Modernizing a media icon with PBS
Modernizing a media icon with PBS
Ira Rubenstein is a media industry pioneer. While at Sony, he established Movielink, a first-of-its-kind on-demand service. At Marvel, he launched the first comic book app, earning the approval of Steve Jobs himself. And now, as Chief Digital and Marketing Officer at PBS, Rubenstein is leading the heritage brand’s digital revolution. In this episode, he discusses the daunting task of spearheading a brand transformation and the importance of trust and integrity in today’s media and arts landscape.
Heather: Today, I’m speaking with Ira Rubenstein, chief digital and marketing officer at the beloved and iconic PBS. Over the last two decades. Ira has had a front-row seat into the gradual, and now breakneck, speed with which digital has reshaped the media entertainment and content landscape. He has spearheaded many firsts in the industry. And over the last few years, he and his team have worked incredibly hard to ensure that PBS—a network with such a vibrant past—maintains its relevance and continues to provide people of every age and interest with a classroom, a passport and a stage for the arts.
Hi Ira. How’s it going today?
Ira: Going great. Thank you so much for having me.
Heather: So let’s talk about firsts. At Sony, you establish Movie Link, which some of our younger listeners may not know about—but, of course, I do. It was the first time you could buy movie tickets online. At Marvel, you catalyzed 200% revenue growth for this new thing called digital media. At 20th Century Fox, you led groundbreaking cross-media partnerships, like the first X-Men and mafia wars. And now, at PBS, you’re leading a digital evolution. Among all of your firsts, which are you most proud of—and which one was the most challenging to achieve?
Ira: Wow, that’s a really good question. You know, I think the most challenging and the one I’m most proud of would have to be the launch of the Marvel digital Comic Book! app on the iPad. And I’m proud of that, because we had a very small team at Marvel. Disney had just bought us, and I was in a meeting with Bob Iger and the heads of ESPN and ABC. Bob said, “I’ve seen the iPad, it’s going to change everything, we have to be there at launch.” And this is, I think, two months before the thing was going to launch. And if you remember, because you’re closer to my age, when Steve jobs announced it, everyone was going: What the heck? Who wants a tablet? Why, why would anyone want this?
Heather: What’s it for?
Ira: Right. And so all I knew was, you know, the head of Disney is telling me that we’ve got to figure it out. So, working with a company called Comixology that had an app, I quickly negotiated the deal for their backend and then, working with my team—one woman by the name of Shauna Baruth, who was extraordinarily talented—we had an iPad locked in a windowless room at Marvel, chained to a desk. We did the whole front end all over and recreated the front end in less than, I don’t know, a month. Then it went to Apple, and Bob told me this story later that Steve Jobs looked at all of them and selected the Marvel digital comic app because he really liked the interface. He thought it was a really good interface for comics and to show off the iPad. So that went out to the press on the original iPads as one of the first apps to highlight what the iPad could do. So for me, as a product person, a marketing person, it felt validating having Steve jobs, the God of interface and UX, to select something that you worked on.
Heather: That’s incredible. What was the response?
Ira: It took off. This whole new industry of digital comic books took off. And it was really for a lot of people who wouldn’t go to a comic book store to buy books but still liked them. They could buy these books; and then, in fact, the popularity of digital comic books raised the physical book sales. So it actually lifted both businesses.
Heather: That’s amazing. I’m glad you brought up Marvel. I wanted to go back a little bit. So it’s April, 2008, you just started at Marvel the next month, the first Iron Man premiered, and then, later that year, the financial world collapsed. What was that time like? And what’s an experience from that period that changed how you see the world?
Ira: Oh gosh. You know, I came to Marvel to help them launch digital in, I’d say, a substantial way. When I got there, “marvel.com” wasn’t even printed on the comic books, and the website was kind of a mess. There were broken links, missing images, so it really was a complete transformation and rebuilding everything. And, it was a lot of fun. Again, you’re dealing with iconic brands, you’re dealing with passionate fans, Comicons were always wild…I felt like I was at the center of a hurricane,
Heather: But in a good way, maybe.
Ira: In a good way, but it was just a lot of fun.
Heather: In a way. entertainment became this refuge. Lots of people were kind of rebuilding their lives, there was a lot of uncertainty. and, of course, everything comes in waves. And over the course of PBS history—I’m sure we can talk about other moments—but what impact did the financial crisis at that time have on what you were doing?
Ira: Well, it’s interesting. You know, during periods of recession or financial crisis, people seek entertainment. And this goes all the way back to the Great Depression. So the impact was probably not as big as if, say, I was in real estate or Wall Street. Having moved to New York for the job, it was interesting to be in that city at that time. You could feel it in the city, that people were struggling; and, of course, that affects you as a human being.
Heather: Yeah. So, I want to move on to a topic that’s near and dear to our hearts at Lippincott, because we got to partner with you on this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to evolve the PBS brand expression and how it shows up in the world. At the time, you referred to PBS as a flip-phone brand in an iPhone world. Talk about the impetus for the rebrand and why you’ve said it was one of the most nerve-wracking things you’ve ever done.
Ira: In all honesty, after the Comic Book! app, I would say that brand refresh is probably high up there on one of the things I’m most proud of in my career. I was looking at how our brand resonated out there. One of the things that I first noticed when I got to PBS and was being introduced to different general managers from our local stations was how few of them had PBS on their business card. It just struck me as odd that here you’re dealing with this icon— you know it, and I know it and everyone you talk to knows it—and here’s one of your member stations and they’re not featuring it, because they couldn’t. They had no tools. So that, kind of struck me.
Then what happens in digital, especially in media, is that your content is going everywhere, onto all these different platforms, but your brand’s not always traveling with it. So in order to have the brand travel with it, you’ve got to have a strong brand package, know who you are and how the brand is going to live on all the different platforms. So in our case, it was how is it going to live with our stations who are their own brands in their community—some going back 60 years, even prior to the formation of PBS, which is slightly older than 50 years.
So that was the challenge, and I knew I had to do something. Nothing had been done with the brand package for over a decade. And, you know, here we are with all these platforms, and it was just showing up everywhere. So I started thinking about that—and I love telling this story, because it’s true. I was reading some article, I can’t remember where, about Lippincott and about what you had done for Starbucks and Delta and Southwest airlines—and talking about iconic brands and how you had done a refresh that embraced the true core of the brand without losing what it was. I said, I’ve got meet these people, and so I cold called you.
Heather: Yeah, we always talk about the true in the new—authenticity and who you are at your core and carrying that forward in a way that feels vibrant and modern and dynamic and digital first. I love that story—and not just because I helped market the Lippincott brand.
So you cold called us. That never happens! I’m the one always cold calling our clients.
Ira: Yeah, I cold called you, and it’s been a fantastic partnership since. I remember the brand review—we call it the wall of horror. We had a big conference room at PBS and had these—oh, they must be six- or eight-foot tall—boards, about six of them; we laid out all the different ways the PBS brand was being used and abused in the system, in PBS, in our building itself. And there was just no real brand ownership or guidance happening at all. So we had to really build those kinds of muscles in the building, to build that for the system and know that we have guidelines and an architecture that we stick to.
Heather: It’s pretty illuminating when you see something like that. We experience that a lot with our clients, because the brand just lives and breathes on its own in so many different places. People are creators today, and everything has, you know, its own brand and it’s used in different ways. And I think, they’re figuring out how to balance the consistency that the best brands have but with a little bit of flexibility across the channels. We’ll often talk to clients who say that it’s difficult to sell the benefit that is going to come from investing in a rebrand, because it’s not just the rebrand; it’s then implementing it across everything. Was that a hard sell for you? Any advice you would give to those that are in that position and trying to make the case for change?
Ira: Wow. I would say I’m pretty fortunate that I work for Paula Kerger, the CEO of PBS. Paula is. I think. one of the best. She truly empowers her team. And the selling through was really about working with an outside foundation to help us raise funds to cover the costs. But, in explaining the challenges of us trying to move to this digital world, we needed a brand package to work. It just made sense. It made natural sense. I think the harder part, honestly, has been selling through to our stations the value of adopting the PBS brand as part of their own brand. We were able to show the stations the benefit. And right now, we are sitting at over 80% of the system that has adopted the brand package and working with the PBS name, and it’s still growing. The original goal—which, I would say, the people who have been in the PBS system for awhile thought was aggressive—was 50%. So it just really showed the job that everyone did in making something that could work for all of our different licensees.
And maybe I should take a moment to explain this to people, because I don’t think people understand what’s going on when they think of PBS. They think of their local station, which is great. Local stations, depending on your market, have lots of different makeups. Some are joint licensees with NPR, but we are not the same; NPR is a separate organization. Some are owned by a local university. Some are owned by the state—Georgia Public Broadcasting is an example. Some are just independent nonprofit entities, like WNET in New York. So you have to have a brand package that could work across all these kinds of entities. I probably believe that we were probably the hardest project Lippincott ever took on,
Heather: Well, that’s quite an accolade, because we’ve done some really complex projects and solved some gnarly problems. But I hear you, because at the root of it is that level of influence and understanding. What it’s going to take for those affiliates and partners and stations to see the value in it? And, hopefully, the work spoke for itself. What surprised you most about working with Lippincott?
Ira: There was a passion there and also a fear that Lippincott felt—the same fear that I felt—that they also didn’t want to be known as the company that destroyed the cultural icon of America that everyone feels, as they should, that they own their local station, that they’re a member and it’s part of them. And everyone reflects back to their childhood and whether it’s watching Sesame Street or Zoom or Mr. Rogers. There’s a nostalgia tied to that. So I don’t think there was anything that surprised me. I think what I really appreciated was how much care Lippincott put into it, how much time Connie and the team put into it. They came to our annual meeting, they met the stations, they presented with stations, tThey presented to our board…it was just ongoing. And so it was just exciting, and I think the work speaks for itself.
Heather: One of the things I remember coming out of some of the research was this idea that PBS is such a formative force for young kids, as we know, and then, as well, kind of an older demographic; but in the middle, there was a little bit of space and opportunity to continue to capture that kind of attention that, you know, you were seeing at both ends of the spectrum. How do you feel about whether the work helped close that gap? And what are you continuing to do to kind of ensure that relevance across the age spectrum?
Ira: Well, I think it’s a combination of making sure we have content that meets that 20-, 30-, 40-year old demographic. But then, especially today, it’s about being on the platforms where they’re at. So the work that Lippincott’s been helping us with PBS digital studios, which is our work on YouTube…or, we have 30 million subscribers and lots of shows, and it’s really at the heart of what you would expect public media to be like on YouTube, fitting that format and the length of content that you would expect there…so it’s really, then, about our apps being on places like YouTube, getting onto places like Pluto TV or being on those fast channels. And in those cases, it’s taking the brand package; bringing local station identification, if possible, but, if not, having that strong PBS brand; and then the stations who have rebranded can surf off of that, because PBS brand is with their brand. The really important point about the brand refresh was to tie stations more strongly to PBS. And the reason is a business model for public media. In a digital world, where we’re distributing content on a centralized platform and not on their broadcast signal, how does the viewer connect their local station to the PBS content if it’s not local content? That’s what this whole brand refresh had to tie together.
Heather: I’ve read that American Family was the precursor to The Kardashians and Real World; and The French Chef came before Food Network; and This Old House, before HGTV. What are the conversations that you and your team are having about what’s required to keep up, to stay ahead and to continue to blaze new paths—especially now, where it’s just this explosion of content from everywhere?
Ira: Yeah. We are definitely living in peak production. My friends who work in production are all very, very busy. You know, we have to continue to be the place for diverse voices. We have to continue to be the place that takes risks and has content that might not find a home elsewhere. I think we do that. I think we could do a better job, but we continue to push ahead.
I’m proud of all of our news and public affairs content, especially in today’s world where opinion news count as news. And I’m not going to give a judgment about whether it is or isn’t; but when you look at the PBS News Hour, when you look at Frontline, when you look at Washington Week, and even Firing Line, we have editorial standards at PBS. In today’s world, it’s so important to have a balanced news source that is presenting both sides of a story—presenting the facts and letting viewers decide.
Heather: Trust and transparency, that’s such a huge issue. And I’ve read PBS is consistently #1 among sources that people trust. You can’t manufacture that. That’s something that builds over time. So, that’s pretty incredible.
Ira: And it’s really important to our brand, but it also goes to our stations whom I have to, you know, credit for helping to maintain that trust. You have to remember, we have stations in every market in America. And so PBS and the content for that local station have to work no matter where you are on the political spectrum. And I think it does, because we don’t take a side.
Heather: It’s a really an interesting area that we’ve continued to explore—the idea of brands not being able to sit on the sidelines or have a perspective. Do you get pressure to speak out? To take a side, take a stand? How do you navigate that?
Ira: I think we do get pressure, as everyone does. And whether it’s from inside your building or from viewers, what we do is to rely on the programming and let our work do our speaking for us. We don’t have to come out and say this or that; we say look at the work, look at the stories we’re sharing, look at the stories we’re telling. Actions always speak louder than words.
Heather: Amen. So, shifting a little bit to talent. What advice do you have for others who are leading teams of people with diverse backgrounds, especially now that working norms and cultural expectations are changing. This, to me, is the thing that I think has become among the hardest. It’s like the work—but behind the work is the talent, and the team and keeping them motivated and inspired. So any advice, any learning, especially over the last year and a half?
Ira: Wow, it’s hard right now. I think it’s hard for everyone at this moment in time. Setting aside the pandemic, I’ve always felt that my success is due to the success of the people who work on my team. I’ve named a few of them here today, because I always feel I’m very fortunate to work with some very, very talented people. I always feel like my job is to help enable them to be able to do their job. So, you know, my advice to anyone is make sure you’re very clear what your vision is and what people need to be focused on. I’m also a big believer in trying to make decisions quickly. Yes or no, make a decision— because making no decision is always the wrong decision. And I try to share that vision with my whole group as often as I can.
Heather: Throughout your career, you’ve negotiated some pretty amazing partnerships: Apple, Hulu, Netflix, on and on. Is there a dream partnership that you have today? And if so, what might that be?
Ira: Well, look, what I would say is this. We have a very good partnership with YouTube right now, and YouTube TV was the first to support us in our live-streaming efforts. So that was when we were able to bring live linear streaming of local PBS stations to what they call virtual MPDs. So that was important. Actually, that was something I wanted to do on day one, seven years ago, for PBS. So YouTube TV…when I walked in and spoke to Kelly Merryman (someone I worked with at Sony Pictures—she recently just left but is a huge supporter of public media), I said to her, “We want to get on YouTube TV.” This was before they launched. But here’s the challenge: There isn’t just one PBS station in the market—there could be three, and that’s not how any other broadcaster works. So if you’re in the Washington DC area, you have Howard University, you have WEDAWashington and you have Maryland Public Television (MPT). So we had to have YouTube TV do work to enable it to have three stations in their market—where two might have the same show on at the same time. So it was complicated, but I give all the credit to YouTube’s Susan Wojcicki. They care about public media, and it’s an important partnership for them. We do a lot with YouTube, as well. I hope we could do even more with them, because I do believe that—talking about reaching that missing middle—they could play a key part in that. I have a wish list of things that they know I would like for them to do. If they hear this, they’ll be laughing right now; because every time I see them, I say it. So that’s an important partnership. And I also give credit to AWS which has helped us on the backend, on our infrastructure and delivering these streams as efficiently as possible because we are public media.
Heather: As you said, there’s such passion for the PBS brand for local media, public media. What do you say to the naysayers, who say “old school” and not going to be needed? That there’s not going to be a place for it in the world going forward. What do you say to them?
Ira: Oh, I think they’re wrong. Completely wrong. I’ll tell you why. I truly believe that our local stations will be the last locally-owned and -managed media stations in America. And I say that because I look at the network TV stations and your local ABC or NBC affiliates and don’t understand that business model going forward in a world where you have Disney+ or Hulu or Peacock or Paramount+. Why does there need to be that CBS station? And I think they’re in trouble because in our world, our local stations matter, as I said at the beginning. They mean something to the community. And because we are locally supported by our viewers, the business model consistently sustains— whereas the affiliate is trying to compete with advertising dollars. I also do our media, and no one’s buying shows. You buy demographics, psychographics.
That’s why this brand refresh was so important, because the strength of the PBS national brand can help the local stations carry through. And that trust that comes with the brand and all the other value that comes with it is just so important.
Heather: Well, Ira, it was so great to spend some time with you. You’re a rock star, and we’ll be looking forward to seeing what’s next. Thank you so much.
Ira: Oh, that very nice of you to say. Thank you.
I'm also a big believer in trying to make decisions quickly. Yes or no, make a decision because making no decision is always the wrong decision.