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Insight/ General Management

The Interview: PBS SVP Lesli Rotenberg

by Keith Loria
Contributing Writer

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As PBS’s senior vice president of Children’s Media, Lesli Rotenberg is in charge of leading both the company’s Children’s Media team and its marketing and communications team as it strives to remain the No. 1 educational media brand for young children.

Among her responsibilities are spearheading content production, Web development, multiplatform asset distribution, and educational resources to build and strengthen the brand equity of PBS and PBS Kids. She also oversees the PBS Kids Next Generation Media Advisory Board, which brings together renowned experts in the fields of child development, education, psychology, and new media to guide staff as they create a dynamic media service that meets the needs of a new generation of children, their parents, and teachers. talked to Rotenberg about her career, PBS’s digital marketing goals, and, yes, whether Mitt Romney’s recent comments about Big Bird during the first presidential debate changed the company’s marketing strategy. How did you become a part of PBS and interested in marketing and branding, in general?
Before coming to PBS, I worked at Discovery Communications for 10 years. I worked on a number of brands there, including the launch of Animal Planet. The CEO of Discovery, John Hendricks, held PBS in the highest esteem and was very gracious and supportive when I told him I was leaving to go to PBS.  

At the time, my daughters were 5 and 2 years old. Their favorite channel was PBS, and I had grown to love and appreciate the programming. I had a special place in my heart for PBS Kids because I knew I could trust PBS to put my children’s best interests first and provide positive role models that my girls were fond of imitating.

When I was offered the opportunity to work on the PBS brand, I jumped at the chance to do so. I was here for five years when I took on the additional responsibility of overseeing the Children’s Media team. That move made me especially popular at home and with my daughters’ friends and teachers at school, who I used as focus groups for the new programs we were developing. Upon taking the job in 2000, what 10-year goals did you set?
When I joined PBS, I wanted to help refresh and revitalize the brand, providing stations across the country with brand assets that would help them connect with viewers about their unique content and communicate the values that they share. We wanted audiences to recognize that PBS stations are relevant to their lives. In other words, it’s not your grandmother’s PBS. I think that we’ve accomplished that objective. Talk about some of your successful accomplishments related to these goals.
From Masterpiece’s Downton Abbey, which has inspired parodies from Saturday Night Live and Jimmy Fallon, to our award-winning children’s shows like Curious George and The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That, people are talking about PBS in a different way now. 

We also wanted to reclaim the pioneering, innovative spirit that defined public broadcasting at its inception. It’s a delicate balance to respect the legacy of an organization like PBS, while at the same time redefining it in fresh ways. In order to do so, we had to identify what made us truly distinct to identify our core DNA. Extensive research led us to understand that, at its essence, PBS exists to help people broaden their horizons, opening them up to exploring new worlds of possibility. We created some Emmy award-winning brand value television spots around this theme, and I’m extremely proud of how our marketing and communications team has continued to grow and shape our brand in partnership with local stations across the country. How has the advent of digital media changed your job and the brand itself?
When I got here, our digital strategy was in its infancy. PBS was an early adopter of the Internet, but television was still the dominant way we reached Americans. Now digital media has exploded and become an integral part of our strategy. As a brand, we take pride in our legacy of being pioneers, and part of that includes embracing the digital realm as an opportunity to connect with new audiences. Now PBS is available to more Americans than ever before because our content is accessible across multiple platforms, so people can experience PBS anywhere and anytime. Online, is No. 1 in streaming video, and Newsweek named it as one of the 50 top Web sites of the year. And we won a Webby award—the Internet’s version of the Oscar’s—for our iPad app.

In the Kids space, we don’t even talk to producers about new show concepts unless they have a plan for developing a complete suite of transmedia products. This includes immersive and interactive Web games, mobile apps, classroom white board applications, and more. This is not just a matter of branding. Studies show that children can make more educational gains if they are exposed to new concepts across different platforms.

We have also expanded our marketing and communications efforts to make digital and social media an integral part of our overall strategy. For Downton Abbey’s second season, we used multiple media platforms, including Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Get Glue to engage fans and drive discussion. We premiered the first 10 minutes of Downton Abbey Season Two on the PBS and Masterpiece Facebook pages, and crowdsourced questions from followers to ask cast members at panel discussions and interviews. We recruited bloggers and other celebrities to moderate Twitter chats during broadcasts each Sunday.

Overall social-media activity around the premiere broadcast episode of Downton Abbey, Season Two, as measured by buzz-monitoring services like SocialGuide, said it was the “#3 most social broadcast show” on Jan. 8, 2012, generating nearly 25,000 comments of all kinds across the Internet. We were honored to be named one of the top five nonprofits using social media, according to Craigconnects.

Next Page: The impact of mobile apps on audience development.  

[pagebreak] What is your perspective on the impact of mobile apps on audience development?
Mobile is an increasingly important platform for us to reach our audiences and fulfill our mission to provide all Americans with content that broadens their horizons. Last month, viewers watched more than 150 million videos across all of PBS’s Web and mobile platforms. Nearly two-thirds of these streams were delivered on a mobile platform. In total, PBS’s general audience and kids apps for iPad and iPhone have been downloaded 5.1 million times. Mobile is especially important in our work for children. More than 90 million videos were streamed on the PBS Kids Video for iPhone or iPad app in August.

What’s most exciting about all of our online work is that we are able to reach a new and different audience. The majority of’s online viewers are between the ages of 18 to 49, which is much younger than our broadcast audience. In fact, thanks to our work across platforms, PBS programming is now more accessible to Americans than at any time in public broadcasting’s history. Is PBS planning to expand its monetization to sponsorships?
The funding model for PBS has consistently included a mix of revenue streams. About 15 percent of our budget is received from the federal government; the balance comes from private sources, such as membership assessments from stations, program sponsorship, and ancillary sales (such as DVDs). When it comes to PBS Kids Next Generation Media, how have you worked to define the role PBS plays in the changing digital children’s media landscape? What was the thinking behind starting this, and what has the result been?
Seven years ago we decided to revitalize our children’s service. Our goal was to meet the evolving needs of the next generation of children. As a part of that effort, we convened a group of experts—The Next Generation Media Advisory Group—to help shape the future of PBS Kids. Over the next five years, we launched an abundance of popular new programs. . .all of which are part of our “whole child curriculum,” an educational ecosystem designed to meet the needs of children today.

At PBS Kids, we believe that we can't focus on just one element of early learning—that in order to best serve children, we must provide exploratory opportunities across all possible areas, whether they are cognitive, social-emotional, physical, or, like most of our series, a seamless, integrated combination. All of our content—from our PBS Kids TV lineup to our award-winning online games and mobile apps—is tied back to this philosophy. We have built out suites of content, apps, online, and whiteboard games for the classroom that reinforce these objectives so that we can reach and teach children in multiple ways and provide learning opportunities anytime and anywhere. Can you give an example of this?
We’ve just launched Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, a new show that builds on the legacy of Mister Rogers to teach a new generation of kids the kinds of social-emotional skills they’ll need to succeed in school and in life. By helping the youngest children find a constructive way to manage their feelings, Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood is giving children tools that are relevant not only for preschool and kindergarten, but for the rest of their lives. Has Mitt Romney’s comments about PBS and Big Bird changed any marketing strategy going forward or affected marketing in any way?
There has certainly been an outpouring of support for PBS after the first presidential debate. This is not the first, or the last, challenge to our system’s federal funding. Polls show that over two-thirds of all voters oppose the elimination of government funding for public broadcasting. Research also shows that Americans consider PBS the most trusted institution and the second most valuable use of public funds, behind only national defense. We hope that we can build on that support to ensure that PBS and local PBS member stations can continue to fulfill our mission to educate, engage, and inspire all Americans.