In a response to shifts in daytime viewing patterns, PBS will reduce the footprint of children’s shows on its primary National Program Service feed in February.
The overhaul of PBS’ weekday schedule, under discussion between PBS and stations for more than a year, recognizes the ways that children are consuming media now — and that far fewer are watching linear TV.
“Many have moved to streaming platforms,” said Sara DeWitt, SVP and GM of children’s media and education for PBS. The PBS Kids 24/7 multicast channel, also distributed as a streaming service, is where many kids and their caregivers are turning to catch PBS’ children’s programs.
The change also makes room for PBS to build on a strategy that has already helped many stations — adding general-audience programs that appeal to adults who are watching linear TV.
Beginning Feb. 6, PBS will feed eight hours of children’s programming on the daytime NPS feed, from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. That’s a reduction of five hours from the current schedule, which feeds PBS Kids programs from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m.
PBS requires member stations to air at least seven hours of kids programming each weekday, and that will not change when the new schedule rolls out.
‘Fewer children were available’
In place of children’s shows, the new weekday schedule will include a mix of lifestyle/how-to fare and repeats of prime-time programs, according to Sylvia Bugg, PBS chief programming executive and GM of general audience programming.
Around 40% of stations are already airing general audience programs during weekdays, Bugg said. Discussions with station programmers about daytime scheduling strategies have been integral to PBS’ decisions, she said.
About 80% of the stations that outsource their TV scheduling to the Programming Service have already made the transition, according to SVP Justin Harvey. He began recommending the change to client stations in 2018, he said.
“It was a recognition that increasingly nonlinear options were available through the [PBS Video] app and through the website,” Harvey said, describing the rationale for the revamp. “As fewer children were available, we needed to provide content for the adults who were available.”
Bugg believes that the new daytime schedule gives PBS and stations a chance to expand viewership and extend the reach of their general-audience programs. “It’s really designed to give stations that flexibility as we … respond to an ever-evolving audience,” she said.
She anticipates that her scheduling team will adapt the thematic approach that PBS now uses in prime time. “If you think about your Monday nights, that’s antiques night,” Bugg said. “On Tuesday, there’s history. Wednesdays, we offer science and nature programming. What we would do is offer a similar scheduling plan for those dayparts.”
The afternoon block will transition from kids programming into lifestyle or how-to content and then present a variety of general-audience shows, Bugg said. When possible, PBS will schedule repeats of the previous night’s prime-time programs.
Increasing loyalty and viewership
KPBS decided to add general-audience programs to its weekday schedule in December 2019. The San Diego station was reacting to changes in viewership that were clearly evident in its Nielsen ratings and Google Analytics, said John Decker, associate GM of content. The choice, he said, was “really that simple.”
The station introduced a three-hour block of general-audience fare 2–5 p.m. weekdays.
KPBS has experimented with different genres, starting with lifestyle and cooking shows including the Great British Baking Show, Decker said. Airings of Ken Burns’ documentaries performed only “OK,” he said. Ultimately, programmers focused the schedule on lifestyle shows.
“This gave our audience an opportunity to spend a lot more time with us,” Decker said. “The one overarching goal is to increase loyalty and increase viewership.”
The plan worked, according to Decker. Adult viewers are spending more time watching KPBS in the afternoons than children had been spending with PBS Kids programming, he said. Viewing numbers “increased dramatically.”
Still, it’s a lot of work for programmers to schedule the afternoon block, Decker said. “The challenge is filling an additional 15 hours a week with high-quality programs,” he said. “Mostly what we use is cooking, lifestyle and travel. That’s really high-quality. That’s signature public television.”
‘COVID … accelerated everything’
WOSU in Columbus, Ohio, began scheduling an afternoon block of general-audience programs in May 2021, said Stacia Hentz, interim director of television and TV PD. Like programmers at other stations, she recognized the potential for audience growth on weekdays during the COVID pandemic in 2020. That’s when WOSU and many other stations replaced their PBS Kids lineup with general-audience programs that supported at-home learning, achieving a notable boost in viewership.
The new afternoon block, which airs 3–5:30 p.m., wasn’t an instant success for WOSU, Hentz said. She saw a slow climb in ratings during the summer months, when viewers spend less time watching television.
“When you make program changes, it’s always a slow, gradual change for viewers to recognize, find and respond,” she said. “But when … fall came and kids were back in school, that’s when we started to really see … what we were doing was really working.”
WOSU has found that a combination of history and drama tends to do well with viewers, Hentz said. “We’re using a lot of our acquisition programming,” she said, such as Death in Paradise, a BBC crime drama set in the Caribbean.
Audience response to stations’ at-home learning schedules also made an impression on DeWitt of PBS Kids. “It became very clear that there was a good number of adults with its afternoon audience,” she said. “We had seen kids transition from broadcast to digital, we knew that that was happening fairly quickly. But COVID dramatically accelerated everything.”
PBS Digital’s ability to manage increased demand for streaming programs early in the pandemic also registered as significant, DeWitt said. It demonstrated that PBS was ready to handle the huge “surge in traffic” that would come with reduced hours of PBS Kids on the daytime feed. With that, she came to the realization PBS was accessible “on the platforms that people were using and needed.”
‘Meet audiences where they are’
PBS and station programmers weren’t at odds over stations’ decisions to add adult programming in the afternoon, according to Bugg. “They shed light on what they were doing and helped to inform us as we went down this road and pursued this journey,” she said.
“Our aim is to meet audiences where they are,” DeWitt added. “For kids, it became clear that it really was 24/7 and streaming, particularly in the afternoon.” Viewership of PBS Kids on the morning NPS feed remains strong, she said. “That’s why we want to keep that block up to 2 p.m.,” she said.
Stations that want to keep airing kids shows for longer than required will be able to do so, DeWitt said. PBS will provide a recommended schedule of PBS Kids programming for the weekday 2–6 p.m. time slot. In addition, an extensive library of children’s content is available to them through the siX interconnection system. And PBS marketing will provide promos and other creative assets to help promote the PBS Kids 24/7 channel.
Once the new schedule launches, Bugg plans to monitor audience data in collaboration with station programmers, including those who made the change long ago, she said. She’ll also evaluate the best uses of program rights and look at how to maximize the rights periods for general-audience programming.
Meanwhile, DeWitt wants to reposition PBS Kids to “make up in digital growth any decline [they] have” in linear viewing, she said.
“We want to make sure that we are picking up those audiences on the digital side on those platforms that are localized, so we know we have a really robust service,” she said.