Finding bright spots: cloning what works in local pubTV programs

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Sports broadcasts, such as the University of Nebraska games on the state's NET Television, are only one of the program types that have strong appeal to local viewers. (Photo: NET.)

For more than 25 years, we have been studying public television stations and programming, and for all those years we sat on one of the best-kept secrets in the system. We knew that some of the most-viewed programs on public television were locally produced shows, and the responsible stations certainly knew that piece of good news. But local shows don’t show up in the national ratings, and there are very few reliable ways for people outside of those stations to see the numbers.

After years of schedule-watching, we began seeing related patterns in the stations’ performance: Many of the stations with very popular local programs were among the broadcasters with the greatest success in viewership, in community partnerships, and in public support. What was the connection, we wondered? Could the programs and the stations’ success be cloned?

We were also inspired by a fast-track approach to problem-solving used successfully on a very different problem.

In 1990, Jerry Sternin of Save the Children went to Vietnam to assist the government with the complicated social problem of malnourished children. As reported in the book Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard by Chip and Dan Heath (Broadway Books, 2010), Sternin arrived with no resources, little money for the project, and a timeline of six months.

The usual bureaucratic response to such problems would be to convene panels of experts who would study the problem and prepare papers on water pollution, the causes of poverty and the lack of a transportation infrastructure. But this was Vietnam, and there was no time for any of that.

Straight to the bright spots

So Sternin, his wife and interpreters traveled to Vietnamese villages. With the help of local mothers, they began weighing and measuring all babies in each village. They were looking for “bright spots” — healthy, nourished babies — and they found a few. The team studied those babies to discover what their mothers did differently. They discovered the feeding pattern was key.

Once they discovered, analyzed and understood the bright spots, the team enlisted the mothers of the healthy babies as teachers. In small groups, these mothers trained their peers how to feed and nourish their babies. The project was a success and its results persisted for decades.

We intend to use this model to find bright spots at stations for TRAC’s Local Programming Initiative (LPI).

In the children’s malnutrition analogy, the units that Sternin analyzed were first the village and then the families with infants. In our case, we also start with the village (the Nielsen Designated Market Area) and move to the local public television station and the programs it produces. The bright spots we’re seeking are stations with successful local programming strategies.

The usual model of analysis, the so-called “disease model,” would focus on negatives, spending too much time and money puzzling about why some stations can’t achieve local success. Using a bright-spot model, we’ll skip the panels of experts and woeful reports about inadequate funding and instead look for what works and see if we can clone it.

Public broadcasting has some great programs, some great stations and some bright spots. And we want more.

Perceptual lenses, and the blue glass

Stations are social organizations. The “moving parts” are its people. Wisconsin Public Television’s Malcolm Brett told us the story of the manager who asked a producer: “Is this glass half-empty or half-full?” Without hesitation the producer answered, “It’s blue.”

The insight is not new: People view the world through different perceptual lenses, which can result in internal conflicts between station schedulers, producers and managers. The perceptual lens is attuned to one’s function. Managers manage, producers produce, and schedulers schedule.

For producers, the audience that matters most may be other producers; for schedulers, it might be an abstraction called ratings; and for managers, the most-wanted viewers might be the stations’ members, key foundations, potential community partners or the state legislature.

Though station professionals may see the audience in the aggregate, the thousands of individuals viewing Tennessee Crossroads, Oregon Field Guide or Georgia Sports Central tend to regard their relationship with the program and the station as a private, unique experience that occurs in their own living room in their home community. After years of watching public television in their local markets, viewers form emotional and psychological bonds with hosts, programs and stations.

For many viewers, this builds a palpable relationship with what some marketers call “brand” — a relationship more complex than with a box of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese.

Core viewers possess an enormous number of factoids about their public TV stations and just as many anecdotes about programs, hosts and even pledge personalities. All of these ideas, emotions, needs and wants combine into what public radio professionals call “stationality,” the unique personality that differentiates it from other stations in the market. For commercial network affiliates, local news operations often their distinguishing features. In public TV, local programming is a major factor in establishing that stationality.

Are you addicted to your house?

Psychology has changed a lot in the past 30 years. For those of us over 40, just about everything we learned is now passé. A new insight concerns the science of place — the effect of where we live.

As humans, we’re social animals, and the effects of place are complex. Our place includes the landscape and the environment in which we live and where we work. The effects of our neighborhoods (streets, houses, restaurants, markets) on our perceptions and behavior are especially dense and subtle.

Brain research shows that continual and daily exposure to objects and events in our environments breeds affection for the place(s) in which we live. Studies show that people evolve complex, almost addictive relationships with where they spend their days and live their lives.

Where we live shapes us in ways we seldom articulate or appreciate. The French vineyard notion of terroir is appropriate, perhaps, to explain the regional appeals of program preferences. Programs that are popular in Portland, Ore., might be less so in Portland, Maine.

Recognizing this geo-brain connection, we reached our epiphany about those relatively high ratings for local shows. Local programs, whether they’re about local history, architecture or ambience (e.g., North Carolina Weekend, Tennessee Crossroads, Georgia Traveler or Oregon Field Guide), just “feel good” to the local viewer. This emotional resonance is biological and specific to a place and time.

While some local productions such as Arizona Public Media’s Desert Speaks or Okie Noodling, distributed by OETA/The Oklahoma Network, will appeal to outsiders as well as hometowners, most local shows don’t travel that well. If we don’t live in St. Louis, even KETC’s highly popular political discussion show Donnybrook holds little emotional or psychological appeal simply because we don’t live there.

When you examine local schedules, they become Rubik’s Cubes of various genres, organized in a multitude of configurations. Some stations have lots of local sports; others, lots of performance or local history shows. The best stations choose a plethora of genres that reflect their markets’ interests rather than the personal prejudices of station producers, programmers or managers. At TRAC, we have identified four broad genres: Must-haves, Lifestyle, Units of Good, and Warm Glow (“Mix of local programs gives a pubTV station its ‘secret sauce,’” Current, Oct. 3, 2011).

The result is programming that reflects the market/DMA/village. This sense of localism is felt and expressed by the station’s staff. It is the result of a long process that may take years to achieve. The other result: Viewers sense the authenticity of the programming and reciprocate with their trust.

The geo-brain connection

The FCC assigns stations to specific geographical locations, creating the concept of local stations. Nielsen, in turn, rearranges the local geography into 210 different DMAs. That’s what we have to work with, and it provides us with opportunities as well as challenges.

In the first article in this series we concluded that geography is destiny. The manager of KMBH in Brownsville, Texas, confronts circumstances different from those surrounding WGBH in Boston. In this article, we argue that biology is destiny, also. Human beings come prepackaged with a set of responses to their environment, their homes and their loved ones, hardwired to their local milieu. This gives them something in common with the people around them.

People sync up with their environment, adopting identities based on where they live and what they do. Identities can be shaped by cues in communication campaigns as well as the environment. When those campaigns instill pride in unique local resources, they promote the development of a common identity and a common cause, to everyone’s benefit.

Public TV stations are uniquely positioned to help their local communities foster identities that will support and nourish local values. Even better, if the local station is seen as the catalyst of this upswing, it becomes a powerful symbol of local identity.

Programmers succeed by understanding and using market differences, preferences and identities to develop programs identifying the station with the market and the station with its viewers.

The markets, our Nielsen “villages,” will be the starting point for TRAC’s Local Program Initiative. Just as Sternin looked for the people responsible for bright spots in Vietnam, our initiative will begin by looking for the stations and leaders with a knack for creating relevant stationality and winning viewers’ trust.

In previous research, core viewers and members have recognized “localness” as a primary asset of public TV stations. Research shows that they are heavy viewers of local shows. The objective is to help stations reinforce their “localness,” attracting support and ensuring the stations’ public value and survival.

First commentary in series: Mix of local programs gives a pubTV station its ‘secret sauce’Judith and David LeRoy are founders and directors of TRAC Media Services, Tucson, Ariz., which distributes Nielsen audience data to public TV stations and provides audience analysis and programming services. Web:

More about the biology of place: The original treatment in 1981 was Joel Garreau’s The Nine Nations of North America, which emphasized shared cultural values in each “nation.” In 1994, Winifred Gallagher’s The Power of Place stressed the addictive power of our living domains. More recent work follows in Garreau’s tradition: Our Patchwork Nation by Dante Chinni and James Gimpel and American Nations by historian Colin Woodard. We also like The Big Sort by Bill Bishop. On Garreau’s website he points to interesting regional patterns in social media and cellphone usage.


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