WYBE-35, Philadelphia's tiny, nonprofit, old-fashioned broadcast TV station, is betting its future on digital shows for the YouTube generation.
The station is programming its signals and Web site with five-minute shorts that producers pay to play, set in a new studio built as part of a signal-swapping deal with General Electric Co.'s NBC Universal networks.
"It's short-form programming, in which we let the community come to us and let them and viewers tell us what they want," says Howard Blumenthal, the station's chief executive and a 30-year veteran of the business, including stints as a brand executive for Bertelsmann AG and a senior executive at CDNOW Inc.
"These are not infomercials," he adds. WYBE's program affiliate, Mind Media Independence (Mind TV), controls content, with no obligation to use programs it doesn't want. No home-shopping programs; no racist propaganda.
The station offers technical assistance and training to member-donors who want to make their own programs, for a yearly fee ranging from $75 for individuals to $1,000 for corporations.
The business model reverses the usual TV business patterns. Like Philadelphia-based vanity publisher Xlibris Corp., WYBE is now getting paid to carry content, not paying for it. It's giving paying members - there are 50 so far, pending the service's formal launch next month - the power to put their own work on television and the Internet.
That's a switch from the coffee mugs and CDs given member-donors by other public stations. "In my 20 years in the business, I've never seen anything quite like this," said Sylvia L. Strobel, president and general manager of the Hershey-based Pennsylvania Public Television Network, which funnels state subsidies to WYBE and other public stations in the state.
"The new model is risky for WYBE," but appealing to viewers raised on iPods and YouTube, Strobel added. If it works, "I expect it will be adopted by public television stations across the country."
The early version of the new lineup - available at www.mindtv.org, a Web site for the station's nonprofit parent, Independence Public Media of Philadelphia Inc. - is a grab-bag of museum-exhibit tours and Christian rappers, tattooed performance artists, and a green-building primer by local corporate landlord Liberty Property Trust.
These programs supplement, and will partly replace, WYBE's current broadcast lineup of PBS, foreign and locally produced programs, though some of the most popular - including BBC news reports and Korean soap operas - will continue. WYBE says its audience is too small to measure through Nielsen's and other rating services; it estimates the highest-rated shows draw a few thousand viewers.
Once the station has collected enough five-minute segments, Blumenthal says, a majority of WYBE's current programming, including local music and documentary and travel shows, will end or migrate into five-minute segments.
The station is aiming for a marriage of the often-frustrated community-TV ideal of locally produced original programming and the convenience and short-attention-span exuberance of free digital media-on-demand.
"We want people who are new to media-making to feel comfortable making a five-minute program to start out," said WYBE project manager Kimberly Kunda.
Blumenthal joined WYBE three years ago, backed by a board that includes long-serving members like David Haas, chairman of the William Penn Foundation and director of the Rohm & Haas chemical company, and a founding director of WYBE 20 years ago.
The station, with a small and fragmented viewership and a precarious $2 million yearly budget, mostly from government grants, "had to change," Blumenthal said. The FCC-mandated expansion of digital signals and viewers' increasing preference for the Internet demanded more programming. Independence Public Media faced a challenge: how to keep the broadcast station going while preparing for new media.
Resources for the change, including a new studio, came from NBC, which coveted one of two digital channels allotted to WYBE by the Federal Communications Commission for its own local affiliate, WCAU.
In exchange for access to WYBE's signal, NBC supplied serviceable studio equipment plus training and support for Mind's operations and program staff. "Our old studio looked like a dangerous place to shoot television," Kunda said. "They put together an awesome studio for us."
WYBE is "revolutionizing public independent television with their new format," said Robert Miller, a digital TV executive at NBC Universal. "Their stories are all in bite-size pieces, for today's channel-surfers. I look forward to seeing their plan in action."
For Blumenthal, the new video model has its roots in classic television. The new multimedia programming on Mind TV is "Sesame Street for grown-ups," he said. "It's like the early MTV, but with more than music."