It’s been 49 years since The Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) first began to educate, inform, and entertain people in America and abroad with free access television. But it’s only over the last few years that PBS video content grew into some of the most-watched across the web.
In 2019, PBS’s digital footprint remains one of the media landscape’s most impressive by the numbers. Across more than 57 social accounts, PBS video has pulled in 1.4B views on YouTube and 404M views on Facebook in the past 365 days.
In this post, we take a look at some of the most viral videos across PBS’s channels over the last year, and what they say about the organization’s enduring influence and overall video strategy.
The Growth of PBS Video Content
Since 1970, PBS has been a fixture in the media world. Over the years, the non-profit has produced numerous classics: newscasts like Frontline, children’s shows like Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, educational content like Bob Ross’s The Joy of Painting and Antiques Roadshow, and entertainment like Masterpiece Theater and Sherlock.
However, “America’s most trusted institution,” as it has been voted for the past 15 years, was not without its growing pains as it struggled to adapt to a digital media landscape along with its for-profit peers.
But by 2013, Digiday reports, the organization’s online imprint PBS Digital Studios had risen from 2 million monthly views to a quarter-billion; PBS.org traffic had surpassed that of CBS, NBC, and ABC; and thanks to viral videos (its autotune remix of Mr. Rogers has over 13M views today) had racked up 13 Webby awards.
Today, PBS video content routinely pulls in over a billion views across all of the media company’s social video channels. The organization’s most-watched clips from the last year help shed light on this success — let’s check them out.
PBS Digital Studios: “Why Megalodon (Definitely) Went Extinct”
One of PBS’s most successful online ventures, PBS Digital Studios functions as the umbrella organization for 29 different channels, including popular accounts like CrashCourse and It’s Okay To Be Smart.
The most popular PBS video across all these channels is from PBS Eons, a YouTube channel dedicated to the history of Earth. The clip, which explains why the super-shark Megalodon went extinct millions of years ago, boasts 6.7M views and 133K engagements:
These numbers are even more impressive considering this video is just over 11 minutes long!
Clearly, PBS audiences are more than happy to watch longer digital content, much like they were willing to turn on the TV to watch linear PBS shows over the last several decades. The organization continues to prove itself as a trustworthy institution via its digital offerings.
PBS Kids Videos: “Taking Hairstyles To New Heights”
Adults know PBS for its classic kids’ programming, like Reading Rainbow and Arthur. However, the non-profit continues to innovate and experiment with new shows for kids.
One of the latest of these is Pinkalicious and Peteriffic, an American-Irish educational show launched in 2018.
This 3:23 YouTube clip is longer than most online videos for kids, but still boasts 9M views. It introduces Pinkalicious and her family while showing viewers what the world looks like through her creative, artistic point of view.
Most of the video views occurred after 30 days had already passed, showing a long-tail growth pattern as the video was increasingly discovered. Basically, the show doesn’t have name recognition (at least, not yet), but these PBS Kids videos are giving it space to find an audience.
It’s an indicator that the organization doesn’t rely on its previous successes, but constantly innovates to offer the next hit educational show for kids.
PBS NewsHour: “Why you shouldn’t recycle plastic bags at home”
Normally, PBS NewsHour focuses on current events with a particular emphasis on political news.
However, this PBS NewsHour video about recycling trounces all of them by focuses on an educational topic that has viewers commenting “I had no idea!”
This 2:26 Facebook video has 11.5M views, most of which occurred in the first week after it was posted. Like the PBS Digital Studios video, it has a high engagement factor, with 240K total reactions.
It’s a prime example of “news you can use,” merging education (what does happen to our plastic bags?) with an almost DIY/home improvement angle on how to reuse and recycle.
Nature | PBS: “Meet the Deadliest Cat on the Planet”
Animals are one of the most reliable ingredients for a popular online video, and the formula doesn’t differ when it comes to PBS.
This PBS video zeroed in on the internet’s favorite animal, the cat, to become Nature | PBS’s most popular video within the past 365 days.
With 5.5M views, this 1-minute video owes its engagement to its brevity and humor. Featuring an apex predator that looks more like a chubby, pampered housecat, this video captures both the cuteness and strangeness of Africa’s tiniest wildcat.
The Gyra may be an exotic species, but it also uncannily resembles the popular pet so many PBS viewers have at home. Snugly in the “Animals and Pets” category, this clip focuses not just on a wild animal itself, but its resemblance to a far more familiar feline.
This strategy — making the audience a part of the story — is just one way PBS draws in millions of views each year.
Curious to learn more about how media companies earn billions of views a year?