Public broadcasting heads from the UK, U.S. and Canada converged at the Realscreen Summit on Monday (January 30) to talk about challenges they face, including digital switchover and the issue of slowness.
Channel 4 (C4) head of factual Ralph Lee said that the UK network has performed well over the past few years – which has led to the recent announcement about the biggest channel spend in history – and that the biggest challenge C4 faces is the digital switchover.
“[It] means that C4 and BBC have had to live in an environment of choice,” he explained. “We grew up the fourth channel of five. Now we’re in most territories and… there’s a whole era of convergence of different media we’re trying to negotiate.”
He also touched on the competition for factual and formats with a number of broadcasters since the giant boom of the genres in the UK. “We have to work harder and harder on new ideas to innovate. We’ve got to persuade them all the time to watch something they don’t know they want,” he said.
PBS president and CEO Paula Kerger also laid out what PBS’s focus will be in the next while. “From our perspective, we spend a lot of time looking at what people are doing and do what cable and commercial television won’t do. In the last few years we’ve been looking at hard science programming.
“We have a big emphasis on the arts right now because it’s really disappeared, with the exception of competition shows like American Idol. We’ve eased up a bit on history because the cable outlets had more of that, as History turns its focus a little bit. We continue to look at an ongoing basis where there are holes that will be important and impactful on audiences.”
Moderator Jane Root, founder and chief executive of indie Nutopia, brought up the topic of “the ‘s’ word,” the fact that many pubcasters are slow to work with.
Kerger said: “I’m very concerned with [being] slow. Ours has been [due to] funding issues. We are working very hard to put some funds available so we can invest in programming as it comes up. We see heavy use of multi-platform, getting projects quickly to stream because of that distribution. We’ve done that quite effectively in the kids space.”
On the Canadian side, Kirstine Stewart, exec VP of English services for CBC, weighed in. “We’re very quick at CBC because being slow is deadly. When you have great content you need to get it out there and be in front of it,” she said.
On the topic of targeting specific audiences, Kerger broke away from the other pubcasters who are looking for a balance of male to female viewers to admit that PBS looks for a diverse demo. “We’re trying to find the [viewers] that the commercial guys aren’t chasing. Our audience is slightly older and an audience that nobody seems to worry about.”
The panel wrapped with a look towards the future, although it proved difficult to determine what exactly public broadcast television will look like that far ahead. “What we will look like in 20 years will be radically different. Even five years now, I can’t articulate,” said Kerger.