Viewers like you — by name — have literally moved to the front of the line in underwriting credits at WQED in Pittsburgh.
Since mid-August, a Mary Jones or Joe Smith of Anytown, Pa., who donated as little as $40 to the station, is mentioned ahead of major corporations or donors providing hundreds of thousands. That better reflects the overall importance of viewer contributions to the TV/FM licensee, said Deborah L. Acklin, g.m.
At a time when audience contributions are proving more reliable than many corporate and state government funders, the WQED credits and new ones from PBS are emphasizing the role of viewer-donors.
PBS head Paula Kerger seemed to approve of WQED’s idea after a Pittsburgh reporter mentioned it during her July appearance at the Television Critics Association tour in Pasadena, Calif. “The truth is the majority of our support comes from individual philanthropy and I do think we need to do a better job of making sure people recognize that,” Kerger told critics.
The WQED spots burbled up from research on audience perception, general station awareness and, in particular, the station’s weeknight newsmagazine, OnQ. In surveys since the project began early this year, local individuals recognized that corporations and foundations were first in program credits and viewers last. So they thought that the larger entities “paid the lion’s share” of the funding, Acklin said.
“That made me think we should make a point of putting them in the first position, because they provide at least 60 percent of the support” to the station, she said. “I think we inadvertently train audiences to put themselves in the last position.”
So WQED decided to retrain the audience. In late spring the station’s membership fundraising division personally contacted members renewing between April and June. Most responded positively to the chance to have their names on the air, said WQED rep Rosemary Martinelli, although some asked not to have the size of their gifts broadcast throughout western Pennsylvania. (Not a problem — donation amounts aren’t in the spots.)
WQED’s graphics staff designed simple credits showing several members’ names and hometowns in a white font set against colorful, gently rolling clouds, which ties into the style of the station’s “WQED changes lives” motif. As the station’s music plays, an announcer thanks members of the station “whose financial support helps to make this program possible.” The names are not read aloud, and there is no direct bridge into corporate sponsors — those commonplace words, “ . . . and by . . . ”
Martinelli said engineers were alerted to changes in the programming log so the new credits came up in the correct order. The credits were phased in on all three of WQED’s multicast channels. The first names began to appear in mid-August.
About 50 spots with different donors’ names are now in rotation, about 10 seconds each, with a new batch coming at month’s end. “We may even add photographs of people,” Martinelli said. “We’re just getting started.”
Donors’ names may be announced on WQED-FM in the future, and the station’s website may also add credits featuring members themselves, similar to many promos inspired by CPB’s award-winning My Source public awareness initiative (Current, March 17).
Acklin thinks the name spots are especially effective on the few shows that have no other underwriters. “So it’s easy for us to make the point that this program has received no foundation or corporate support, it’s completely supported by you,” she said.
Although the new PBS credit package does not name specific individuals, it also grew out of research about what viewers value most about their local station and what inspires them to contribute, said PBS spokesperson Jan McNamara. The package includes background graphics, treatments of the lower third of the screen, custom fonts and original music, all reflecting the Explorer branding identity. The package is designed to address the armchair adventurer that many pubcasters believe resides within their viewers. There are 15- and 5-second versions; many run about 10 seconds, McNamara said.
But can these shiny new credits survive in the age of TiVo, with entire audiences technologically ignoring all that stuff between shows?
Nat Katzman, a program researcher and producer who authored a 1995 CPB paper, “Some Thoughts on Station Breaks and Underwriting Credits,” has concerns about the upcoming extinction of interstitials
He pointed out that viewers, now in control of content, can often pass over credits and other promos, “so presumably there is a kind of ongoing decline in the amount of material that is actually seen.” Or perhaps a viewer will catch a program streaming on a pubstation’s website and find a way to forward through credits. “It’s a whole new world for interstitial material,” said Katzman, now co-owner and e.p. of A La Carte Communications in San Francisco, which produces cooking shows.
However, Katzman added, “The WQED idea seems like a good one worth testing to motivate nonmember viewers to support the local station. Clearly, it’s an approach that attempts to encourage others to join so that they might see their names, too. That’s the crux of the matter — how to motivate viewers to join and existing members to renew.”
Though underwriting credits and other announcements are vital to public TV’s business model, they are endangered by viewers’ ability to miss or skip viewing them, not only with VCRs and TiVO recordings but also with streaming web video. PBS’s online video technology now allows viewers to skip past credits by stopping playback and moving ahead manually. But that may change in the future, PBS’s Kevin Dando told Current. The network is also in “active talks” to sell web-only underwriting. PBS online videos now carry only underwriting blurbs for program production funders, he said.
The FCC shouldn’t have a problem with WQED’s new credit order. Its rules say at one point that “underwriters should be credited in descending order of the amount of their grants.”
Though corporate underwriters, foundations and government agencies often provide the largest share of funding for some particular programs, individuals do provide the largest share of funding for public TV in general: more than 21 percent in fiscal year 2007, the latest figures available from CPB.