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Watch PBS online? You can if you visit its new video portal

In allowing viewers to stream an array of its best-known shows, PBS is joining on-demand video sites like Hulu.com and YouTube -- places for younger consumers who aren't wedded to watching TV on a TV.

April 22, 2009|David Sarno

The Public Broadcasting Service turns 40 this year, and on Tuesday it gave itself a gift that just might make it feel young again.

PBS' new video portal allows online viewers to stream an array of its best-known shows over the Web. The new site gathers more than 130 episodes of nearly 20 programs, including marquee fare such as "Frontline," "Nova" and "Masterpiece Theater." PBS says thousands of hours of programming should be available to users by the summer.

In giving its shows away online, PBS is joining on-demand video sites such as Hulu.com and YouTube -- places for younger consumers who aren't wedded to watching TV on a television. Those two sites, both commercial, have been touting themselves as advertiser-friendly viewing destinations where video surfers can go to browse among a variety of familiar titles.

But on these sites, familiar can mean that you saw it decades earlier. Major media companies are still wary of posting their best material online, leaving YouTube and Hulu thin on the most popular shows but overgrown with cultural castoffs such as "The Lone Ranger," "Alf" and "Coolio's Rules."

PBS' initial selection of about 20 programs is small compared with the pulpy catalogs maintained by the other sites, but full-length episodes of nearly every show in PBS' prime-time lineup have been put online.

In addition to acting as a clearinghouse for PBS content, the portal will function as the hub of a nationwide network of online affiliates, all of which can share programming through a single Web infrastructure, whose cost PBS would specify only as "in the seven figures."

"I think this is really good of PBS," said Jackie Kain, senior vice president of new media at Los Angeles' KCET public television station. "We're all trying to create a local identity as it relates to a national identity," she said, referring to the way each station will create a unique mixture of original and borrowed content. "We're all part of a system."

When the video portal is extended to the first wave of local stations in May, Kain said, visitors to KCET.org will be able to watch its "SoCal Connected" and "Huell Howser" programs.

PBS will sell limited advertising on its online videos to help recoup what it expects to be $500,000 to $1 million in annual bandwidth costs, depending on the audience it generates.

To make money from those ads, the company will have to lure the kind of shaggy-haired demographic not always associated with PBS. Will putting its content online be enough to get new viewers to tune in?

"They probably do have people that are highly loyal to that network," said David Card, a media and marketing analyst at Forrester Research, suggesting that some PBS programs seem intended for a more discerning viewer. "That may not be such a great thing if you're going for a young audience."

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david.sarno@latimes.com

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