What you are about to read may sound familiar—like the strategy in
public radio, with its emphasis on serving a core audience—but it’s
an evolution in the thinking of the LeRoys, prominent audience consultants
for public TV stations and co-directors of TRAC Media Services.
Public television’s cume fell below 50 percent in the 2001-02 season.
The portion of the viewing public that samples it in a week—as high
as 59.2 percent in 1991—was down to 47.8 percent a decade later. Fewer
and fewer homes are sampling public television’s fare and they’re
viewing it less. When cumes and gross rating points decline, stations
can lose membership and support. This could portend a vicious downward spiral.
We can’t do much about fragmentation of TV audiences. The number of channels competing for viewers continues to grow. But there is reason to believe that if public television sharpens its focus on core viewers and members and evolves a different strategy of programming and scheduling, it may be able to avert further consequences and turn back the tide of erosion.
How we got here
Audience fragmentation is the usual reason given for shrinking audiences
of individual TV channels. Given more choices, some viewers will choose to
switch channels. Since approximately 85 percent of U.S. homes receive TV through
cable or satellite, just about everybody has more channels to choose from
Fragmentation of the U.S. viewing audience began when a fourth commercial
station brought syndicated fare and old movies to town in the 1950s, but
it drastically altered the programming landscape in the 1970s as small but loyal audiences made specialty channels economically viable on cable.
As more channels became available (fragmentation), the content of the new
channels became more differentiated (polarization). Polarized audiences
for specialty channels may be small, but are passionately committed to the programming
and loyal, and hence content-partisan. Before cable and satellites reduced
distribution costs, channels with such limited appeal would not have survived.
With polarization and small partisan audiences, the channels achieve far
lower cume-to-rating ratios than general-audience broadcasters. Every program
courts the same two demons: cume and average quarter hour rating (AQH). Many
people in a week’s audience of a daily program will not watch every day;
many who Nielsen finds in an hour’s audience will not watch the entire
show. For some network and sports-channel programming, the cume-to-rating ratios
can be 4-to-1: To have one person viewing in an average quarter hour, it must
have four people cycling through that program’s cume.
For public television, those ratios are low. For example, during Antiques
Roadshow, two-thirds of its audience views the whole program, for a 3-to-2
Most public television audiences behave like the polarization-induced Fox
Cable News or CNBC partisan audiences, which also display low ratios.
Partisan viewers are
With the rise of the specialty channels, we can begin to study these
partisan, committed core viewers and determine what differentiates them from
viewers. In extensive interviewing, we have come to know these people. They
carrying books — they’re readers.
Here are some other things we know about public television’s core
- They “get it.” They know that the formats and narrative arcs
of public television programming are different from commercial programming,
and they cherish the difference. They even tell you when they “got it” that
public television is different—an epiphany.
- Unlike light viewers they tune in to the channel with the expectation
that they’ll find something of interest, even if they don’t know exactly
what’s on. Light viewers may tune for particular programs or dayparts
(like the weekend how-tos) or surf in.
- Public television’s narrative voice and textural density appeals
to them. They immerse themselves in the content like someone taking a hot
satisfies many needs. They are loyal to public broadcasting content and
seek it out on other public television stations—even on cable.
- They want variety and different genres through the night. Despite
very different genres, core viewers will stick with the schedule.
- They have, in every sense of the term, a relationship with the
station and its programming. Many are members. If they aren’t, a lot of
them have been members and could come back. In fact, core viewers are
to indicate how members would react to programs.
- But core viewers also find there are “too many repeats.” They
watch most genres and monitor the station all the time, even during pledge.
- Some are mad at the station because of current pledge practices;
others just ignore pledge. (Pledge deserves its own polemic).
Fans of specialty cable channels resemble public television core viewers
in a number of ways: They’re loyal, they sample frequently and they’re
committed to content and the channel’s narrative voice. They know when
a program “does not belong on here,” most often because the errant
program lacks the narrative voice they have come to expect and respect.
However, the core values associated with public television programming
are not the same as those associated with Fox, Trinity Broadcasting Network,
Discovery or A&E. (We discuss public television’s core values at great length
elsewhere—see the papers on our website, www.tracmedia.com.)
With core viewers like these, how should we schedule our channels? To answer
this, let’s introduce the notion of experiential scheduling.
Can multicasting help?
Some public broadcasters are placing hope in digital TV technology that
will allow them to multicast several streams of programs at once.
we see no evidence this will help stations maintain a broader cume. We don’t
see where public TV would find the substantial funds to pay for development
of new services with distinctly different appeals any time
soon. The barrier to success would be high: New services would have to be
attractive enough to support themselves in a crowded program environment.
It is more likely that additional channels will simply improve service
to our core audience by providing convenient repeats and programs similar
And that could be a good thing if it adds to the variety of programming and
yields more satisified core viewers and members.
What member-centric TV should look like
Core viewers — and station members — watch public television
differently from light or occasional viewers. Let’s think about what
core viewers and members expect from the schedule and often do not get. We
this may be helping to erode our audience.
Core viewers want to be engrossed viewers who immerse themselves in the
programming. When they tune in, they hope to find something that will pique
They say coming to the channel is like having a conversation with a friend.
When you meet a friend, you want to have a good time talking and being together.
You don’t go to visit your friend to discuss Topic A and then leave
immediately — you
usually go on to chat about Topics B, C and D.
In member-centric scheduling, some of our old concepts no longer serve
Many of the scheduling practices in public television today are mechanical,
if not Victorian, in concept and execution. We need to rethink the priority
we give to audience flow and stacking of similar programs within an evening.
The mechanical view of scheduling is to put all the yellow boxcars together
and all the red oil tankers together. That is, we stack a few science programs
on a weeknight, some public affairs on Friday and some Britcoms on a Saturday
night. The mechanic’s criterion is that the programs belong together
because they’re all boxcars and the viewer interested in one boxcar
will stay tuned for the whole batch.
At its extreme, cable specialty
this with long blocks of cooking or home decorating programs. What the programmers
fear is that stacking different programs will cause churn — an audience
exodus when the next program is too different.
But core viewers want variety in their viewing experience. They often get
bored with hours of similar programs. But do they want to leave? Absolutely
What core viewers want is captured in the concept of program affinity.
That is, programs of different genres and about different topics can share
same viewers if they deliver the satisfying experience that audience expects.
programs can be as different as Nova, American Experience, Frontline and
The NewsHour. Affinity is: variety without churn.
The experiential approach to scheduling is difficult because the programmer
has to understand whether programs will appeal to the audience and how much
affinity the programs share. The programmer focuses on core viewers or members
and aims to craft a satisfying evening’s experience for them — much
the way a great chef assembles the menu each night for a great dining experience.
It’s much easier to mechanically stack similar programs—one merely
has to be able to read the label.
We’ve talked about what core viewers and members want and expect because
it may help explain part of the last decade’s public television viewing
erosion and economic support shifts.
The lost viewers of
We are seeing the core viewer more clearly now that others have left the
Who are ones we’ve lost? We know of no publicly available field studies
of the people who’ve left public TV’s cume in the past decade.
Some studies have stumbled on “lost viewers” in the pursuit of
other research questions, and there are local and national rating data that
suggest possible explanations.
But rating data, by their very nature, deal with the aggregate and do not
explore motives of particular people. So what follows is informed conjecture
It appears the viewers public television has lost are what we call the
and irregular viewers who show up only in the monthly/28-day cumes. When
these people got more viewing choices, they left our cume.
They didn’t “get” public television. Many found our programs
to be boring, uninteresting or “too intellectual.” They discovered
other programs they liked better on the new channels. There’s little
chance that we would get them back since they are wanderers by nature—seeking
stimulation rather than edification. They were not core viewers and were
not likely to become members.
Viewers we don’t have to lose
We’re seeing erosion in a number of areas in the schedule, including
some losses that do not have to happen.
Primetime: The performance of the NPS schedule has been the focus of much
concern and some research, lately by CPB.
We see two major unanswered questions about the NPS. One is how much erosion
is caused by dilapidated programming strands. We’ll leave that question
for PBS and CPB to resolve.
The other question is how much erosion is caused by systemic factors such
as common carriage, too many repeats, or long pledge drives. We know stations
already have lost many members because they are angry at the number of repeats
and at pledge drives aimed at entirely different people.
Daytime: Although it varies by station, cumes have lost more ground in
daytime than in primetime. That is essentially an unnecessary mission-inflicted
of cume, since most stations devote so many daytime hours to children. We
do not disagree with the mission of Ready to Learn or the focus on children’s
programming. The problem is that scheduling kiddie shows all day drives away
core-viewing adults and members during the early afternoon and some early
How many hours of children’s programming is too much? As Falstaff observed,
it is our excesses that will be our undoing. More is not better. Peter Frid,
general manager of New Hampshire PTV, tells the story of being home with the
flu. He wanted to watch public television, but each of the three available
public television stations was telecasting the same children’s programming!
Within the guidelines of Ready to Learn some stations have begun to serve
adult audiences. Maryland PTV, for example, offers a popular Afternoon Tea-branded
daypart that is an island of Britcoms, drama and Charlie Rose dropped in
the children’s programs in the early afternoon.
Weekends: Cable specialty
channels cut into our weekend audience early in the ’90s. Stations
have the prerogative to to improve weekend dayparts and we believe they have
a chance to regrow the audience there.
It is, perhaps, merely coincidence that primetime household cumes began
to decline with PBS’s institution of common carriage.
Before common carriage, for example, Philadelphia’s WHYY carried
Nature on Thursdays at 8 p.m. and generally had a 3 or 4 rating. When common
moved the show to Sunday, ratings declined to 1 and have never fully recovered.
Before common carriage, astute stations had schedules that maximized the
local audiences for NPS series. As we have noted recently, secondary stations
do not follow common carriage have narrowed the rating gap with the primary
stations in several markets.
Common carriage is a rational bureaucratic decision prompted by national
But it’s always good to remember that there are costs associated with
any national programming decision. One hopes that the positives outweigh
the negatives in the big picture. Alas, the costs of common carriage affect
stations more dramatically than others. Stations in the Deep South and parts
of the Northeast find that national NPS strands do not perform well, cutting
into the national PBS cume as well as the audience and membership of those
Living with polarizing audiences
In summary, public television is feeling the stress of audience fragmentation,
erosion, mission-inflicted cume losses and the loss of local scheduling options.
New research and evolving station strategies suggest that we can limit the
effects of fragmentation by concentrating resources on keeping the viewers
we have and bringing them in as dues-paying members.
Overall, there are approximately 23.5 million U.S. households that have
core-viewer characteristics. Core viewers come in various sizes and shapes — different
ages, genders and backgrounds. That’s a substantial number of potential
public television partisans.
Maximizing gross rating points among station members is a strategy for
scheduling to enhance core viewers’ and members’ satisfaction,
and we are seeing indications that member-centric strategies work.
In Sacramento, Calif., KVIE revamped its schedule to focus more on satisfying
members after very low renewal rates among long-term members told them they
were facing a membership revolt. According to the station’s membership
director, renewal rates and rejoin rates were up after a year of such scheduling.
In a perfect world, core viewers’ emotional commitment would translate
into financial commitment. But this happens only if we increase the value
of the service: We must recognize and enhance relationships with core viewers
and members through the things we say in on-air promotions and pledge drives
and the things we do, such as discontinuing mechanistic scheduling tactics.
The core viewers and members are a worthy focus — they are a group
of people who, in the increasingly fragmented television world, are more
likely to “be
there” for us. They are people who have stuck with public television
because of their taste and dedication to quality programming.
In the end, fragmentation could be a blessing if it encourages stations
to focus less on scheduling and fundraising for noncore and undercommitted
and emphasize the mission of providing appealing programs for intelligent
and curious viewers of all ages, genders, races and educational levels.
David and Judith LeRoy thank Kristen Kuebler and Craig Reed for their help
with this article. A future column will discuss pledge and the consequences
for core viewers and members.