PBS to test whether core series can bring in pledge dollars

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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.

An experiment with public TV pledge drives will feature an American Masters profile of Bing Crosby. (Photo: Bing Crosby Enterprises)

An experiment with public TV’s pledge programs will feature an American Masters profile of Bing Crosby. (Photo: Bing Crosby Enterprises)

The participating stations run the gamut, said Betsey Gerdeman, PBS’s s.v.p., development. They include stations in small and large markets, state networks, university licensees and major producing stations, all across the country. Fifteen stations opted in, she said, and PBS recruited two.

“We wanted a broad representation of all stations” so other stations would see themselves represented, she said.

The lineup for what PBS is calling the NPS Schedule On-Air Fundraising Initiative includes new episodes of American Masters, Antiques Roadshow, Charlie Rose—The Week, Nature, Nova and Washington Week with Gwen Ifill. Filling out the schedule will be music specials: Kristin Chenoweth: Coming Home and A Tribute to Bruce Springsteen, both of which are part of the Friday PBS Arts Festival; 50 Years With Peter, Paul And Mary; and Renée Fleming—Christmas in New York.

Two specials complete the lineup: Downton Abbey Rediscovered, a retrospective hosted by Bernadette Peters that includes a sneak peek at the upcoming Season 5, and The Candy Bomber, a true story about an American pilot who dropped treats to post-war German children during the 1948 Berlin airlift.

Four of the programs — the Chenoweth and Downton Abbey specials, as well as American Masters and Nova — are also designated as common carriage on the NPS schedule.

In designing the lineup, PBS asked producers of its core series for shows with “a particularly interesting or emotional arc to them that might resonate with viewers that are used to watching the core schedule,” said Joe Campbell, v.p. of fundraising programs for PBS.

So Antiques Roadshow contributed a new episode of its popular “Junk in the Trunk” appraisals, culled from the 2014 season. American Masters profiled Bing Crosby. Nature compiled fan-favorite excerpts of past shows devoted to birds, while Nova will debut what is being described as an “intimate portrait” of astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first person to walk on the moon.

Campbell called the Armstrong profile, which comprises interviews with his family and friends, “just a compelling story” that also lent itself to pledge. Several high points in Armstrong’s life made for logical breaks “where the interruption and inconvenience to the audience could be minimized,” Campbell said.

The music specials also align with the regular schedule. The Fleming show “could have been a Great Performances” episode, while the Peter, Paul and Mary special could “easily be an American Masters,” he said.

The 90-minute programs follow the standard pledge format, with 60 minutes of content and preproduced fundraising breaks. “We spent a lot of time crafting the messaging within the breaks,” Campbell said, with an emphasis on “mission messaging, talking specifically about the value of public television to the viewer and the benefits they receive,” whether additional digital content from the PBS website or local station-supported community initiatives. Some traditional premiums will be offered.

All the shows have optional two-minute local cutaway windows so stations can promote “their local brand and local value and local uniqueness,” Gerdeman said.

The pilot stations will receive additional assets, including a promotional spot, pages for their websites that lead to the transactional portal, and templates for social media and email outreach.

PBS will measure whether audience behavior changes during this pledge experiment as well as how donors respond and whether those who do donate are more likely to stick around for the long term. PBS will also conduct attitudinal surveys with viewer panels before, during and after the test. Future drives going forward will also offer some NPS pledge shows, such as a March 2015 special previewing the new season of Mr. Selfridge.

Gerdeman said PBS sees the pilot stations as partners, “not our guinea pigs,” and insights gleaned in December “will inform what we do in March, which will inform what we do in August. What we’re trying to get is a deeper understanding.”

The pledge test, she added, is not a one-off project but one piece of her department’s overall goal to most effectively align all fundraising and development activities, from membership to online recruitment and philanthropy, and make sure that they are “underpinning each other.”

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