Home Video: PBS seeks the unhampered deal

In the business since 1991, pbs is a relative newcomer to home video. However, with gross revenues from video sales in the neighborhood of us$30 million per year, and plans to expand the franchise to music and book publishing, pbs is...
February 1, 1998

In the business since 1991, pbs is a relative newcomer to home video. However, with gross revenues from video sales in the neighborhood of us$30 million per year, and plans to expand the franchise to music and book publishing, pbs is in for the long haul.

According to ceo Ervin S. Duggan, home video doesn’t just add to the coffers, it’s also a branding exercise, a drive to build ‘mind print’ by having pbs product in as many marketplaces as possible.

‘We know that the pbs brand has great value,’ says Eric L. Sass, senior vp of PBS Learning Media, the division responsible for video distribution. ‘In effect, we’ve been able to create a market around the pbs brand by having the PBS Home Video brand out there. When consumers watch a pbs show on home video, we want them to associate it with their local station. Because that’s how pbs works: the local station relies upon viewer donations.’

pbs aggressively seeks video rights from coproduction partners. According to Peter Downey, senior vp of business affairs, pbs interest is likely to increase if a project is unencumbered. ‘If you bring us a program where it’s only available for six months, or it has to have a window for cable, or the home-video rights have already been sold off… you’ve brought us a problem, not a solution.’

While the availability of home-video rights has been known to be a deal-breaker, Downey says pbs does sometimes attempt a collaboration wherein the producer has one distributor for retail, but licenses direct-response rights to pbs. However, Downey admits pbs ‘[doesn't] like to do that, because it gets complicated.’

Typically, home-video negotiations are hammered out during consolidated rights negotiation spawned by initial broadcast interest. Says Downey: ‘Fundamentally, pbs is a broadcast network, not a home-video company, and so our broadcast interests drive virtually all of our editorial decisions about what programs to acquire. So, the first order of business is to get the broadcast rights squared away.’

pbs’ customary broadcast arrangement requires exclusivity against distribution in any other electronic medium for three years – of course, it’s a bonus if the project has had a previous theatrical release. When it comes to home video, pbs usually looks to retain all North American rights for a period of seven to ten years. That means all retail and direct-response rights for the u.s., Canada, and u.s. territories. Explains Sass, ‘The reason we collect all rights is so we don’t have a collision of product in the marketplace.’

According to Downey, pbs business affairs becomes a ‘broker’ for the producer during rights negotiation. ‘My group marches the program around from programming, to home video, to the a/v folks, to the online folks, and then to the [direct broadcast satellite] folks, and tries to put together a package of distribution uses, and the amount the various departments are willing to commit.’

As an example, Downey says, for us$150,000, pbs would expect four releases over three years and home video for seven years. us$50,000 of that sum could be in the form of a recoupable advance. An agreement on royalties, a percentage of wholesale or retail, would be the final element.

pbshv, the network’s umbrella home-video brand, encompasses programs coproduced by individual stations. Currently, the only station with in-house home-video distribution capacity is wgbh (Boston). ‘A sort of master agreement between pbs and wgbh determines in advance whether they’ll be the video distributor or whether pbs will,’ says Downey.

There are three pbs video-distribution channels: direct-response, retail and educational distribution. The first, PBS Direct, which accounts for more than half of pbshv’s revenue, is responsible for 1-800 offers following each broadcast and in ads in publications like Newsweek, as well as pbs’ home-video catalog. Mailed 12 times per year, for an annual total of 15 million copies, each catalog contains over 300 video products, related books and cds.

pbs holds the rights to most videos sold through the catalog, but it also includes pbs product for which someone else has the video rights, as well as non-pbs videos related to programming in the catalog and topics of interest to catalog customers.

‘If a producer has a film that’s relevant, [they should] send a cassette to pbshv,’ says Downey – provided pbs programming hasn’t already rejected it.

Retail distribution includes sales to pbs’ direct retail accounts: the Learningsmith, Store of Knowledge and Borders Books and Music chains – around 270 stores across the u.s. – as well as rental and sell-through sales to mass merchandisers (handled by Warner Home Video) and third-party catalogs such as ones by museums.

Not all video properties end up distributed through the retail channel. ‘Sometimes we’ll take a title and we’re unsure if it’s going to work in the mass market,’ says Downey. ‘We’ll try it on the air. It works. We’ll put it in the catalogue. It works. We’ll put it in the direct accounts. It works. Then we go to third-party catalogs. The last thing is… we turn to our partner Warner Home Video; they specialize in mass merchandising,’ says Sass.

The third link of pbs’ video distribution is through PBS Video, which deals with the educational market. Over 1,200 titles are available to educational institutions and professionals through catalog and a two-dozen-strong sales team.

The product offered to schools is often the same as that sold through pbshv, but pbsv leans strongly toward documentaries. In addition, pbsv designs teacher’s guides, lesson plans and resource materials for ease of use in the classroom. Programs may be reformatted for educational use in one-hour tapes, split into five- to ten-minute chapters, and, in most cases, indexed by person, subject or event for easy integration into the classroom.

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.