Fast Forward Awards 2021: Andrea Downing — Working in a Multi-Platform World

Andrea Downing was working in a multi-platform world long before the pandemic — and before “multi-platform” became the new paradigm in home entertainment.

The president of PBS Distribution (promoted March 11 from co-president) has been juggling content and windows for years, picking and choosing the right platform for the right product to maximize revenue to support public television and PBS member stations.

Downing notes that all net income from PBS Distribution supports the public television system and its  mission “to amplify diverse stories, foster dialog, encourage creativity and spark curiosity in its viewers.”

“While PBS Distribution is one part of a much larger system of contributors,” she says, “our ability to collapse windows over the years in response to consumer behavior has been incredibly beneficial.”

Today, most PBS programs are released on all three home entertainment platforms: Blu-ray Disc and DVD, transactional VOD, and streaming — often on, or near, the same day.

Even celebrity documentarian Ken Burns’ 18-hour documentary on the Vietnam War, a big hit on Blu-ray Disc and DVD, was made available at the same time for digital rental and purchase and, six months after its broadcast date, was licensed to Netflix for streaming.

Conversely, the historical drama “Jamestown,” from Carnival Films helmer Gareth Neame, launched on the PBS Masterpiece Prime Video Channel and later expanded to DVD. And “The Great British Baking Show” was licensed to Netflix while also topping the TVOD charts.

“We release product simultaneously across platforms, in most cases,” says Downing, this year’s recipient of Media Play News’ Fast Forward Award. “We think it makes sense because it really gives consumers a choice about how they want to enjoy our content.

“So, for example, Hemingway, broadcasting in April, will then go to Blu-ray Disc and DVD for those who want to own it. It will also go to electronic sellthrough for those consumers who are building digital libraries of collectible content, as well as to our PBS Documentaries streaming channel for those who just want to pay $4.99 a month and watch whatever, whenever they want. At the same time it will be available on the PBS Video app for a limited window before moving into PBS Passport — a member benefit.”

Downing notes that PBS broadcast and streaming on the PBS apps “is our theatrical — it’s our first window.”

“We typically release physical goods, TVOD and on our SVOD streaming channels immediately after broadcast when awareness is high,” she says.

Releasing programs on all three platforms, she maintains, makes sense “because we go where the consumer goes — and lately that’s pretty much everywhere — and our work expands the reach of our stations’ content to new audiences.”

Following the consumer is always smart business, but Downing’s advantage over studio marketers is that every commercial after-market distribution channel falls under her purview. A 25-year industry veteran, she’s being honored with Media Play News’ fourth annual Fast Forward Award for her broad and groundbreaking role at PBS Distribution, where multi-platform releasing has long been the order of the day.

(L-R): HBO’s Sofia Chang, PBS Distribution’s Andrea Downing, and former New Line Home Video president Stephen Einhorn.

She has grown PBS Distribution from a start-up focused on physical products to a global distribution company of public media content around the world. Her focus on adapting to the media landscape has led to multiple subscription streaming channels — PBS Masterpiece (United States and Canada), PBS Kids, PBS Living, PBS Documentaries and PBS America (U.K.). In addition to DVD and Blu-ray Disc, she spearheaded the company’s move into transactional video-on-demand, subscription video-on-demand and theatrical releasing. Under her leadership, PBS Distribution’s educational, non-theatrical, in-flight, and international program sales and co-productions businesses have thrived. Additionally, the portfolio includes a commercial linear channel in the United Kingdom — PBS America — and a PBS Kids-branded channel in Africa.

Most recently, PBS Distribution has entered the AVOD space. The company just licensed some catalog content to Pluto, Tubi and Roku, and “we’re also doing some experimentation internationally with kids product Kidoodle,” Downing says.

“It was a natural progression for us to have all aspects of home entertainment under one roof,” she says. “We started with physical goods, transitioned into transactional digital and then into streaming. Along the way we have organized our structure to ensure that we have one centralized team that provides transparency across all platforms and departments. While that is an ongoing operational effort, it allows us to adapt as we anticipate where the market is headed. It really serves us well.”

When PBS Distribution launched in 2009 as a joint venture between PBS and GBH, 90% of revenue came from DVD. Today, Downing says, “roughly 10% of our business is from physical goods, with SVOD channels being our largest and fastest-growing business.”

Now in its 12th year, PBS Distribution is one of the largest independent content distributors, with upwards of 400 releases and 1,500 individual episodes each year.

“We have a really close relationship with our parent companies,” she says, “and we jointly work to ensure that we change and grow together to benefit the entire public television ecosystem.”

Aside from her role as president of PBS Distribution, Downing is actively involved in DEG: The Digital Entertainment Group, speaking at seminars and webinars, mentoring women in the industry, and is on the steering committee for the D2C Alliance.

(L-R): At the DEG’s November 2017 Hedy Lamarr Awards, the DEG’s Amy Jo Smith; Anthony Loder, son of Hedy Lamarr; honoree Geena Davis; Adam Haggiag, producer of ‘Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story’; and PBS’s Andrea Downing.

“Andrea’s leadership has been invaluable to DEG’s Board of Directors, to our D2C Alliance and to the Canon Club,” says Amy Jo Smith, the DEG’s president and CEO. “The fact that she’s involved with all three shows how generously she shares her time and her knowledge with a wide swath of our community. I’ve observed over many years the way that Andrea truly cares about both the products and the people she works with at PBS Distribution. She has a vision for the future, and she understands the need to take some risks to grow a business, and she does what is needed in the smartest possible way.”

“Andrea is a natural leader dedicated to help cultivate and educate women in entertainment and technology. Her passion for the industry, and dedication to the DEG Canon Club and the Hedy Lamarr Awards for innovation and emerging leaders are exemplary,” adds Meri Hassouni, co-chair of the DEG Canon Club and VP of client relations at Giant Interactive.

Downing is a single mom who has raised two daughters, now in their late teens. The youngest, Riley, is a freshman at San Diego State University; the oldest, Cassandra, gave Downing her very first grandchild, a 1-year-old girl named Zoey.

“I’ve worked hard to find the right ‘fit’ for my family and my career,” Downing says, “and have learned that it’s important to recognize that the ‘right fit’ changes as we and our families evolve, and can sometimes change every day. For many years that meant long days during the week juggling both job and family, with a focus fully on family during the weekends. As my daughters became increasingly self-sufficient, it’s shifted to a greater focus on my job and hobbies.”

Downing says a key part of her success is “a willingness to work hard and deliver quality work.”

“I’m a ‘yes’ person,” she says. “I always said yes to any project or task. I learned a lot from that, and it gave me a lot of opportunities.”

“I also can’t stress enough the importance of learning how to manage up, across and down,” she adds. “Communication is key in this, and you can’t repeat the important things often enough.”

“And sometimes,” she says, “it’s just being in the right place at the right time.”

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Downing developed an entrepreneurial spirit early on during her childhood in Wisconsin. “When I was a kid, I lived near a golf course and I would pick up golf balls from the range,” Downing says. “For every five balls I picked up, I got a penny. But by picking up 250 balls, I earned enough money to buy a popsicle.”

Downing attended Michigan State University, and while her parents helped out with tuition, Downing says, “I knew I was going to have to work and save money to pay for most of it.”

During high school, she says, “I was already working each summer, having worked my way up from picking up golf balls to working in the Pro Shop, and even making custom golf clubs.”

Once she arrived in East Lansing, Mich., Downing said, she had no sooner moved into the dorm than she began looking for work.

“I was the ‘dish dog’ in the cafeteria, an affectionate term for the dish room supervisor, and eventually became a student supervisor,” she recalls. “It was not the most glamorous work, and I was usually covered in grease by the end of the shift.”

(L-R): Movies Anywhere’s Karin Gilford, Universal’s Hilary Hoffman, Downing, Fox’s Julia Howe, Sony’s Lexine Wong, Warner’s Jessica Schell, the DEG’s Amy Jo Smith, Universal’s Kathleen Gallagher and Sony’s Kim Overall in the ‘Media Play News’ 2019 Women in Home Entertainment section. (Photo by Eric Charbonneau/hair and makeup by Christian Anthony Bier and Erica Leslie Davidson)

She worked one summer as an intern for Speed Queen, a Raytheon company that made commercial washers and dryers, scheduling the semi-trucks to deliver the machines from the factory to customers.

Another summer, she recalls, “I worked three jobs and averaged about 80 hours a week to save enough money to go back to school in the fall. I worked the night shift from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. at the Jolly Green Giant plant in the QC (quality control) department. Each day the machines would pick corn and peas in the field, and trucks would bring the vegetables to the canning plant. I was responsible for counting the prickers and thistles in the vegetables. If there were too many in the batch, I would call the field and tell them to modify the settings on the machinery.

“After I left the plant in the morning, I would go home and sleep for about four hours before getting up to go to my second job at the golf course. You can imagine that it was a little surreal to go from the canning plant, where I would often be lying in gutters, clearing out food waste from machines, to the golf course, where I wore my preppy plaid shorts and my pink polo shirt.
“And when I wasn’t working at the golf course in the afternoons, I worked at a local pool as a lifeguard.”

After earning a bachelor’s degree in business in 1990, Downing moved back home.

“After I graduated, I didn’t have a job so I went home to live with my parents,” she said. “Every morning my mom made me get up and go to work with her. And — now I’m aging myself — she sat me down in an office with a typewriter and the classifieds and told me to apply for every job I could find. She did that every day until I found a job in a picture frame factory. I started out working the second shift on the shipping dock, but management started asking me to come in early to take care of other things, and I was soon promoted to master scheduler. This was a senior level position that was responsible for scheduling everything that was going to be produced on each machine each day. It was a constant battle to keep my schedule on track while the line supervisors were trying to meet their quotas. But it was also an important education in how to successfully juggle multiple stakeholders with varying agendas.”

Within a couple of years, Downing was ready for a new adventure. She packed up a U-Haul and moved to Washington, D.C., to be in a region with more of her peers. But moving to a region with little manufacturing forced her to start over.

Downing found temp work as a receptionist at an association in the capital and several months later took a regular gig managing a print shop. A few years later, Downing recalls, “A friend recommended me to someone at the Discovery Channel, which was still in its early growth years. At this point I was about five years out of college, and I’d had increasing responsibility in my jobs. But the position at the Discovery Channel was as an admin/coordinator, so it meant starting all over again.”

Still, Downing says, “I wanted to be in a bigger, more entrepreneurial organization so I accepted the position. I started out in the multimedia department, and this was when CD-ROMs were really taking off. The department was young — it was run like a startup — and I just did everything that I knew needed to be done. I moved from the coordinator position to operations, and then worked with the international team. I started a localization shop so we could translate the multimedia discs they sold around the world into multiple foreign languages. I eventually ran operations for Discovery’s Consumer Products business.

“When my boss moved to PBS to run their Ventures division, she called me about six months later and recruited me to join PBS as a vice president.”

Downing joined PBS in June 2000 as VP of home entertainment and partnerships, with responsibility for e-commerce, catalog, education, operations and creative services.

Shortly after joining PBS, Downing says, “I found that I was pregnant with my second daughter.”

(L-R): PBS’s Ira Rubenstein, John Suydam and Andrea Downing.

Fortunately, she said, the culture at PBS was such that she was afforded flexibility and plenty of support.

“Knowing how important that is for so many women, and men, in our workforce, I have focused on paying that forward in our culture at PBS Distribution,” Downing says. “One of my key takeaways in life is how important it is to make the time for those that mean so much to you, no matter what your career journey is — and to make sure your team knows that you want them to value time with their family, too.”

During her tenure at PBS, Downing says, she continued to grow her responsibilities. “When I began at PBS, I was managing about half of the home entertainment business,” she says. “Within a couple of years, I was responsible for the entire business. I also managed the licensing, merchandising, and interactive businesses, and began the evolution from physical goods to digital.

“Some of the most difficult things I had to do involved making changes to the team and how the business was run, like reducing our efforts in some areas and closing others down completely. It was particularly difficult having to let go of team members, even when it was the right decision for the business.”

In 2007, Downing says, David Bernstein at GBH in Boston “reached out to me and we started talking about how we might collaborate.”

“We decided to form a separate for-profit LLC to raise income for the public television system, creating a more robust distribution portfolio, a deeper content library, and greater efficiencies, all of which propelled us to grow — especially as the business began to transition from physical to digital,” she says.

Downing and Bernstein ran the business together as co-presidents. “We have different styles for managing and leading, but have complementary skill sets and we always agree on strategy,” Downing says.

After 12 years of leading PBS Distribution, Downing says, she continues to look for opportunities and face challenges.

“One of our biggest challenges is standing out in a crowded market when there are so many options for consumers,” she says. “The big companies are spending so much money on marketing with their launches that it is easy to get lost as a targeted service.”

(L-R): Sofia Chang, Andrea Downing, Kim Overall, Lexine Wong, Amy Jo Smith, Jessica Schell, Karin Gilford, Vicky Free And Julia Howe, 2018 ‘Media Play News’ Women in Home Entertainment honorees. (Photo by Eric Charbonneau/Makeup by Cathy Highland)

And yet there are plenty of opportunities, as well. “One of our biggest opportunities is being on the Prime Video platform, where we have a strong partnership and can take advantage of their significant reach,” Downing says. “Our SVOD channels are competitively priced and are unique enough that they are complementary to the general entertainment services. And, of course, there’s our content — we have great, quality content and an audience that knows and appreciates our programs.”

As for the future, Downing sees so much opportunity that she believes the best and smartest strategy is to remain nimble and flexible — and be ready to follow consumers down whichever path they choose.

“While the market has changed significantly over the last 10 years, it is still in its infancy,” she says. “Consumers are becoming much more comfortable, but it’s still so early it’s hard to predict what will happen long-term.

“So we will continue to navigate the changing dynamics of the market, test strategies and adapt as needed, and continue to position ourselves to be as resilient and successful as possible.”

Read a Q&A with Andrea Downing HERE

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