Quarterly for Education and Technology: Toward the Knowledge Portal: Public Broadcasting and University Continuing Education in the Internet Age

Toward the Knowledge Portal: Public Broadcasting and University Continuing Education in the Internet Age

Steven R. Vedro


Driven by cheaper, faster, and ever-smarter technology elements throughout the media supply chain, the blending of television and computing is moving inevitably forward. Even more important, these technology advances are changing the economics and intellectual property relations between producers, distributors, audiences, and marketers of information-based entertainment and knowledge. Nowhere are these changes so evident than on the emerging commercial Internet.


Low-cost cameras, PC-based recording and editing hardware, and the incredible drop in digital memory costs have made it easy for anyone to be a music or video producer. The emergence of standards for video compression and decoding has made it possible to transport digital video, music, and multimedia over the Internet (and soon wireless systems) to desktop PCs and a new generation of low-cost portable receivers.

These changes in production and reception economics, combined with equally rapid expansion of the capacity of the Internet backbone and its “last-mile” local connections to the home and business, are creating a truly mass market for individualized media content delivered on demand, and at lower and lower cost.

These technologies are also changing the relationship between content providers and their suppliers and customers. On the Internet, downloaded music on demand is already threatening the recording industry and its retailers. MPEG-3 (MP3) file swaps have moved from the world of college dorms and record bootleggers to the mainstream. Do-it-yourself CD kiosks will soon be as common as self-service gasoline stations. Video-on-demand services, made possible by low-cost storage and broadband Internet distribution, are also beginning to change the nature of broadcasting from “media push” to customer-controlled “media pull.” New searching and indexing tools, combined with “tapeless VCRs” (such as Replay TV and Tivo), are making it easier for viewers to create their own personalized TV channels, while TV viewing itself continues to decline and fragment as more and more viewers move to the more engaging interactive environment of the Internet.

The explosion in content providers and the resulting increase in competition and audience fragmentation, the erosion of localism as telecommunications makes distance a non-issue, and the growing importance of user-controlled and user-defined programming, are forcing a reinvention of commercial media. Hundred-plus channel cable and satellite television service is eroding the security of the local broadcaster, whose entire franchise was based on spectrum scarcity and a 60-mile transmission radius. The television market will continue to expand and fracture as high-speed cable and DSL-modem connections make Web-based video broadcasting technically feasible, and as advertisers shift their attention to smaller and smaller audience segments.

These same forces are also converging on public service broadcasters and on media-based university distance and continuing education programs. Public stations are finding that their signal is no longer the only choice in town. Audiences are being drawn away — to cable competitors, to other public broadcasters imported by cable or satellite, and even more important, to the Internet. Distance and media-based continuing educators are also discovering competition. Each week dozens of new distance education providers announce their Web sites, established universities (or some of their “star” professors) sign partnership agreements with Internet entrepreneurs, and old customers for locally delivered training switch over to a satellite-based, nationally delivered seminar package.

This is indeed a new and frightening environment for those whose “sales” have been based on technological protectionism — and it is only going to get worse. The new information marketplace respects no boundaries. Content can be created anywhere, by anyone, and despite most attempts to legislate and control it, the new networks make it possible for this content to be accessed anywhere, and by anyone. On the Web, old centers of media power are already being undermined by fresh upstarts. New businesses are emerging that own no products of their own, but make their fortunes by pointing customers to those that do — and then taking a small commission from any negotiated sales price. Internet technology is fragmenting “communities-of-place” into multiple “communities-of-interest,” making place-based service organizations with large overhead costs and limited inventories an endangered species.

In a number of areas, both public television and many distance and university continuing education providers fit this description of place-based, fixed inventory businesses. Local PBS stations feed the same limited menu of national content, hoping that local audiences will support their efforts at pledge time. Most universities seek students and continuing education contracts based on the geographic presence, offering most programs on a supplier-driven (faculty and administrator) schedule, confident that their customers have no place else to turn.


To survive and grow in the coming Internet commerce environment, public service education and media organizations will need to adopt a service metaphor that builds on their existing strengths: brand identity, customer loyalty, and a reputation for delivering quality content. PTV stations and university continuing education organizations need to redefine themselves as community education and cultural “portals.” They can emerge as respected pointers to “vetted” content in an online media environment where information cannot be monopolized, where aggregating others’ content is a legitimate business practice, but trusted knowledge is a scarce commodity. They can offer a local “safe harbor” in a cyberworld where there are few local landmarks, and where providing both a place for community discussion and trusted discussion leaders is as important as the content being discussed.

Commercial media organizations have already embraced the portal model, combining elements of electronic program guides and Web search engines into personalized home pages for users who are willing to register at their sites. These providers hope to capture Web (and future television) viewers at the starting point of the media selection process and keep these viewers inside a “walled garden,” directing them only to affiliated network offerings, Web sites, and advertisers. Portal proponents argue that in the same way that many Web users have taken advantage of personalized starting screens and search engines, media consumers will also want a simplified entry point into the multi-channel cable, digital television, and Web-cast video environment. Portals, they believe, will emerge to serve both broad consumer interests (sports, home and family, mass entertainment) and niche markets (demographic clusters, special interests).

Viewers are expected to stay within the portal environment based on the quality of the program links, the relevance of the advertising, and their sense of belonging to a community of like-minded consumers. Enthusiasm for this approach to media access has already fueled a wave of commercial partnerships, purchases, and mn-ups of Internet-related stocks. Portal fever helped cement the Netscape-AOL partnership, NBC’s purchase of the Web search engine Snap, and Yahoo!’s purchase of Geocities and broadcast.com.

While this model may reveal serious flaws in its commercial rollout, audience “capture and control” in a Web environment may be hard to support as users scale the garden walls in search of greener pastures with more interesting content or friendlier neighbors. However, its core concept is applicable to continuing education and public television alike. In an environment where customer choices are expanding each day, “capturing” customers at the start of their media journey makes real sense. Local university continuing education programs and public television stations already have a number of the key portal assets: brand recognition, a base of local customers, a mix of both local resources and access to international partners. and mechanisms for pointing customers to these partners. They also have the ability to generate new content built around the interaction of local communities-of-interest.

Well-produced public television and radio programs have always been designed to be portals. A good program is expected not to dull the audience into staying glued to their sets but to trigger post-program action in the form of visits to an online database, the library, or a continuing education seminar. In the case of “how-to” shows, post-viewing activities may include trips to the hardware store, market, or bookstore. Digital convergence technologies are making it possible to expand these post-viewing alternatives into immediate Web-based referrals to validated background materials and libraries of video-on-demand segments, as well as to local and national partner sites.

Instead of a “scarcity portal approach,” the goal of which is to keep audiences from competing services (or even other public stations) no matter what the cost or inconvenience, public media organizations must embrace abundant choice. Audiences will be expected to wander from the main gate, but they will also be reminded regularly how to get back. Instead of blacking out distant cable signals or national DBS feeds — an approach harder and harder to sustain as technology breaks down local franchise territories — station efforts should be directed toward building content-based alliances. In the borderless media environment, the development of unique links to related resources will become as important a part of a station’s identity — and its financial support — as the quality of its programming.

As media sources proliferate and commercial portals are introduced to keep viewers tied to their owner’s products and services, the demand for neutral, reliable, and trusted recommendations will grow. There is no reason why public television (and university community education programs) should not embrace this opportunity, even if it means providing links to program sources and interactive opportunities provided by others. Creating a public service media search engine that will eschew advertising and the covert promotion of fee-paying sites could emerge as a new public radio and television-based business. Ensuring the reliability of outside content sources will be a critical station responsibility.

Providing a virtual coffee bar for station supporters to share their impressions of what they’ve seen and heard will be one way to move from a mass communication model to (what David Liroff of WGBH has called) an amassed communications model — where the audience becomes a community known to the station and to each other. This is already beginning to happen on the Web, where personal sites based on television viewing interests are growing in popularity. Although most of these sites are built around commercial network offerings targeted to young adults, a number of public shows also have their followings. While these sites can’t compare with the hundreds dedicated to the latest teen heartthrob, they are harbingers of a future in which television programs beget their own communities-of-interest. Reaching out to online forum hosts and encouraging them to organize potlucks, field trips, or other social events could become a regular part of station activities in the Portal Age.

Continuing education providers must also look to the Internet portal as a model of opportunity for new business practices. A model continuing education organization in the emerging information environment would position itself as a trusted aggregator and pointer to its own intellectual resources, to community partners, and even to competitive providers offering programs that it cannot affordably deliver. It would use Internet-based channels to create ad hoc partnerships with content experts around the world. Even if “importing” programs from another university or business site, it would support its local community of learners by sponsoring online and face-to-face chats with local faculty and other experts. It would market its customer support skills to external competitors, providing the “high touch” elements of mentoring, tutoring, and community-of-place connections to students enrolled in learning programs from other providers.

Both public television and continuing education have served their local communities with education and informational programming in an environment of limited competition. Digital convergence has changed this equation. For public television, this means building on its reputation and becoming a guarantor of quality video for specific audience interests and a pointer to local resources that strengthen communities-of-place. For continuing education, this means strengthening ties to other providers, developing new business relationships with non-local content experts, and expanding student services and other hands-on customer-retention strategies.

Brand-name recognition for quality product, the rapid ability to customize resources to meet specialized audience needs, seamless access to content partners to expand inventory on demand, and a relationship with customers that generates ad hoc content-creation communities are all elements which define the goals of the electronic marketing concept of the Internet portal. All of these elements are also present in some form at both continuing education and local public television organizations. They can be embraced, developed, and expanded as public television and continuing education move together to become local knowledge portals.

While both organizations will face incredible challenges, they also have a core set of strengths that are well suited to the Internet Age. Those knowledge portals with strong brand names, a pool of intellectual talent, a customer service orientation, and a willingness to forge new partnerships will thrive.

Steven Vedro is a public telecommunications policy consultant based in Madison, Wisconsin. He was the state project director for the Wisconsin Governor’s Blue Ribbon Telecommunications Task Force and has worked with public broadcasting stations, major universities, and the states of Missouri, North Dakota, Mississippi, New Jersey, and Arizona on educational telecommunications policy alternatives. He writes regularly for InfoP@ckets, the technology issues newsletter of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

COPYRIGHT 1999 Agency for Instructional Technology

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group