With Captive Audience, Arkansas PBS Sees Viewership Boom

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Arkansas PBS is reporting dramatic viewership increases on the state’s educational television network and online during the coronavirus pandemic as Arkansans find the Conway-based public media hub “increasingly at the center of their lives.”

Executive Director Courtney Pledger used that description in answering Arkansas Business’ questions about Arkansas PBS’ efforts to help children learn at home after schools were closed in March, as well as other expanded programs.

The daily broadcasts of “Arkansas AMI,” for alternate methods of instruction, are coordinated with the state Department of Education. Other initiatives include consistent coverage of COVID-19 issues in the network’s public affairs programming, including live coverage of Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s press conferences on the virus’ path through Arkansas.

Our daily reach to communities across our state with news and information, at-home learning to families who need us, and localized content, is essential — and something only public media can do,” Pledger said. 

The network can’t justify the cost of subscribing to ratings services like Nielsen, but it points to several digital metrics showing a big surge in use. Those include a 250% increase in streaming viewership; a record number of website visitors, topping 156,000 a month, 845% above the same period last year; and a 245% increase in the number of hours streamed on Arkansas PBS Passport, the network’s on-demand streaming service.

The streaming viewership, which set a record, is linked to the launch of a free digital live-stream of the main Arkansas PBS channel online at myarkansaspbs.org, and to the debut of an Engage Arkansas PBS app, which has been downloaded more than 20,000 times since March 1.

“At Arkansas PBS, we take our responsibility to Arkansas communities seriously, listening intently to the people of our state,” Pledger added. “As the health crisis emerged, we quickly re-examined the greatest needs, zeroing in on education, public affairs, broad accessibility of information and community connection.”

Those areas allow public media to truly shine in crises, she said.

“Through the spring school closures, we pivoted, with the Arkansas Department of Education, to keep students learning from home, with particular attention to those students in rural areas without broadband. We now turn to the future for more opportunities in Pre-K-12 education.”

In a statement, Arkansas PBS said viewers have been using Engage Arkansas PBS and the PBS Video app for connected devices (Roku, Apple TV, etc.) “On Arkansas PBS Passport, our exclusive streaming platform for Arkansas PBS members, viewers have been binge-watching ‘Masterpiece: World on Fire,’ ‘Call the Midwife’ and ‘Baptiste’ in record numbers.”

The network has also expanded TV access through new cable systems in West Memphis and Texarkana, and new distribution through the YouTube TV digital streaming service.

We are raising the bar on our technology and adding platforms to make sure we do everything in our power to be responsive to the needs of Arkansans,” Pledger said. “We’ll continue to work on innovative ways to stream content, to increase the availability of on-demand content and to improve infrastructure and technology to meet Arkansans wherever and whenever they need us. Internet access is a challenge for many areas of the state, and Arkansas PBS is uniquely positioned to serve rural areas, offering four over-the-air channels. During the current crisis, we have met the challenges of producing content remotely, developing skills we will continue to use moving forward.”