John McKinley, an early employee of PBS who went on to produce a TV version of Mountain Stage, died of congestive heart failure Nov. 3 in Washington, D.C. He was 66. PBS hired McKinley in 1973, just three years after its launch. Public TV development consultant Michael Soper, who worked with him there, recalls an iconoclast with a biting sense of humor. “When I first met John upon arriving at PBS in 1978, I thought he was nuts,” Soper said.
PBS has set the lineup for an upcoming fundraising test that will use a full week’s schedule of first-run National Program Service shows. Seventeen stations will take part in the experiment, running Nov. 28 through Dec. 5. PBS is trying to determine whether using core series, rather than pledge specials that veer from the regular lineup, will lead to a more stable member and donor base and perhaps even prompt more major gifts.
PBS is preparing for a pilot run of Membership Video on Demand, a premium service for station contributors, under the new name PBS Plus. The service will be structured to preserve a window of free access to program streams on PBS.org and to protect stations’ member data, according to Tom Davidson, PBS senior director of digital strategies, during a session at the NETA Professional Development Conference, Oct. 20–22 in Dallas. PBS Plus will go into soft launch in the spring for existing members at seven test stations. Under the full kickoff scheduled for late summer 2015, stations nationwide can begin marketing it to new members.
PBS finished the 2013-14 broadcast season in fifth place among broadcast and cable networks, up from eighth the previous season and 11th in 2011-12. Beth Hoppe, PBS’s chief programmer, has focused on scheduling similar genres together to retain primetime audience from one show to the next. “It’s a strategy that is paying off,” she said in the announcement Wednesday. Average primetime household Nielsen ratings rose over last season from 1.43 to 1.50, finishing with an average audience of some 1.9 million viewers, according to PBS. Viewing on Sunday nights, anchored by Masterpiece and its hit Downton Abbey franchise, grew 7 percent over last season.
PBS is once again enjoying a budget surplus, thanks in part to the continuing success of Masterpiece’s hit British costume drama Downton Abbey. PBS Chief Financial Officer Barbara Landes told the board’s finance committee Monday that net income for fiscal 2014 totaled $30.7 million. This year, $10.4 million of that total is a one-time windfall due to the sale of PBS’s 15 percent equity share in the kids’ cable network Sprout. NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment Group acquired full ownership of Sprout, formerly called PBS Kids Sprout, in November 2013. PBS operations generated $20.3 million, thanks to better than expected returns on short-term investments, revenue-generating activities such as online sponsorship and mobile apps, and lower operating expenses, according to Landes.
Acorn TV, the upstart streaming service specializing in British television, is still a tiny operation, with about 115,000 paid subscribers. Nonetheless, its fast growth is causing outsized concern at PBS and Masterpiece, public television’s longstanding home for British drama. Brewing tensions came to a head over rights to the final three episodes in David Suchet’s marathon 70-program portrayal of Agatha Christie’s Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. As a result of the rift, Acorn TV premiered the episodes to its streaming subscribers in August and syndicated them directly to local public TV stations, with Masterpiece nowhere in the picture. The broadcast window for the finale’s broadcast opens Nov.