Surge of channels, people meter chaos depress PBS ratings

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There is no shortage of factors to explain why public TV ratings have kept sliding. For one, the proportion of viewers with access to satellite and cable has increased, bringing a surge in fragmentation.

Then there’s Nielsen’s audience estimation system, undergoing its own upheaval while some pubTV stations still lack the encoders that let the ratings company know they’re out there.

On top of all this, some station leaders say PBS isn’t doing enough to create programming that grips viewers. Over the last 10 seasons, PBS’s ratings have dropped 37 percent, from 1.9 in 1998-99 to 1.2 in 2007-08. The primetime weekly cume — the percent of all households that tuned into pubTV in a typical week — has dropped 35 percent to 19.9 in 2007-08. Viewership has declined even more rapidly over the past few seasons, according to Beth Walsh, director of research at PBS.

Network TV’s ratings are dropping just about as fast, of course. Over the same 10 seasons, NBC’s ratings dropped 37 percent, ABC’s 35 percent and CBS’s 33 percent, according to Walsh. Cable channels have experienced no growth or slow losses, says audience analyst Craig Reed at TRAC Media Services.

John Boland, chief content officer at PBS, attributes the decline to fragmentation and the growing number of media platforms, not programming decisions or pubTV’s declining underwriting dollars. Ditto for the ratings of kids’ shows on PBS, which have been shrinking 4 to 5 percentage points a year for the past five years, according to Reed.

Preschoolers’ viewing is also down on Nickelodeon, Disney and Cartoon Network, Walsh says.

Chris Schiavone, an audience strategist who works with PBS, points out in a Current commentary that the accelerating shrinkage of over-the-air reception has suddenly introduced new viewing cohorts — people who used to receive only a handful of local broadcast stations but are now seduced  by 300-channel cable and satellite options. Surveys of primetime viewers for public TV indicate that TV’s over-the-air viewership has shrunk to just 10 percent — nearly half of what it was four years ago, according to Schiavone.

At the same time, Nielsen Media Research is in the midst of revamping its TV ratings methodology, including how it gathers and crunches its survey data. Most stations have installed encoders to relay program data to Nielsen, but 10 percent of stations still don’t have an encoder — which means their viewing stats are not being figured into PBS’s national average — and 5 percent have digital-only encoders that will kick in after Feb. 17.

Additionally, Nielsen’s new local people meters, now operating only in bigger markets, result in lower but more accurate ratings, Reed says. He thinks the effect of this upheaval on pubTV has been great enough to explain the last few seasons’ steeper decline. In fact, TRAC’s research found that in a pool of 21 stations not involved with Nielsen’s methodology changes, there was little audience erosion.

But while fragmentation, Nielsen changes and lack of encoders are major factors in the ratings slip, some pubTV leaders think programming is also part of the problem. They say PBS should be working harder on programming that would grab viewers—a task made difficult by the systemwide decrease in corporate underwriting.

Last summer, a letter to PBS from the board chairs of five major-market stations, including Los Angeles’s KCET and Chicago’s WTTW, expressed concern that “we are receiving less and less of what we most need from PBS: powerful, successful, innovative programming.”

PBS is trying to meet the viewers where they are, says Boland, by putting more video on and sites such as Hulu and Joost, for example, and distributing DVDs via Netflix. The network is also rolling out COVE, its new systemwide video technology for station websites, and continues to invest its core National Program Fund dollars in its icon series and breakout projects that could attract eyeballs through various delivery platforms. But Boland is withholding judgment for now about which strategies are best.

“We’re going to be in a very confusing place for a while,” he says—PBS’s goal should be not to decline faster than any other network. “The only thing that gives me solace in all this,” he says, “is when I talk to anyone in the media world . . . no one really knows what’s going on.”

Fragmentation unending

Viewing is likely to take another hit from the DTV transition in the next three months. Over-the-air viewers who are confused about the analog turnoff or have trouble getting a DTV signal or installing a converter box or antenna may decide buying cable or satellite is just easier, says Ron Pisaneschi, director of broadcasting at Idaho Public Television.

Among the many things diverting Americans from scheduled TV are other platforms for video, including Internet streaming and downloading, cable on-demand and even increased DVD viewing. Understanding the trends, however, is difficult because there’s no way to quantify consistently all these competing factors.

Some local stations have deals with cable companies to receive data on time-shifted or on-demand viewing, but PBS doesn’t subscribe to Nielsen’s data on national video-on-demand usage, which would require a separate, expensive contract. Nielsen is not measuring Internet video streaming yet, though Reed says the company is heading that way. In May, Nielsen published its first “three-screen report,” estimating a month’s video viewing on TV, Internet and mobile phones.

Whether PBS can get in on some of these measurements depends on the kind of contract it can negotiate with Nielsen. The two are talking about how PBS can receive more comprehensive, timely service akin to what other broadcasters get.

The data could give PBS some welcome good news. On the Web, has been setting usage records and beating all other broadcast network sites’ traffic numbers. In October, the site set a new monthly traffic record with more than 25 million visits from more than 20 million unique visitors. The PBS Kids Go! broadband video player, launched in September, recently surpassed 10 million streams. Boland says he’s encouraged by the fact that more and more people are watching professionally produced program-length video on the Web.

But, as Reed points out, 10 million streams online over several months is nothing compared with one evening’s 1.0 national TV rating—a little more than 1 million households. Viewing of pubTV programs is down overall, but the number of people watching video online and through on-demand cable or satellite doesn’t account for all those not watching pubTV, he says—the numbers are too small, though they’re increasing.

Changes in the yardstick

While Nielsen would like to sell more data to public TV, many system leaders are wondering if even basic Nielsen numbers are worth paying attention to.

The company began rolling out its new Local People Meters in 2004; they’re now used in 18 markets and eventually will extend to the top 25. While the new metering system is supposed to be more accurate, it generally returns audience numbers 20 percent lower than previously registered by the same stations, Reed says.

The uncertainties are not restricted to audience estimates in those 25 markets. Most of the top markets’ readings from local people meters are for the first time being folded into Nielsen’s nationwide panel for national ratings.

Various other aspects of the measurement system are changing, with effects that are making it hard to compare new ratings with old. The company has put more meters in the market overall to accurately measure channels with small audiences, says Reed. Another example: the company is changing how it collects household demographic data. Nielsen reps used to call people by phone, but now they’re knocking on doors, census-style, to gather more specific information.

The changes in methodology are legitimate and sound, says Reed, but during this transition period they alter the measuring stick that pubTV has been using. “Once we get to next season, things will begin to stabilize,” he says.

When TV land goes all-digital in February, multicasting as many as five or six digitally compressed channels on each frequency, Nielsen will continue to measure only one channel for national ratings. TRAC and PBS have cautioned stations not to shift parts of the NPS schedule, such as children’s programming, to a multicast channel that will not get measured. Pisaneschi suspects a lot of his viewers are watching NPS programs on digital channels and not being counted.

No station except Chicago’s WTTW has a big enough audience on any of its digital channels to be measured by Nielsen anyway, so Walsh expects that Nielsen’s one-channel limit won’t affect national ratings. WTTW needed a 2.5 weekly cume to qualify for Nielsen measurement, and the station signs a separate Nielsen contract for each measured channel, according to Walsh.

Steve Bass, president of Oregon Public Broadcasting, says it’s hard to know what’s going on behind the scenes of Nielsen methodology, even though experts tell him it’s useful. However, he can’t help but wonder if TV is moving from one flawed methodology to another.

Discontent with content

Imperfect as these numbers are, they’re used routinely to help stations choose between program options. Guided by CPB audience research, PBS continues to invest heavily in icon series, such as Masterpiece, whose ratings indicate a loyal viewership. The network is also investing promo dollars in limited series, such as Ken Burns’ The War, to bring in new viewers.

Boland acknowledges that PBS has “very limited resources, and we have to be very strategic and be very careful right now,” he says. “We are spread thin in trying to maintain our TV service and meet the needs of consumers on other platforms”

The declining national ratings are no doubt due in part to fragmentation, says Bass. After all, the 1990 media world in which Ken Burns’ Civil War was a hit isn’t comparable to the world in which The War aired. “It has been harder for PBS to have that product that grabs the national consciousness the way it did 15 to 20 years ago,” he says.

Overall, pubTV programming isn’t quite as strong as it used to be, Pisaneschi believes. Tight finances have trimmed the number of new episodes produced for such series as Nova and American Experience, and there aren’t enough new episodes to keep the inventory fresh, particularly when programs are repeated so many times, he says. Judging from the offerings showcased at last month’s American Public Television Marketplace, he says, there also aren’t as many good non-PBS programs out there for stations to acquire.

And public TV—including his own station—is terrible about getting rid of old, potentially stale programs, he says.
Though he doesn’t have a lot of complaints about the shows PBS chooses, he acknowledges a few flops such as the Car Talk spinoff,Click and Clack’s As the Wrench Turns.

Basically, he figures, “You’re only as good as your last blockbuster.” And in the last five years, he’s seen several blockbusters fail to perform as well as expected. PBS and stations hoped Carrier would equal the success of Frontier House, but it wasn’t as big a hit. Burns’ national parks series probably will do well, he expects — possibly even better than The War.

Throughout the long ratings slide, it’s hard to pinpoint which series have weathered the storm well enough and which have not. However, TRAC analyses indicate ratings for Nova fell 31 percent from 2003-04 to 2007-08, while Great Performances and Live from Lincoln Center were down about 20 percent and Now was down 17 percent over the same four years. On Fridays, when most stations run public-affairs programs such as Now, ratings are “sinking into oblivion,” Reed says. Masterpiece’s numbers, on the other hand, are up more than 30 percent since it was rebranded, according to TRAC figures.

The letter to PBS from board chairs called for more programs designed to be localized by stations, citing as an example the local WWII documentaries surrounding The War. “We are concerned that the NPS is focused too much on the past and not enough on the future,” they wrote. “Our icons are aging — and in too many cases, fading — and we don’t appear to be investing sufficiently in building new ones or eliminating those that are faltering.”

Such investment has proven difficult, as program funds previously available for attention-getting series and experiments are used instead to prop up core series that can’t find enough corporate underwriting (Current, Oct. 14).

The pubTV system has to find the funds to take more risks, says Bass, though he’s not sure where the money will come from. He thinks PBS may need “to call some sacred cows into question” and reduce the amount of programs in which it’s investing. For example, he wonders if PBS is over-investing in kids’ programming at the expense of primetime, which could bring in more fundraising dollars. At OPB, Bass pays no attention to the ratings of kids’ shows because they have almost nothing to do with the station’s business model — it’s purely a mission service.

But mission programming is the basis for much of the goodwill that underlies foundation and government revenue to the system and could give it greater prominence in the plans of the country’s new president-elect.

Service to the community is a big part of pubTV leaders’ conversation about how public TV will remain relevant and financially viable in a constantly changing media future. If public TV only wanted higher ratings, says Pisaneschi, it could concentrate on popularity. But, he notes, the mission of public broadcasting generally has a more powerful influence on system decision-makers.


Between fall 2000 and fall 2001, the PBS primetime average dropped from 2.1 to 1.79. A major cause, PBS said, was that older viewers turned to cable news networks after 9/11.

In 2001, PBS declared the goal of increasing primetime average rating to 2.3 by 2004. But audience fragmentation drove it down to 1.6 instead.

PBS programmers John Wilson and Coby Atlas discuss shows and audiences in a Current Q&A in 2004. “The average household used to have about eight available channels and now has 75,” Wilson observes.

PubTV worries as Nielsen shifts ratings method, 2006.


Chris Schiavone on Findability: Helping viewers catch what they’d like on PBS.


While broadcast networks continue shrinking, ad-supported cable nets are growing as a group, and the election made cable news networks grow fastest of all from November ’07 to ’08, Multichannel News reported. The top dozen:

ESPN 2.4, up 4%
USA Network 2.1, flat
Fox News 2.1, up 75%
Disney 1.8, down 18%
TNT 1.5, flat
Nick at Nite 1.4, up 17%
TBS 1.3, down 7%
CNN 1.3, up 86%
Hallmark 1.3, up 8%
MSNBC 1.2, up 140%
Cartoon Network, 1.1, flat
Lifetime 1.1, up 10%

Nielsen’s “Three Screen Report, May 2008.

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