PBS Goes Viral

PBS has always done a great job reaching very young children, offering great programs that capturing toddlers and children through about second or third grade. It also has programming that consistently reaches viewers over 50, and it relies on this audience for individual giving. It has never figured out a way to connect with viewers in between. Station managers and “network” execs have long understood what the numbers reveal, that loyal viewers between the age of thirteen and fifty are few and far between. Up until a few years ago the plan was to not chase these viewers, to let them go assuming they would come back when they had children of their own. But that plan was conceived of before technology shifted, more and more options became available, and funding sources began to dry up.

Enter PBS Digital Studios.

In 2009 Producer and Musician turned auto-tuner John D Boswell launched a series of auto tuned music videos about science, including “We Are Star Dust”, in which comments made by Neil deGrasse Tyson, the host of NOVA (a long running PBS favorite)and other scientists, about the connection between humans and the universe, was edited and auto tuned. It happens to be one of the most moving things I have ever seen, if you haven’t watched it, I recommend you do.

We Are Star Dust

PBS executives reached out to Boswell and decided to partner with him in an effort to create designed-to-go-viral videos featuring some of PBS’s most venerable and recognizable personalities. The difficulty is figuring out how to design something to go viral. Some companies spend small fortunes creating videos that go nowhere online, while videos of cat’s hugging spread like wildfire. It does seem that PBS found the recipe, at least for now: find an uber talented producer with a following, have him remix footage from the most beloved children’s television show ever, give it a weird and wonderful title, get celebrities like Neil Patrick Harris to tweet about it, and run it on Good Morning America.
“Garden of Your Mind” launched this new series of designed-to-go-viral videos. It’s an auto-tuned remix of Mr. Rogers, and frankly, it is awesome. I’m a die-hard Mr. Rogers fan, but who isn’t?

Garden of Your Mind

The attempt to go viral and to reach a new audience has been success, less than a month old, the Mr. Roger video is nearing 6 million views on you tube. It’s too early to tell if the video will draw new viewers to PBS, but, I think it already demonstrates something more important. A shift in thinking by PBS, a new awareness that television isn’t king, that viewers need to be reached out to in new ways, and success isn’t measured only in pledge dollars but in creating awareness.

PBS Digital Studios released its second auto-tuned remix this morning. A mash up of Bob Ross clips called “Happy Little Clouds”. It’s a fun video, and especially awkward to hear an auto-tuned Bob Ross recommending that you “make love to the canvas”. While it’s weird and fun and catchy, it’s not as original as the first (always the problem). I wonder how long this approach will continue to work.

Happy Little Clouds

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2 Responses to PBS Goes Viral

  1. Nkemdilim Obiora says:

    I like the approach they took with interpreting auto tune. Usually, I am against it because it appears contrived. I think my connection with the content and nostalgia of these sources brings back up the excitement I had as a kid. For most of us, we connect with the stories and the upbringing that PBS, Mr. Rogers, and Bob Ross gave us. I couldn’t wait to escape into a new reality with them. This new approach breakdown the context of the episode by highlighting only a few of the episodes idea which works great for new audiences who have grown accustomed to not viewing commercials and who wants the whole story immediately. I couldn’t look away, and the addition of auto tune gave me a song to repeat later on.

  2. Meg Spitzer says:

    Daniel, thanks so much for posting this! Mr. Rogers and Bob Ross have been making rounds on my Facebook feed. Apparently everyone that I know knows Bob Ross (I thought I was the only weird kid that watched that!), and there is a sense that Pittsburghers feel we “own” Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood 🙂

    However, it wasn’t until your post that I stopped to consider why PBS was creating these super-awesome auto tunes. Before I even read your first paragraph, I assumed it was for some additional exposure to drive fundraising. Your breakdown of the demographic makes perfect sense because I am exactly what you describe–a kid raised on PBS that is about to make a triumphant return to the programming with kids of her own. However, as happy as I am that these fun videos exist (can you put in a word for Reading Rainbow next?), I wonder how much of a bump funding will receive because of them. Do you know how they are keeping tabs on the metrics? Is it just fundraising or is it beyond the money? Will Antoine Dodson be jealous?