Independent Lens on PBS Launch

December 3, 2015

In IEG, the main chunk of our development schedule is dedicated to supporting our local stations and their productions, but we love taking on external clients.

Our latest external client was ITVS’s Independent Lens, whose site we re-launched about a month ago. The result is a big, bold, immersive and responsive site built on WordPress.

Needless to say, we love the way it looks. But we’re also really proud of the way it works. Here are some highlights from our upgrade of Independent Lens.

Customized Admin

Over the last ten years or so, our team has become experts in creating customized WordPress instances. This includes creating admins that are specifically tailored to our client’s needs.

For Independent Lens, their production schedule centers around 20-25 films that air on PBS between October and June. Naturally, it made sense for us to build the admin around a core post type that aggregated all data associated with a film into one place (keeping in mind some lessons learned here). This includes p2p connections to other pieces of content (like clips and editorial).

Take Kumu Hina for example. Each pink box in the graphic below indicates an element managed by the admin.

  • Solid lines represent text that can be swapped
  • Dashed lines represent post-to-post connections
  • Dotted lines represent content that appears if activated in admin


Add Streaming Video

Prior to the overhaul, the most glaring omission from the Independent Lens website was streaming video. Independent Lens has this wonderful library of independent documentary – the best on TV, arguably – but none of it was playable directly on the site.

A mandate and top priority for the Independent Lens upgrade was to get this video content onto the site. As with all other PBS properties, the video assets already lived within the PBS video ecosystem (COVE). All we needed to do was create WordPress posts with PBS video IDs for all of these video assets – all 700 of them.

Fortunately, this wasn’t our first rodeo. For all of our projects, we work intimately with PBS products, none more so than with COVE. In order to generate all 700+ video posts, we simply had to deliver to one of our developers a full list of all of the COVE IDs in the Independent Lens channel (which PBS obligingly provided).

Once that CSV was in hand, it took under an hour for us to run our script and scrape all of the COVE metadata into WordPress – including featured images. So Independent Lens went from no streaming video to all streaming videos in less than an afternoon – something that might have taken days in a manual migration.

Low-stress Launch

This is a technique that we kind of backed into, but we loved it so much we thought we’d share.

First of all, we are fairly meticulous about planning out our production schedules. While there can be some mutually agreed-upon deviation from deadline (with client sign-off, etc.), we still treat launch as sacrosanct. Launch is launch.

But that doesn’t mean we need to be working on the site right up until the day before we publish. In fact, we definitely should not be. We need a week for QA and a week for optimization and performance testing (which can usually be the same week). Our programmers would love for us to be out of the admin and done with our tweaks by then. So why not give them what they want (and need)? Why not try to have the site completely ready for launch a full week out?

Fortunately for us, our client was in the unique position of not generating a lot of content in the weeks leading up to launch (reducing the need for cross-posting, etc.). So the week prior to launch, we asked them to take a look at the site and “set it and forget it”.

In order to prepare for launch, we had to perform a search and replace of all the links that referenced our development server and replace them with links that reference the production server. Doing this would effectively break the development site and render the admin inaccessible.

So what we decided to do was institute a blackout on the site: no tweaks after 4pm on the Friday before launch (which was the following Monday). At 4pm, we performed the search and replace, which broke the development server (as expected). So not only did we ask Independent Lens to not update the site after 4pm on Friday – they actually couldn’t.

Instead, we invited them to take the weekend off, to not stress about the site and to take a breather from the four months of hard work they put in. It’s a strange thing to ask: they can’t see the site, so they have to trust that it’s “there”.

In the final three days before launch, nobody touched the site; we basically coasted into launch.

By the time most of the Independent Lens team got in on Monday, the site was already live. In order to do this kind of low-stress launch, you have to 1) have ultimate faith in your team (which we do) and 2) cultivate the kind of intimate partnership that allows a client to trust your team as much as you do.

All in all, the Independent Lens relaunch was a great project with a great, collaborative client and we’re thrilled with the result.