Public Television and Live Streaming: Can Online Streaming Save PBS?

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public television and live streaming

There’s a reason Oscar the Grouch lives in a garbage can, and it’s not all to do with lifestyle choice.

The Sesame Street star and his PBS brethren currently face real financial threats to their existence after falling out of favor politically. While federal funding has been guaranteed for the short term, there is no certainty it will continue into the future.

PBS needs $1.35 from everyone in the country every year to continue in its current capacity, and while that sounds like spare change it does mean convincing more than 320 million people to put their hands in their pocket.

Rather than seeking out every individual in the U.S., or asking its stars to rough it each night in a garbage can, PBS, and other public media could instead look to the internet for cost savings and alternate funding.

Live streaming has made celebrities out of everyday people with a talent for catching attention, and it could be the future for Oscar the Grouch, Bill Nye, and The News Hour.

YouNow’s Live Stream Success

As you read this, there are people over on YouNow getting paid to live-stream themselves eating, sleeping, and riding the bus. Such DIY broadcasters are generating millions of dollars of revenue each month entertaining the world’s netizens with their unfiltered, unscripted opinions and talents.

You’ll find them on YouTube Live as well, although over there the demand for live streaming has tempted some more traditional big name celebrities such as Katy Perry to do a live stream, even of her therapy session. Facebook, too, has joined the live stream trend, recently signing nearly 140 contracts worth $50 million with media companies and celebrities to fill up time on its Facebook Live app.

A live stream is just what it sounds like, an unedited, real-time internet broadcast of anyone doing anything the public wants to see, or is at least curious to sample.

The 12 highest-paid professional live streamers–and these are people who built a name from nothing–earn a combined $70 million a year for their time. That’s enough money to cover a lot of the $1.35 public contributions PBS currently needs to survive. And the Sesame Street gang already has a cult following ready to watch them online.

Making Money Through Live-Streaming

Unfortunately for PBS, the top-earning live streamers make the bulk of their money through endorsements and brand ambassadorships, something that breaches the network’s strict charter. In order to protect its journalistic integrity, PBS doesn’t take on any funding that could be seen as influencing its broadcasts in the eyes of the public.

Many YouNow live streamers, however, earn their money through direct tips from their viewers. These contributions are sent in real-time during a live stream, usually in small amounts.

Of course, a live-streamed popular news presentation or talk show on PBS could comfortably attract more $1.35 donations than any unknown Youtuber could imagine. It may not be enough on its own to fund the network for years on end, but small, regular pay-per-view donations could be easier to extract from loyal viewers than a large sum at an annual pledge drive. As a further incentive, the YouNow donors’ names and contributions could be displayed as chat messages on screen during a broadcast.

The biggest economic advantage to taking public television online, however, comes from the reduction in production costs.

Another Plus? Live Streaming Is Cheap

Broadcasting over the internet is, unsurprisingly, a lot cheaper than sending out a public broadcast. Any data you send out is going to come out of the monthly limit your carrier provides, but as sites like YouNow, YouTube Live, and Facebook Live are free, such a cost is negligible compared to maintaining and operating a major digital TV transmission.

Production costs, too, can be reduced online.  You still need the sets and makeup, but you could even replace the $30,000 TV studio camera with a $2,000 professional HD camcorder.

Several major cities and regions are already presenting their public television shows online, including Detroit, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Maryland. Keeping pace with the video-on-demand trend led by Netflix and Amazon, these shows are also stored online for viewing when the audience is ready to watch.

In fact, switching to a Netflix-style billing system of less than $10 a month per viewer could be a windfall for the public stations without relying on any advertising. Netflix has forged an empire of billions this way. PBS documentaries are already a staple of the on-demand giant.

It may take a little education and encouragement to bring PBS viewers over to an internet platform, but the extra revenue and cost reductions could see broadcasters like PBS that produce high-quality original content become financially independent.

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Image Source: Flickr CC User Walter Lim

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