Public Broadcasting Service is re-launching its Web
site, with new tools that will allow users to access both national and local
video on the PBS.org and significantly enhance the visibility of the
programming from local stations nationwide. As part of some new technologies
developed for the re-launch, PBS is also launching iPhone and iPad apps that
will give users free access to full episodes of around 20 to 22 shows.
"It is a very important development for PBS.org because
it gives our audience one-stop shopping for both national and local content and
it is a tremendous benefit for the stations because it helps expose their great
local content and video to a larger national audience," said PBS Senior VP of
Interactive and Product Development and Innovation Jason Seiken in a lengthy
preview of the site's new features and PBS's digital strategy. "We really felt
that the best way to serve our audience is to take this national/local
To achieve that goal, PBS built a new middleware
platform called Merlin that is powering many of the new features on the site,
including tools for automatically posting local content on the site.
"Merlin is a powerful local and national publishing
platform that allows us to use metadata to seamlessly and efficiently integrate
local content from 350 PBS stations across the country into PBS.org," Seiken
When visitors access PBS.org, the site will automatically
recognize the user's location from his or her IP address and then serve up a
front page that mixes PBS' signature national programming with select local
Virginia viewers, for example, who visit PBS.org
will see national shows mixed in with local programming and content from WETA.
Users can also select other local PBS stations and their programming will
automatically be displayed along with the PBS national fare. Anyone who clicks
on the local program at PBS.org will then be taken to the local site to see the
The new Merlin platform allows PBS and the local
stations to do this automatically, without a lot of manual posting, as long as
the programming is tagged with the right metadata. "It is a very important tool
for our local stations because there isn't any human intervention," Seiken
explained. "All the content is flowing into the page from the metadata, both
the local and the national content. None of the content is being programmed by
The redesign is also part of an ongoing strategy to
add more video and display it more prominently on PBS.org. "Since we launched
our video platform, our video streams have multiplied to about 5 million
streams a month, which is up from about 2 million 18 months ago," Seiken said.
With the re-launch, the video player is more
prominently displayed on the page and the site will have more content, around
4,700 hours of video, of which about 2,000 hours will be local programming.
The new Merlin platform is designed to help PBS expand
the digital distribution of its content and the pubcaster is also launching
apps for iPhones and iPads.
At launch, Seiken expects to offer 20 to 22
different shows for these devices. The number of episodes per show will vary,
but the free apps will generally give users access to about a month's worth of
full episodes from each show, as well as short original programs, such as
Nova's Secret Life of Scientists & Engineers.
The platform will also help PBS expand its digital
offerings in the future. "This is part of a broader initiative to open up the
PBS platform," said Jon Brendsel, VP of product development at PBS Interactive.
"Widgets, mobile applications [and many other things] become exponentially
easier and cheaper for us to do. The reality is that we can't build everything
for everyone so like [many other companies] we are moving to API [application programming
interfaces] and feed-based platforms" that facilitate the digital distribution
PBS has embraced open platforms for quite some time
and recently has also been moving toward cloud hosting. "In the last 18 months,
we have been moving all of our new infrastructure-and Merlin will be
included-to Amazon's EC2 [Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud] platform so that it is
all being hosted in the cloud," Brendsel said.
One big advantage of this move is cost. "Demand
ebbs and surges during the day," he explained. "At 4 a.m. you may see just a
couple of application servers handling the load for all of PBS and then during
primetime you may see that surging to 10 to 15 application servers. We just pay
by the hour and the machine gets spun up automatically to handle additional
traffic. It allows us to take advantage of the cost models that cloud computer
The redesigned site also has better search features and offers a more
cohesive look and feel to the design of PBS.org, which includes more than 1,500
separate programming sites and areas.