A hyperconfident new pledge phenomenon burst onto public TV in March, astounding station development pros with her ability to speak directly to viewers, set off a chorus of phones, and deliver pledge results far beyond their expectations.
In a 21-station tour of personal appearances March 5-28, Suze Orman and her book-related PBS fundraising special, "The Nine Steps to Financial Freedom," raised more than $2.3 million for stations, according to Alan Foster, v.p. of syndication services for PBS. The vast bulk of those dollars--more than $2 million--were raised at stations where Orman made personal appearances.
Orman's book, which was published more than a year ago, is a bestseller for QVC, the cable shopping channel on which she was already appearing frequently. By the time public TV's March pledge drive was over, the book topped national nonfiction bestseller lists.
Orman's experience selling books on QVC brought a rare intensity to her pitches on public TV, and her aggressive style apparently rattled some station veterans. She encouraged pledge producers to push the most expensive premium package, and tailored her appeals to women worried about debt. "There's a difference between using your credit card and having credit card debt," she told viewers as she pitched a $250 premium package on WTTW, Chicago.
Among the stations where Orman's pledge performance dramatically drove up fundraising results, WHYY in Philadelphia raised nearly $600,000 from seven plays of the program, almost 35 percent of its March drive total; WETA in Washington, $300,000 from six broadcasts, 27 percent of its total; and Detroit's WTVS earned $217,911 from five plays, 15 percent of its pledge total.
These numbers do not make Orman the most successful pledge drive talent of all time: they put her on a par with recent pledge successes such as "Les Mis," according to several station fundraisers. Orman says she's accustomed to raising far more on QVC's national network--$1 million in an hour.
But she is the biggest pledge drive surprise of all time.Money and power
"Did I dream that this would be the No. 1 show of the entire pledge drive? I was not that audacious," acknowledges Gerry Richman, executive producer for KTCA, St. Paul, which co-produced the special with Q Direct Ventures, a division of QVC.
Programs offering financial advice have been part of the pledge drive mix for several years now. Most recently, "Finding Financial Freedom," an American Program Service special featuring Jonathan Pond, has performed well for stations. Last December, WNET in New York brought Pond into its studios to help pitch the show and raised $250,000, according to Mary Ann Donahue, director of on-air production. She had expected to pull in $80,000 from the program.
Pond also held KQED's record for the most raised on a weeknight, about $130,000, according to Kurt Mendelsohn, creative services director at the San Francisco station. But Orman blew past that record March 17, pulling in $208,000 in back-to-back "double-pump" broadcasts.
"What we have in common is getting good information out to people," comments Pond. "She's known from QVC; my audience is not QVC." Pond says that his audience is "pretty upscale"--so much so that he's begun appearing at "millionaire lunches" for stations that seek to attract major gifts from high-end donors.
Orman brought a new twist to the self-help line-up in March by mixing financial advice with new-age approaches to psychology and empowerment. She encourages viewers to confront their early memories of money, come to terms with their financial fears, and take charge of their personal finances. "You will never be powerful in your life until you have power over your own money," she tells an audience during the straightforward lecture program.
Orman recalls her childhood fear that she needed money to have friends. Now she has many new friends in public TV.
"What distinguishes Suze from a lot of other financial analysts is that her holistic outlook deals with the totality of your life experience," said Richman. "I thought it really made sense and would connect with a lot of people."
Most of Orman's financial advice comes down to basics: compare your expenses to your income, and adjust your spending accordingly; pay more than the minimum payment on your credit card; save your coin change and it will help you meet those mounting bills.
Orman also encourages viewers to give money away to nonprofit organizations or churches. "Giving money gives you power," she says. Her theory--certainly welcomed by pledge producers--is that when you release your grasp on the money you have, you open yourself up to receive more.
"When you feel powerful, money is attracted to you," says Orman during a March 22 appearance on WTTW, Chicago. "When you pledge at the $250 level, the information you get in this set ... is going to make you powerful."
"She knows how to sell," comments Larry Heileman, director of development for WHYY. Not only that, Orman recognizes the importance of delivering a compelling pitch, then "handing off to another talent, getting out of the picture and letting the phones explode."
"Sometimes a person has a strong conviction about their message and you really believe them," comments Diane Bliss, v.p. of development for WTVS. "I think Suze brings that to her audience, and empowers them to really feel they can gain control of the situation."
Orman appeals directly to women aged 18-49, according to a demographic analysis by TRAC Media. TRAC characterized her audience as "downscale" and "relatively uneducated," and encouraged stations to pitch cheaper premiums. Orman described the report as "totally inaccurate" because the demographics had been gathered at a station that priced the premiums too low.
In live pitching on WTTW, Orman called on women to take control of their finances. "Don't make the mistake of thinking everything is in order, because it most likely isn't." She offers help to those plagued by credit card debt.
"I cannot help you, though if you're not willing to help yourself, if you're not willing to help Channel 11."
Orman's tour to 21 stations--and a well-timed March 16 appearance on Oprah--clearly boosted the success of her pledge show.
Pledge producers who worked with Orman say she is enthusiastic, charismatic, tireless and savvy. "She's an absolute powerhouse," comments Mendelsohn. Early in the tour, she devised a formula to successfully pledge the show, and she'd walk into stations and urge them to throw their standard practices out the window and try hers.
After her first two station appearances, Orman decided that the breaks had been boring, and "if I was bored so must everybody else be," she recalls. "I said to myself, 'Well, Suze, since everything else you do is so different, why not change the breaks to be what people want?'"
The "Suze Formula" includes unconventional pledge breaks--cutting the first internal break to a few minutes, allowing the second one to go to about 17, then extending the external break until it runs out of steam--more than 30 minutes. She also asked stations to double-pump the show--airing it back-to-back with live pledge breaks--and to offer $250 combo premium packages that included "personal access to Suze."
"She just has this innate sense of what works on TV," said Erika Herrmann, coproducer for KTCA, who ran the "24-hour Suze Orman base camp" out of her apartment during the pledge drive. The long breaks worked because "she's so interesting and compelling--that's when most people would make their pledges."
"It was not easy to get people to believe that the formula works," acknowledges Orman. "Only a very few stations were willing to go with it lock, stock and barrel, and there were a few stations who refused." She declined to specify which ones, but said she would "never go back to those stations, ever. It was such a drain on me."
Orman also routinely asked pledge producers to tell her their fundraising goals for the show, and then bumped up the numbers ambitiously. When they didn't answer, she set her own goal. At several stations, she gathered other talent and producers together, to hold hands and pray that they would meet their goal. She gave pep talks to the volunteers.
"One of the messages of her book is that you shouldn't limit your thinking," explains Herrmann. "You should aim as high as you want to participate in what she calls the 'cycle of abundance.' She would translate that to producers when she went to their stations."
"She's extremely focussed, and she sort of takes it as a personal mission to make certain that, whatever your goal was for airing a show, that she makes that and better," says Donahue, "It can almost get a little mystical." WNET raised $170,000 from its first airing of "Nine Steps" with Orman in the studio. Repeats brought in nearly $150,000 more.
"Those stations who believed in what she was saying and how she was asking them to position premiums and choreograph pledge breaks were winners financially," says WTVS's Bliss.
"I've learned something more in the process--that every show has its own patterns and we can't be putting everything into the same mold all the time," Bliss adds. "We need to be thinking about each program as its own production much more than we ever have before if we're going to make pledge-o-tainment."
Orman, who's working on a new book that may be developed into a pledge show, says she's eager to make more personal appearances during public TV's August and December drives. She describes the March tour as a "fabulous experience" of watching the people who work hard on pledge drives "expand beyond their limitations."
With the success of her pledge show and gangbuster sales of her book, "you have to wonder what's going on," Orman says. "In the entire U.S., when people are talking about money and reading a book, they're talking about reading about me."
Web page originally posted April 21, 1998
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