Boxer KO’s naturalist in contest for May 14

Print More

Programmers at PBS and at a key group of stations put themselves on a collision course when they scheduled two different programs for the night of May 14, 2002.

PBS and producing station WGBH wanted a second chance to bring viewers to Evolution, an eight-hour series that had its first run last September, during the period of disrupted viewing after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. For the second release, tune-in ads targeted science educators, with hopes that they’d watch the series and adopt its multimedia curricular materials into their lesson plans.

Instead of repeating Darwin, top stations scheduled a bio on Ali. (Darwin photo: Corbis. Ali photo: Louisville Courier.)

PBS scheduled the second release to start May 14 and designated it for common carriage.

Major-market stations, meanwhile, bought a big-event program to attract lots of viewers during Nielsen’s May sweeps period. In an unprecedented collaboration, they shelled out big bucks to acquire the British-made “Muhammad Ali: Through the Eyes of the World” through American Public Television (APT), the Boston-based public TV program distributor.

Station programmers agreed to same-night primetime carriage on May 14 for the Ali bio, which combines rare archival footage of the charismatic boxer’s controversial career and uses a parade of celebrity commentators to tell Ali’s story. WTTW in Chicago produced promos for two-hour doc’s U.S. premiere. In addition to the top 20 markets, another 24 stations or state networks bought rights to “Ali,” according to APT President Cynthia Fenneman.

WGBH discovered the schedule conflict early this month, when its station relations office reported that most stations in the top 40 markets had dropped Evolution from their May 14 grids. “A significant number of stations were not running the first two hours [of Evolution] on the 14th at feedtime,” said Anne Zeiser, director of national strategic marketing for WGBH in Boston. Scheduling for the show at other times was “all over the place.”

Partisans for the two programs joined battle on public TV’s e-mail system after WGBH and PBS pressed stations for better timeslots for Evolution. A classic example of a serious mission-serving science documentary was competing for carriage with an engaging, celebrity-riddled story of an immensely popular and historic public figure.

Driven by a desire to reassert public TV’s relevance — a quality measured in large part by ratings — major-market stations last fall collectively asked APT to acquire high-profile programs for primetime. Stations “felt the need for strong programs that fit the mission of public TV and had potential for attracting audiences,” said Bob Olive, broadcast director for Georgia Public Television.

“The root of this acquisition stems from what many of the major-market programmers felt was a less than robust pipeline,” said Chad Davis, program manager for WGBH, which is airing “Ali” on its second channel, opposite Evolution. “What we were seeing from PBS caused us some concern.” Programmers told APT they would be willing to buy programs that were “more expensive than usual,” Davis said.

APT later presented six options and programmers responded enthusiastically to “Ali.” The price was two to three times greater than APT’s average syndication sale, Fenneman estimated.

“They needed significant buy-in from the large markets to have the purchasing power,” said Dan Soles, program director at WTTW in Chicago. The strength of the program justified the cost, he said.

Both Olive and Soles denied that stations had deliberately chosen “Ali” over Evolution on May 14. Many decided not to air Evolution at feed, or to schedule it another time, well before station programmers hatched their common-carriage plan for the Ali bio.

“It’s not that ’Ali’ bumped Evolution out,” Olive said. “That’s a misconception.”

Clouds in the Clear Blue Sky?

For some station execs, Evolution, a big-budget science doc that many thought represented public TV’s educational mission at its absolute best, fell victim to major stations’ yen for bigger ratings.

Despite the disarray among TV audiences in late September and the cancellation of tune-in ads that were inappropriate after 9-11, Evolution’s first play earned a 2.2 average household rating, according to Zeiser, and nearly 18 million viewers caught some part of its debut run.

“What was a surprise to everybody was that the audience was not far off at all,” said Richard Hutton, executive producer of the series for WGBH’s Nova unit, who is now v.p. of media development for Clear Blue Sky Productions, co-producer and funder of the series. “We lost all publicity for two weeks before air … I guess it led us to wonder what might have been.”

In comparison, PBS’s primetime household average dropped to 1.79 last fall, as terrorist threats drove viewers to hard-news channels (Current, Jan. 28).

Evolution was an important series for the entire public TV system, said Zeiser, because of “the subject matter and the extraordinary amount of educational outreach attached to it.” An interactive website, companion book, educators’ guides, online lessons and model teacher videos are among the materials created through the project, which was completely funded by Clear Blue Sky, a production company started by Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen. “We were looking to get this multimedia educational production and the educational tools out there. In light of Sept. 11, this was another important opportunity.”

To get more carriage for the second run, PBS and WGBH alerted station managers in a letter that public TV’s promising relationship with Clear Blue Sky was jeopardized by low carriage of the Evolution repeat.

“One of the unintended consequences of stations’ decisions not to carry the series at feed is the negative message it sends” to Clear Blue Sky, wrote PBS President Pat Mitchell and WGBH President Henry Becton in an April 9 letter. “This is most important because [Clear Blue Sky] has the potential to continue as a major production partner and funder of significant works in the future: Martin Scorsese’s The Blues and two new, multimillion-dollar limited series on science that are currently slated for PBS. All told, [Clear Blue Sky’s] investments could reach the $60 million level … .” Mitchell and Becton also described a $600,000 marketing and outreach campaign to promote the rebroadcast to educators. They asked managers to reconsider their plans for Evolution.

Clear Blue Sky recognized that, even with the common carriage designation for the rebroadcast, some number of stations would move Evolution to another time, Hutton acknowledged. “We were assuming a majority of stations would carry it.”

Hutton was pleased by how major-market stations responded to WGBH’s appeal for carriage, he said in an interview last week. “I don’t think our relationship is in jeopardy at all … . The system has been responsive. I think the system does care enough about the educational material and the kind of work that we’ve done.”

When WGBH’s station relations office made a second round of calls to stations, 30 of those in the top 40 markets had retooled their May grids to add the Evolution repeat within a week or so of its feed, according to Zeiser. Scheduling patterns are “all over the map” with stunts and stacks, but WGBH is “very appreciative of the system rallying” to boost carriage.

Fighting the downward spiral

Programmers offered several reasons for their initial decisions not to carry Evolution in May. The second release came too soon after the fall debut, Olive said, and the feed date for the last installment conflicted with June pledge.

PBS removed its common-carriage designation for the June 4 feed to accommodate station fundraising, according to several sources.

Some questioned whether WGBH’s educational outreach plans made sense. “Our outreach staff did their work on this in the fall, and our school year is almost over,” said Keith York, program director at KPBS in San Diego, who’s not airing either show. “It’s erroneous that teachers are going to use this in May.”

The eight-hour Evolution takes up a lot of real estate during the critical May sweeps period, said Garry Denny, program director at Wisconsin PTV. The Wisconsin network’s ratings were down 50 percent during February sweeps. “Going into May, I was looking at how can I bring the audience back into the tent. What can I do differently?”

For stations that pledge in June, it helps to build up a big audience during May sweeps, Denny explained. The more viewers in the tent at the launch of a pledge drive the better shot a station has at building its member rolls.

With the Ali acquisition, major-market stations hope to demonstrate that the system doesn’t have to resign itself to the recent downward ratings spiral, said Judith LeRoy, co-director of TRAC Media Services, a ratings analysis firm that operates the Public Television Programmers Association. “They’re trying to demonstrate that there is product out there that will work, and the ratings decline that people have been talking about isn’t necessarily a foregone conclusion.”

“With ‘Ali,’ we feel very strongly that it is not only a public television mission-oriented program, but it also has potential to attract an audience, and that’s terrific,” said Olive. “If you can bring those two together, that’s great.”