PBS Distribution will launch PBS Documentaries, a subscription channel on Amazon’s Prime Video with 900 hours of content from Ken Burns’ entire oeuvre to Nova, Frontline, American Masters, American Experience, Nature, Independent Lens and POV.
The channel — which goes live August 4 for $3.99 a month with an Amazon Prime or Prime vide subscription — is public television’s latest push to leverag signature content in a bid for fresh revenue and a broader audience. PBS Distribution (PBSD), the broadcaster’s expanding distribution arm, launched PBS Masterpiece in 2017 and the channel, also on Amazon Prime, helps fund Masterpiece co-productions.
PBS CEO Paula Kerger was set to unveil the channel with Burns as the broadcaster kicks’ off its Summer Virtual Press Tour at 1 pm ET Tuesday. Burns’ films for PBS over the decades, from The Civil War (1990) to Country Music (2019) have provided the network with some of its highest rated content ever. Feature docs range from Stanley Nelson’s The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution to Frontline’s Academy Award nominated For Sama to Last Days In Vietnam from American Experience.
Watch the exclusive first look here:
The entire Ken Burns collection will also be available to stream via Passport, the OTT service available to PBS members through their local stations. Both platforms benefit public television, which Burns is passionate about. He called the new channel unique in putting such a large body of quality work in one place.
“The art form has become so eclectic and people will have a chance to appreciate the many different approaches to documentary filmmaking,” he told Deadline. Documentaries have gained widespread acceptance in recent years on “a combination of the power of storytelling and the desire to understand a complicated world.” He said he’s currently finishing a three-part series on Ernest Hemingway set for broadcast in spring, 2021, and working on projects around Muhammad Ali, the Holocaust, Benjamin Franklin and the American Revolution.
“PBS has become the premier destination for documentary programming in the U.S. and has been hugely invested in giving films by diverse storytellers and emerging filmmakers much needed national exposure,” said Stanley Nelson in a statement.
PBS Distriibution curated the list of documentaries. Frontline executive producer Raney Aronson said the channel will launch with about 100 of the series’ circa 700 films from the past 38 years. “I like that they’re including so many films from so many years, it gives a sense of the narrative of Frontline.”
“I’m really hoping more people will be able to see them,” she added. “We all hope for sustainability … and this is part of that puzzle.”
The doc channel started to take shape late last year, said Andrea Downing, co-president of PBSD as the division launched three subscription channels. Besides Masterpiece, it’s got PBS KIDS (2016) and PBS Living (2019). “The revenue is incredibly important to the system,” she said. With PBS Documentaries, “We think we have a really strong product at the right price point.”
PBS is a complex universe with 330 independent member stations that have widely divergent resource. Revenue from old-fashioned local pledge is still crucially important to many of them so debate around migrating content to newer platforms is very much alive, although stations mostly recognize the need to meet viewers, especially younger ones, where they are. PBS launched Passport in 2016 and helped upgrade stations one by one to make it available to members who donate, usually $5 a month. After more heavy lifting, local stations started to stream live on YouTube TV in late 2019.
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