Documentary master and father of his own iPhoto slideshow effect, Ken Burns’ latest effort will debut first on the iPad and iPhone, starting Sept. 23. PBS will make the first episode of Prohibition, a three-part series covering the brief period in American history when it was illegal to sell or drink booze, available first through its official iOS apps.
Prohibition will then air on the PBS TV channel, and be live-streamed through its site on Oct. 2, 3 and 4. The second and third episodes will be available the day after each TV air date, and all will be viewable through Oct. 7, after which time the documentary series will make its way to PBS DVD and the iTunes store.
Part of the reason behind launching on iPhone, iPod touch and iPad first has to do with timing. Making the first episode available on Sept. 23 means that it will be able to ride the wave of anticipation for the return of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, the second season of which premieres on Sept. 25. Boardwalk Empire is a fictionalized account of a prohibition era gangster (played by Steve Buscemi) set in New Jersey. In a press release from PBS, Ken Burns noted that he and the rest of the creative team behind Prohibition “are huge fans of Boardwalk Empire,” and also said the first episode of the documentary will let people in on “what gave rise to prohibition,” providing them with a better contextual lens through which to view the HBO show.
PBS is also seeing lots of viewer engagement through its iOS apps. PBS SVP Jason Seiken pointed out that the network saw more than 52 million streaming views through the apps during last month alone. With numbers like that, it makes sense to treat the apps as a hook through which to lure in more broadcast viewers. Other networks like Fox are also experimenting with premiering shows on digital platforms, but it looks like PBS’ attempt has more to do with capitalizing specifically on the success of its iPhone and iPad success, and less to do with drumming up buzz for a show that has questionable chances of finding an audience.