PBS and YouTube have announced that PBS and PBS Kids will join YouTube TV’s channel roster. The two partners made the announcement this week at the summer Television Critics Association’s (TCA) press tour. Three hundred and thirty member stations will be available to users, based on their markets.
PBS already offers a robust on-demand streaming service of its own at video.pbs.org, with content tailored to individual markets. And PBS launched a channel on Amazon Prime Video with special on-demand content earlier this year. But this will be the first time viewers will be able to stream live programming from PBS through a digital service, excepting some anomalies over the years like the now-defunct Aero service and the like.
In a statement, PBS Chief Digital and Marketing Officer Ira Rubenstein said:
Our goal is to reach as many Americans as possible with content that educates, inspires, and entertains. As a broadcaster that is rooted in communities, we appreciate YouTube’s commitment to local content, and we are pleased that this service provides audiences with access to programming that is produced and distributed by our member stations.
Given the PBS goal of reaching “as many Americans as possible,” it makes sense to bring the stations to a platform like this. That said, though, YouTube TV pricing starts at $ 49.99, and a key part of the PBS pitch has always been to make quality content freely available to users regardless of their location or socioeconomic status.
We’re in a strange limbo period where live PBS is still free on broadcast TV, but broadcast TV is declining. So that means PBS is coming to Web streaming, but not for free. That might change in the future, but this is an awkward position for PBS to be in right now.
It’s also interesting that YouTube is investing in local content—something that is rarely discussed in big conversations about where TV as a medium, business, art form, and technology is going. Advocates for local TV have expressed fear that local programming will be left behind. Yes, CBS All Access also offers live-streaming TV from local CBS affiliates in some outlets, and some cable-replacement digital-streaming services offer major broadcast affiliates, too. But as habits change, the vast financial and operational infrastructure that supports local programming is endangered.
And for PBS—which faces repeated threats of defunding from above and threats of lost viewership to digital from below—it’s going to take aggressive action and forward thinking to adapt to the new landscape without losing anything important along the way.