‘Tent-poles’ ahead

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PBS is raising tent-poles to reinvigorate its primetime lineup. Over the next one to three years, it will shrink down a number of as-yet-unidentified series to high-profile special events, then use the freed-up production money and schedule space to nurture new shows it hopes will mature into icons.

Station programmers are a hungry lot, constantly agitating for the next big hit. But several are also expressing concerns over this tent-pole approach. If PBS reduces the footprint of established series that are known quantities, will the replacement series do as well with viewers and underwriters?

PBS stresses that it will work closely with stations and producers to pinpoint which series will get the new treatment. Stephanie Aaronson, a PBS spokesperson, said “a lot of data” will be used in the process, including CPB audience preference research as well as ratings, carriage and outreach impact, “to make informed decisions.”

Chief Operating Officer Michael Jones said PBS will be “effectively delivering on our mission and doing things in a more cost-effective way.”

“If we can make a determination that we can deliver different kinds of messages over an extended period in a better way, and deepen our reach into the audience by looking at things differently, we will do that,” he told Current.

Jones added that using any savings to formulate new programming “is certainly not a primary goal but is something that would be an objective.”

Oregon Public Broadcasting CEO Steve Bass gives PBS credit for exploring this new path. “Hats off to them,” he said. “It’s hard to know the right thing to do, but doing nothing is the wrong thing.”

But WETA production chief Dalton Delan struck a cautious note, saying PBS shouldn’t “throw out what we have unless there’s a very clear game plan.” While more money for programming innovation is sorely needed, “I don’t think we should take it out of existing strands. I don’t think we should turn there to scalp them on behalf a new fund.”

Raise high that tent-pole

PBS’s strategic plan was discussed during the regional round-robin meetings with station leaders in Baltimore and Las Vegas this fall. The plan defines “tent-poles” as an audience-building maneuver similar to “pop-out” programs. The terms confuse even some longtime pubcasters.

A tent-pole event, according to the PBS document, is a “high-visibility, high-impact limited series or feature-length documentary that offers a definitive take on a subject, breaks new ground, and attracts a broad audience. Its purpose is to ‘raise the tent’ of public television and invite in new and infrequent viewers to sample PBS’s content.”

In contrast, promo spending in part defines a “pop-out” program, which “receives the highest level of promotional emphasis and is applied only when our promotion plans include significant paid-media.”

Some tent-poles are pop-outs, too. Take National Parks: America’s Best Idea. Aaronson said that was “a tent-pole special event in the schedule that was also selected as a marketing pop-out.” She pointed to other successful tent-poles: We Shall Remain from American Experience and The Elegant Universe from Nova.

Tent-poling and popping-out can indeed draw more viewers. Craig Reed, director of audience analysis for TRAC Media Services, called the PBS plan “a valid strategy,” citing National Parks. “That hit what we were expecting,” he said. “It more than doubled the primetime average for its premiere. I’d certainly call it a success.”

CPB is sponsoring research on the effects of tent-poles on viewership, focusing on the Latin Music USA series in October 2009. CPB is hoping the research will help it determine:

  • what impact the tent-poles had on primetime ratings, especially the broadcast week and just afterward;
  • whether new viewers who come to tent-pole events then come back to PBS for more; and
  • how successful cross-platform and promotion efforts were for the specials.

Researchers will brief CPB and PBS on their findings in mid- to late-January.

PBS has high hopes for the tent-pole concept. Though its National Program Service now has “a stable of trusted brands,” the network admits in the plan that it has been “unable to significantly freshen the schedule with new content that successfully competes for the audience’s attention.”

That year-after-year sameness may be one factor in public TV’s audience decline. According to TRAC, PBS’s average primetime rating tumbled from 1.9 in 1999-2000 to 1.1 in 2008-09 — a 42 percent drop. But commercial and cable networks change their schedules constantly and have also lost viewers to the growth of new channels and Web usage.

And at a time when PBS wants to freshen its schedule, there’s less money in its NPS production budget. Although PBS’s available programming dollars grew from $164 million in fiscal 2006 to $186 million in FY09, the sum drops to $172 million in the next proposed budget, for FY11.

When you take inflation into consideration, the PBS programming kitty already has less spending power than it had in ’06.

Out of eight “major new and continuing initiatives in content” in the proposed FY11 budget, only two — National Parks and two children’s shows — are traditional programming. The content budget is also called upon to support development of new web-based delivery systems for PBS and the stations to use. Those efforts include the newly redesigned PBS.org, and plans for enhancing the system’s new COVE online video portal, expanding the Digital Learning Library online video service for schools (formerly EDCAR), developing a preschool online video player, completing grants for the PBS Engage social network, and developing a plan to create more social media tools.

Helping seedlings take root

There are good reasons for doubt about untested new series. For 2009, while commercial and cable networks shot a whopping 103 primetime pilots, only a few will ever be shown to viewers, according to the production research firm Film L.A. Inc. So progressing beyond a pilot and growing into a full season and beyond is very tricky in commercial TV, too.

Public TV programmers, like those at the networks, are impatient for programs to succeed right out of the gate. One former PBS insider noted that programmers tend to lose faith in shows quickly, unwilling to let a new title find its groove over time. And with limited development resources, PBS also invests cautiously, seeking projects most likely to score a bulls-eye.

In the case of the development of Wired Science, CPB paid for and PBS aired only 10 episodes of the new science series, which was born of extensive CPB audience research and chosen from among three competing pilots.

Instead of junking the series concept after the first short season, the former PBS exec said, the network could have sent Wired Science back to focus groups, tinkered with the formula and patiently nurtured it for a stronger relaunch.

OPB produced a hit with History Detectives, now in its eighth season — and considered one of PBS’s “newer” primetime series. The state network is shooting for similar success with Time Team USA, a Yankee echo of a 14-year-old you-are-there archaeology show on Britain’s Channel 4. PBS and distributor Channel 4 International funded the first season of five episodes, which premiered last summer. Viewers, archeologists and critics, including the New York Times, raved about the series, said Dave Davis, head of national TV production. Ratings were only “so-so,” Davis acknowledged, but it wasn’t helped by airdates in July, “when nobody is watching and everybody is out barbecuing.” Wired Science’s first season debuted in the summer, too.

When OPB re-ran Time Team’s first season on its HD and SD channels in October, the combined rating reach into the 2’s. Is that good enough for a second shot at another season? OPB has asked PBS to fund more episodes but hasn’t yet heard back.

Davis said he agrees “100 percent” that seedlings of new shows should be given a chance to take root. He’s hoping that will also happen with Sound Tracks, the world-music show whose pilot airs on PBS next month. The program features three segments on contemporary music introduced by correspondents worldwide. Sound Tracks will run on the PBS online video player on Jan. 5, before the pilot broadcast launch Jan. 25. So far Sound Tracks is just a pilot, funded by PBS, AT&T and pubTV’s National Minority Consortia [pilot website].

Sound Tracks would also fit well into the PBS Arts Initiative, still in development. A pet project of PBS President Paula Kerger, it’s been described as an umbrella promotion over one evening per week, perhaps Wednesdays, to showcase existing and new arts programming. PBS brought back retired arts programmer Glenn DeBose to consult on the project, which already has $100,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts for a website. PBS told Current in May that it hopes for funding of $15 million over three years.

Margaret Drain, v.p. of national productions at series powerhouse WGBH, notes that revenues for series will drop if PBS reduces their number of episodes. Sponsors and underwriters “want to know how many times their credit is out there,” she said. “That’s one of the downsides of doing this.”Locking in a budget is challenging enough as it is, given the dismal economic climate.

Take WGBH’s upcoming six-hour series God in America, which views American history through the lens of religious traditions. It’ll air in 2011 and is a co-production of Frontline and American Experience. The series has backing from the Setzer Foundation and CPB’s five-year Opportunity Fund (which is ending). Even with what Drain calls “that generous backing,” raising the remainder of money for the series has been “very, very difficult.”

For several years, the Opportunity Fund has fueled pubTV projects identified as important by primetime research. It supported several icons: Masterpiece, Nova and Nature each received $6 million over three years; NewsHour got $1.5 million over two years.

Whither the core?

Reed, the TRAC audience analyst, worries that existing fans of established titles may be trampled in the clamor to concoct new icon series. What if PBS shrinks a performing arts series, he speculates, “and a new similar performance series comes on that’s fresher and younger-skewing. The core viewers want shows that are high-brow and complex. They want intellectual density. That’s what’s important.”

A longtime system insider who didn’t want to be identified voiced another concern: Would the money saved by producing fewer episodes cover the necessary intense promotion to make the tent-poles a hit as well as fund development of expensive new content? The PBS strategic report offered no specifics and PBS spokespersons said the plan presents over-arching goals, with concrete steps yet to be developed. Tent-poles indeed need a big, expensive splash to effectively lure in new viewers.

Several series producers said they’ve heard nothing yet from PBS about their shows — or even rumors about any shows that may be considered, for that matter. Simon Kilmurry, executive director of indie doc series P.O.V., said PBS has not approached him. “All indications are that P.O.V. is in the schedule and we’re proceeding like there are no significant changes in number of episodes.” However . . . Kilmurry said that for the past seven or eight years PBS has renewed P.O.V.’s contract on a two-year basis; for next season, it re-upped for one. “It wasn’t a comment on quality, I think they’re just being very cautious making commitments,” Kilmurry said.

And so pubcasters await signals from PBS on just how and when the tent-poles and episode reductions may occur. Producers, station execs and PBS staff are meeting Jan. 11 in Washington, D.C., for the annual PBS Content Summit. Last year the focus was its multiplatform strategy. This year, it says, the agenda “centers upon the heart and soul of our business: the inspiring, trusted and engaging content that is the hallmark of PBS.”

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