to have such fiefdoms amongst the ubiquitous 1s and 0s of interactive media. We need to bring people together to develop the open innovation agenda, manage relationships with the same company (e.g. Intel is getting peeved that so many disparate parts of public media are approach them en masse) and coordinate actions.
- Create a centralized Public Media Innovation Library. OK, this is an active project of mine, but is my down payment into the broader agenda. We need to create a community of practice at the staff level that will allow us to disseminate code innovation, development and implementation lessons and build day-to-day collaboration. This needs to be a staffed entity/repository to “evangelize” innovation across the system, and can be the working glue to make sure that there is bottom-up innovation, as well as top-down adoption.