Thinking Inside the Box

TELEVISION CONTENT THAT'S NOT REALLY TELEVISION

by Ellis Bromberg, General Manager of MPTV


I attended a meeting of public television officials last month at which there was very little talk about traditional television.

Oh, we talked about the types of programming our viewers want to see, and our commitment to producing the highest quality public affairs, drama, history, science, fine arts, lifelong learning, and children's programs.

But much of our conversation focused on new media, new platforms--new ways of delivering unique and excellent content to our communities (and beyond).

No one is abandoning television. But more and more folks are receiving in new ways video content that has thus far been delivered on television. Some examples:

- A viewer called the other week, upset that he had missed the three-part CHARLIE ROSE interview with philanthropist Warren Buffet. The series is not yet scheduled to be repeated on MPTV, but I referred him to the CHARLIE ROSE website, where he could watch the three programs on his computer--for free at a low resolution, or 99 cents for a higher-quality downloaded copy.

- A year or so ago, we tried an experiment with Time Warner Cable, adding several of our local documentaries to their Wisconsin On Demand video channel. Time Warner digital tier subscribers were able to view the documentaries any time, day or night, for free. This year, PBS has cleared the rights for more than a dozen national series to be available on local cable video on demand (VOD) sites. We are now talking with Time Warner about re-launching our VOD presence with a library of national and local series and specials.

- PBS has also announced a plan to offer seven national series that viewers can "download to own," for $1.99 per episode, through the Open Media Network and Google Video: ANTIQUES ROADSHOW, ARTHUR, CYBERCHASE, FETCH!, NOVA, NOW, and SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN FRONTIERS. It's a one-year experiment for PBS, but if it succeeds there will surely be many fewer DVD and VHS copies of these programs sold.

- One of our sister public television stations, WCET in Cincinnati, has introduced a new concept for its website, cetconnect.org. The vast majority of stations, including ours, utilize their websites to promote and offer background information on their TV programming. WCET, by contrast, is treating its homepage as if it is a distinct "channel," offering access to dozens of video segments about Cincinnati, available at the click of a mouse, that are not intended for air on their TV station.

- Apple Computer, Inc., has begun striking deals with universities across the country for iTunes U, a version of their iTunes Music Store that can be customized for a college or university. The materials on iTunes U can be: made available free of charge to the general public; or restricted to students, faculty, and staff; or sold for purchase. Public broadcasting stations licensed to universities, including WOSU at Ohio State University and WPSU at Penn State University, are covered under these blanket agreements, and may begin offering their television productions on iTunes U, either free or at a charge to the public. The MPTV stations are also licensed to a college, Milwaukee Area Technical College, and while MATC is not now involved in iTunes U, if the college should contract with iTunes U or some similar service, might we find ourselves distributing MPTV video content in a new way?

- Rick Horowitz, commentator (and occasional song stylist!) on the MPTV series INTERCHANGE, recently placed one of his humorous musical pieces, "Sick & Tired of Hillary Polka," on the Internet site YouTube.com. Since INTERCHANGE is aired only on MPTV, the only way viewers could have seen these two minutes of merriment, without YouTube, was to have lived in the MPTV broadcasting area and watched INTERCHANGE the night it was shown. Thanks to YouTube, however, over 1200 people from all over the world have now watched Rick's attempt to "polka" fun at Hillary Clinton!

Each one of these examples makes me think about new distribution models MPTV might adopt to stay competitive and to serve as many people as possible. We promote ourselves as Milwaukee Public Television, but the reality is we are transitioning to a multimedia organization, proud of our television heritage but ready to interact with viewers utilizing new technologies.

Over the past few years, we have seen incredibly rapid change in the way people receive and send audio and video content. Digital cameras, smartphones, iPods, MP3 players, Wi-Fi, PDAs, global positioning systems, Bluetooth technology--who among us knew about any of this stuff five years ago?

Of course, the traditional television world has been changing, too. At MPTV, it has meant new HD and digital channels for you to view if you have a digital television or subscribe to your cable TV provider's digital service.

We are also mindful that our viewers may want to receive our content in different ways, through the Internet, through mobile phones, through technologies yet to be invented. We are in active discussion with our colleagues in public broadcasting and within our station about which of these should play a role in our future.

But I think I can predict with certainty that within the next few years--maybe sooner than that--you will be able to access material produced by MPTV in new ways that are both innovative and user-friendly!

Ellis Bromberg
MPTV General Manager