The Sacramento programmer admits
she was originally concerned about the Welk program's quality.
"Yet, when I see the role it plays
in lives of viewers, I have become a believer. ...
I have to think there's an excellence of experience
that's going on there."

Welk with accordianHow do you say no to a million grandmas?

Public TV programmers who don't already love Lawrence Welk find a way to appreciate him soon enough

Originally published in Current, April 27, 1992

By Steve Behrens

One by one, most of public TV's gatekeepers have set objections or worries aside and picked up the show that gets the field's highest ratings.

After internal debates over the esthetics, suitability and demographics of airing repackaged reruns of The Lawrence Welk Show, some 150 public TV licensees have scheduled the show, now [1992] in its fifth season on public TV. (This week's episode is "Songs of the Islands.")

The demographics are extreme, even for a show on public TV. Seventy-four percent of its viewers are 65 or older. "There's probably nothing older than this," says audience researcher David LeRoy.

But the fans' devotion is extreme as well. The swing bandleader's musical variety show isn't on the PBS schedule, but in November [1991], it was either the first or second highest-rated nationally distributed show on public TV, depending on how you express the audience size.

"This is not a fluke," says John Fuller, PBS director of research. "As long as it's been on, it has been up near the top."

Nielsen says Welk had the highest average rating in the areas where it was aired last November--a 2.2 rating, according to Fuller. This puts it a hair above This Old House (2.1) and Nova (2.0) and gives Welk twice the average rating of MacNeil/Lehrer or Sesame Street.

That applies only to the areas where stations carry Welk--areas with 84 percent of TV households. (Major stations in Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., are among the holdouts.)

But the show also comes in a close second to This Old House if you look at the Welk audience within the entire TV viewing public, Fuller says.

"New Hampshire is very pleased; in Seattle, it's gangbusters; North Carolina, gangbusters; Oregon, all across the country, it's done very well," says Bob Allen, executive director of Oklahoma Educational Television, which syndicates Welk. "Obviously, in Florida it's gangbusters," he adds.

"It also did double-gangbusters during Festival," says Chancy Kapp, associate director of North Carolina PTV. Three Welk specials ranked among the 10 best-pledging programs aired during March fundraising on the state network, she says.

Friendly persuasion

If programmers have needed a reason to carry Welk, they've had audience and pledging data to supplement the direct pleas from fans who remember the program's 27-year run on commercial TV.

When elderly viewers in North Carolina found out through their private intelligence networks that Welk was available in South Carolina on public TV, Kapp recalls, they lobbied hard to bring the show to them, north of the border.

New Hampshire PTV came around in a similar manner, overcoming worries that Welk doesn't match the mission of public broadcasters. "We held out for quite a while for 'mission' reasons," says Christopher Funkhouser, former program chief at New Hampshire (now at WLIW on Long Island). "Slowly, over time, as we got to understand how much people wanted to see it, we kind of softened on it and decided at least it was worth a try."

North Carolina PTV had held out until last July, according to Kapp. "We felt that this might be just a little too commercial," she recalls.

And some viewers would agree, Kapp reports. They write letters asking why public TV is carrying a commercial rerun, especially such an old program that features the music it does.

But those complaints have been "overwhelmed" by the enthusiasm of the fans, says Kapp.

Allen argues that Welk fits precisely into public TV's mission--serving underserved audiences. Commercial stations dropped the program a decade ago "because the demographics were older than commercial television was interested in," he says. "Does that mean we write off that huge gathering of 50-plus?"

The program brings in many viewers who would otherwise be strangers to public TV. "About a third who watch, watch nothing else on public television," says LeRoy. "In the end, it can only help to build your reach, which means service to all the publics that are out there."

No comment

Even some programmers who have brought on Welk admit privately that they set aside their personal dislike for the program, which many people considered square and bland even during its run on ABC, between 1955 and 1971, and during its commercial syndication, ending in 1982.

For some programmers in their 30s and 40s, who watched the program with their parents or grandparents, a generational esthetic factor may be strong enough to explain qualms about carrying the show.

"A lot of people who say 'mission,' mean, 'I just don't like it,' " says LeRoy.

For some, the merits of the program are a touchy subject. One prominent station that doesn't air Welk, WGBH in Boston, "has never felt the need to have an ongoing pop music series in the schedule," says Director of Broadcasting Dan Everett, though the station does carry its own Evening at Pops as well as Austin City Limits.

Is WGBH making an esthetic judgment?

"I frankly have not spent a great deal of time worrying about The Lawrence Welk Show and its esthetic appeal in other parts of the country," says Everett. "I'm not going to comment on it one way or the other."

Susan Prince, program manager at KVIE, Sacramento, admits that she was originally concerned about the quality of the bandleader's music. "Yet, when I see the role it plays in lives of viewers, I have become a believer. Perhaps it's nostalgia--the memories of when they originally heard the music--but I have to think there's an excellence of experience that's going on there."

Viewers in nursing homes rearrange their schedules to watch Welk together, she reports. "It's giving part of the audience great satisfaction and occasional joy."

"Of the type of music being presented, Evening at Pops is a much, much stronger production," says Prince. "However, the feel of those two shows is quite a bit different." Pops is more formal and has less emotional connection to viewers, she says.

Fuller, who worked at an ABC station when Welk was a major draw for the network, recalls the show and its performers had intensely loyal fans. "If a person happened not to be on the show, the viewers would ring the phone off the hook," inquiring what had happened.

To feed the viewers' curiosity about Welk's TV family, Allen's Oklahoma Network publishes a quarterly newspaper, The Lawrence Welk Show Musical Family News, that keeps them up to date on their cruise-ship bookings, spouses' illnesses and children's karate lessons, and Welk's own great-granddaughter.

Welk himself, now 89 [in 1992], is retired in Santa Monica and hasn't performed for seven years, says Allen.

In the "Letters to Lawrence" section of the newsletter, Fanny Kienitz, 93, of Salt Lake City, writes that Welk's music "has given me more joy than any other program I have ever seen."

Originally used for pledging

The music, as well as the well-remembered family of performers, binds the program to its fans.

"It's nostalgia at its best--tunes that nobody plays any more except during fundraising," says LeRoy, referring to various other periodic eruptions of big band music in PBS pledging specials.

Indeed, Welk caught public TV's eye when Oklahoma ETV produced a 1987 PBS pledge-time documentary on him, "Lawrence Welk: Television's Music Man," in association with New York independent producer Camera Three.

When public TV airs a pledge special, says Allen, it makes "an implied proposal" that it will give viewers more of that kind of programming if they pledge. Many times, the stations can't follow through, he says, but in the case of Welk they can.

To fill the eight or ten minutes of each program originally occupied by commercials, Oklahoma produces new, extended introductory segments with such Welk stars as ragtime pianist Jo Ann Castle, polka king Myron Floren and Norma Zimmer. Sometimes, says Allen, the videotape editors simply reprise the opening number to fill out the time.

Oklahoma also continues to work with the Welk Group to package pledge specials from the old shows, says Allen.

Malcolm Wall was Allen's deputy director when they set their sights on Welk's trove of videotape. "The Welk folks were hoping for a cable deal, something on the Family Channel; nobody could put together the package," recalls Wall. So the delegation of public broadcasters from Oklahoma walked away with an exclusive distribution deal.

When does the contract expire?

"Whether it lasts forever," says Allen, "depends on the stations and the audience."



To Current's home page

Current Briefing on the audiences of public broadcasting.

Outside link: Advertising man Jeffrey Zeldman's semi-appreciative essay on Welk, plus responses from Welk fans and others.


Web page created April 5, 1997
The newspaper about public television and radio
in the United States
A service of Current Publishing Committee, Takoma Park, Md.
Copyright 1997