PBS hit the news last May with the announcement that it would begin offering such high-profile hits as Frontline, Antiques Roadshow, Nature, Wide Angle, POV and others on VOD in dozens of major US markets. The VOD arrangement is between member stations and their local cable operators (with PBS’ oversight), and about 10 hours of programming is made available for on-demand viewing per week, with agreements in place that also allow stations to offer additional locally produced content.
But the on-demand world is not uncharted territory for the network. In April of 2005, PBS partnered with Comcast, Cox Communications, DirecTV, Insight and RNC to launch PBS KIDS Sprout to about 20 million subscribers. While the linear Sprout channel followed in September 2005, the on-demand net went on to become the third-most popular VOD service on the Comcast platform (after a music service and a premium movie service).
Sprout president Sandy Wax admits the decision to launch the VOD service first was partly due to data Comcast had hinting at the potential of a kids offering, and partly just to prove a vod launch would work. (Comcast is a 40% stakeholder in the venture and has invested heavily in on-demand.)
Wax pegs part of that success on finding a programming balance between retaining the shows kids love, while keeping the offering fresh. The service consistently offers about 50 hours of programming across 18 to 20 series, and it is refreshed about every two-and-a-half weeks. (Titles average roughly eight weeks in the rotation.) Average length of tune is about 30 minutes – essentially an entire program. Spikes in viewership occur when programming is first uploaded, and then again when it is tagged ‘LC’ – last chance – on the interactive menu.
On-demand viewings spike twice daily: between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m., when kids are prepping for school; and again between 6 p.m. and 9 p.m., during family time. Wax notes that many channels have backed away from the 6- to 11-year-old, or the 9- to 14-year-old demo, and Sprout is right there to capture them. It is a 24/7 service, however, and the service sees traffic throughout the night – likely either parents with sick kids or college kids watching Teletubbies.
While transactional data is available to the channel, demographics remain a hurdle. ‘The challenge right now is aggregating data across multiple distributors,’ observes Wax. ‘Sprout is carried on [a number of platforms]. To get all those data streams together to accurately reflect how many orders and how much usage is kind of where we are now. But it is definitely doable… We get incredibly robust data. You don’t get the demographic and the descriptive data, but companies like Rentrak are starting to aggregate it, and Comcast and a lot of the others are starting to find ways to build that demographic layer.’
PBS sees VOD as part of a triangle, with linear and broadband making up the other sides. While linear Sprout is more timely – it often celebrates holidays, kid’s birthdays and other events – on-demand is less dated, and broadband provides an interactive feedback opportunity. ‘We try to consciously program and schedule content differently for the two [broadcast] platforms,’ says Wax. ‘For example, for the linear channel, we recognize that kids have five- to 10-minute attention spans, so we deconstruct the half hour so they can watch the five minute (or shorter) Bob the Builder story. On the on-demand, typically these multiple stories are bundled together in a half hour.’ The goal, she notes, is to bounce viewers back and forth between the Sprout offerings so that, regardless of preferences, the brand provides them with something.
In the near future, look for Sprout to target ‘specific interest areas,’ such as Spanish-language. And, if the net’s partners are willing to offer up the space on the servers, more content. ‘In this marketplace,’ says Wax, ‘if a child is really in love with a particular character or show and they don’t see it for a week or two, they are going to move onto something else. Any way you can keep in front of that audience, and remind them how much they love this property, it’s good for all parts of the business.’