The Public Broadcasting Service will kick off an ambitious plan to raise money by marketing its programs on home video with the release of a new series produced by Los Angeles' KCET Channel 28, station and network officials said Thursday.
The PBS plan involves creating a new distribution label, called PBS Home Video, which will buy the video rights to shows produced by public stations and then distribute them for retail sale to stores and other public stations, said Michael Soper, PBS' senior vice president for development. The first program to be offered will be KCET's six-part science series "The Astronomers," which will go on sale in January at the same time it is broadcast on PBS.
Created as a joint effort with Pacific Arts Video, a distribution company owned by producer/musician Michael Nesmith, the new label will act like a traditional distributor, with PBS stations, like home video stores, buying at wholesale prices and selling at marked-up retail levels, Soper said.
The move coincides with KCET's formal entry into the home video marketplace. Until PBS Home Video is up and running, the station plans to sell copies of programs produced locally and at other public stations through its own distributor.
And KCET hopes to generate additional income through a high-tech pay telephone service, or 900 number, through which consumers will be able to track down the videos they want. The service, which will be available immediately, will cost $2 for the first minute and $1 for each additional minute.
"I don't think there's anybody who doesn't sympathize with our need to find new revenue streams," said station spokeswoman Barbara Goen. "Public funding continues to be a struggle, and corporate funding cannot bear the whole burden and neither can the subscribers."
In addition to selling cassettes of "The Astronomers" for $19.95 apiece, or $99.95 for a complete set of six, KCET will sell a companion book designed to augment the series, said Tim Conroy, the station's vice president for marketing and business development.
Future plans call for the release of science, parenting, self-help and how-to tapes, Conroy said. The station declined to name specific titles that would be available.
KCET officials declined to speculate on how much money the new ventures would generate, except to say that they expected it to be significant.
KCET's move comes at a time when public-TV stations across the country are scrambling for new sources of revenue, many of them experimenting with entrepreneurial projects such as this one.
In Boston, for example, public-TV station WGBH grossed $25 million last year by selling tapes and other products, according to spokesman Christopher Ridley.
Besides selling tapes, WGBH leases its studios to commercial filmmakers and advertising agencies, and allows corporations to use its satellite hookup for teleconferencing.
At KCET, where marketers sent up a trial home video balloon in the form of its "Surviving the Big One" program, officials report sales of 40,000 units, with total entrepreneurial activities netting $200,000 for the station's coffers last year.
On a national level, PBS hopes that by setting up its own licensing and distribution arm, it will be able coordinate the home video efforts of member stations--and eliminate the need to pay a middleman--by setting up its own licensing and distribution arm.
"This is a good example of what public television stations are doing to generate money," Soper said. "We are working to find things that are supportive of the mission of public television, that increase the service and generate new revenues for the system at the same time."
Legally, public stations--which are registered as nonprofit corporations with the Internal Revenue Service--may conduct for-profit operations as long as the activities are considered part of their purpose as a nonprofit organization, said IRS spokesman Rob Giannangeli.
"Selling tapes of their educational programs would be part of their tax-exempt function," Giannangeli said. "If they were selling Elvis T-shirts just to raise money, that would be unreported income" on which they would have to pay taxes.