Upgrades to PBS Passport seen as only one part of the solution to public TV’s fundraising challenges

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Maryland Public Television promotes its Passport with the drama "Hotel Portofino."

As public TV stations face steeper challenges in attracting new viewers and donors, fundraising leaders are looking to digital platforms as the best bet for building membership revenues.

PBS is working on several technological upgrades to PBS Passport, its streaming service for station donors, that will begin rolling out later this year. The member benefit, available to viewers who contribute at least $60 annually to their local PBS station, has been a boon for growing public TV’s membership files, but that growth is slowing, according to an analysis presented July 20 by Contributor Development Partnership during the Public Media Development and Marketing Conference in Chicago.

CDP President Michal Heiplik and Daren Winckel, senior director of fundraising strategy, shared a July report on audience and giving trends that described uneven results from on-air fundraising and declining retention of first-year donors in 2022 across public TV and radio stations. One of the reasons for the decline in public TV donors, according to CDP, is a slowdown in Passport’s growth.

After its launch in 2015, Passport became a powerful tool for donor acquisition. CDP’s presentation included data showing that members who actively use the service tend to renew at higher rates.

As television viewers migrate to streaming services, station leaders have pressed for upgrades to Passport. PBS will begin delivering those in the fourth quarter of 2022. During a Thursday PMDMC session, PBS’ fundraising team shared details about improvements they’re making to Passport’s viewing experience and customer service support.

Passport will introduce “continuous play,” which pushes viewers into the next program in their queue, and a “continue watching” section for members who want to jump back into their favorite programs easily. The closest thing PBS Passport has to a “continue watching” function is its “viewing history” section, but it lumps in videos that viewers have already watched with those that are in progress.

Additional improvements, which will roll out through the first quarter of 2023, are a pilot run of a customer service live chat bot and a tool that will help people activate their PBS Passport account with a QR code.

Jerry Liwanag, PBS VP of fundraising programming, discussed the Passport upgrades during the session while encouraging fundraisers to embrace the future.

“I think we’re at a crossroads right now,” Liwanag said during the session. “The convergence of digital streamers and broadcasters is here now and that’s shifted the way people give … that’s shifted the way they consume content.”

PBS continues to encourage stations to invest in digital outreach and diversify their fundraising programs through pledge drives, direct mail and other sources, Liwanag said. “A really exciting and …, I can imagine, intimidating part, is we now have an opportunity to redefine what our relationship is with the next set of PBS donors and viewers, just like our predecessors did decades ago.”

Beyond the changes coming to Passport, Liwanag encouraged stations to reevaluate how they promote the member benefit to viewers and donors. Though a $5 monthly sustaining donation is the minimum giving level to gain access to the streaming service, some station fundraisers ask donors to give more.

During CDP’s earlier session on “futureproofing” public TV fundraising, Deanna Mackey, GM of KPBS in San Diego, advised stations to invest more of their resources on attracting digital audiences. Citing analyses from PBS Audience Insights, she noted projections that show there is “no more growth of over-the-air television from people under 65. That means your over-the-air experience will only be with people 65 and over.” 

“That should really send fear in everybody,” Mackey added. “That is a major, major problem.” 

PBS Passport is one of the best ways to find sustainer donors across multiple demographics, said Mackey, former president of public TV’s Major Market Group. Stations need to move more of their investments in over-the-air platforms to digital, she added. She recommended that stations create jobs for staffers who are completely focused on promoting Passport and engaging with existing and potential viewers.

“[PBS Passport] is where the future money is at,” Mackey said. “We don’t have another way that will make you money as fast as Passport.”

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