After missing deadline, YouTube promises PBS will launch later this year

Most YouTube TV subscribers across the country were supposed to get access to their local PBS station and the national PBS Kids feed on Monday.

But setbacks at some smaller member stations prompted YouTube and PBS to delay the rolling out of local PBS member stations until later this year.

PBS and YouTube announced a deal in July that promised local member stations would soon be added to the YouTube TV lineup sometime in 2019. Though neither side committed to a date — and neither have officially announced one — the trade publication Cord Cutter News reported the launch date would be November 4.

PBS, a not-for-profit distributor of television programming, doesn’t operate like a traditional TV network. It has no affiliates nor does it have a flagship station. Instead, PBS distributes programming to local television stations on a membership basis.

Many of the stations are themselves non-profit and are funded through donations from ordinary members of the public, through grants and by the government-funded Corporation for Public Broadcasting. In addition to PBS programming, local stations also acquire shows from PBS competitors, including American Public Television (APT), Link TV, WestLink and Deutsche Welle.

Shortly after the deal was announced, it emerged that some local member stations were having difficulty budgeting money to purchase equipment needed to stream their signal to YouTube TV.  In August, the website Current.org said PBS was exploring ways to help smaller member stations acquire the gear to stream to YouTube TV, which can cost as much as $18,000 a year to operate.

In addition to the equipment cost, some member stations have had to work through complicated licensing arrangements where non-PBS programs are cleared for air but not for streaming over the Internet.

Last month, PBS offered some stations the compromise of running the distributor’s national satellite feed — which consists of only PBS shows — while inserting local station identification during top-of-the-hour breaks, according to one source familiar with the arrangement. But stations complained that compromise wasn’t enough because the national feed would also run in place of local pledge drives when member stations raise much-needed operating funds throughout the year, the source said.

The source, who asked only to be identified as a manager at a small-market member station, complained that PBS was “burdening” local stations with high over-the-air viewership by wrapping them up in a deal to stream on YouTube TV that some don’t want.

“We didn’t ask for this,” the source said. “But we’ve been warned [by PBS] that we’ll eventually have to shoulder the entire cost of operating [the online stream] if we want to exist as a member station.”

That same plan was outlined by Current.org, who said the “fine print on the contract” between member stations and PBS over the broadcaster’s carriage on YouTube TV requires stations who pay a subsidized operating rate of around $500 a month to send its stream to YouTube will have to shoulder the full $1,500 a month operating cost within two to three years.

But that’s only if a member station chooses to uplink its signal to YouTube TV via a third party streaming service. The distributor is also readying a solution where stations can send its broadcast signal to PBS — either through the web or by another means, like a satellite uplink — who will then send the signal to YouTube TV, “a solution that eliminates the fee requirement,” Current.org reported.

The deal is also saddling PBS competitors with additional labor and expenses associated with getting member stations ready for YouTube TV. According to Current.org, PBS competitor APT spent more than 2,000 staff hours “and tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees” to get clearances to more than 1,100 shows distributed by APT, according Cynthia Fenneman, the non-profit’s chief executive officer.

“Shows may have more than one producer, or sometimes a producer is in England, or Canada, or is repped by someone else,” Fenneman said, illustrating the complexity of clearing the shows it offers for air.

Whenever PBS does roll out on YouTube TV, if a local station opts for their feed but doesn’t have programming rights cleared, YouTube TV will black out the station for the duration of the program — a tactic it currently uses for some local commercial stations and a small handful of cable networks that have complicated deals with niche program licensors.

Though some smaller PBS member stations have promised a rollout between now and the end of December, there still is no formal launch date.

YouTube TV is a supplementary over-the-top pay TV service operated by Google, which is owned by Alphabet Inc.

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