ATLANTA — Users of PBS Passport and the PBS video app users remain satisfied with both products, but nonmembers and less loyal audiences want different genres of content added to the viewing options and improvements to the app’s user interface.
Those were among findings presented last week at the Public Media Development and Marketing Conference in Atlanta, gleaned from a 10-minute questionnaire PBS sent to nearly 130,000 email addresses March 1–9. PBS acquired the email addresses from people who signed up for newsletters, PBS Passport and other online services. Profiles used in the survey were created between February 2022 and February 2023.
PBS pulled insights from 3,961 completed surveys. Around 67% of respondents said they were 65 years of age or older, with 88% of total responses coming from self-identified white viewers and 62% from female viewers.
About 86% of the responses came from PBS Passport members who contribute at least $5 a month to their local public television station. Thirty-three percent of those respondents said they have the PBS app installed and use it regularly, up from 26% in a 2021 survey. The percentage of Passport members who had not heard of the PBS app dropped from 26% in 2021 to 17%.
Many viewers, particularly those older than 65, donate enough money to access Passport content but either have not signed in to use it, have trouble using the service, or are sticking with familiar linear viewership, according to Erin Moroney, PBS’ manager of consumer insights and analysis, who presented the study at PMDMC.
But younger viewers and emerging audiences are showing clear signs that they’ll access public TV content through the PBS app. Stations and the entire system need to continue to increase promotion of Passport and the app usage to help make up for declines in pledge-drive viewership, said Jerry Liwanag, VP of fundraising programming at PBS.
“The one thing that concerns me … we’re not bringing in as many new members as we have,” Liwanag said at a separate PMDMC session about Passport. “We need to be replenishing that new membership file.”
Insights from Passport members
A positive finding about Passport from the survey is that regular users are satisfied with it. In both the 2021 study and the recent one, 73% of users said they are either “somewhat” or “extremely” satisfied with the product. The average level of user satisfaction for video streaming services is 74%, with Max among the top at 79%, according to Moroney.
“It’s really hard to get beyond that high 70s, low 80s satisfaction score,” Moroney said. “… The fact that we’re in this range and we’re maintaining it year over year is a really positive takeaway.”
Fewer users said they had difficulty signing up for Passport. In 2019, 24% of people said they had sign-up difficulties. That fell to 11% this year. More users said the shows they wanted are on Passport and that they’re likely to renew their memberships.
Among users who don’t plan to renew, two-thirds said they’re open to changing their minds if given additional benefits. Users want extended availability of current content, additional Passport-exclusive content from existing shows and early access to content.
When asked how much of a role Passport played in users’ decision to donate or to renew a membership, 28% said it was not a factor, while 29% said it played a role but was not the primary motivation.
On the flip side, 21% said Passport “played a large role” in the decision, while another 21% said it was the primary reason they decided to donate or renew.
What nonmembers are looking for
The survey responses included 916 from people who haven’t donated to their local stations and are not Passport members. Their thoughts can inform the public television system about how to attract emerging audiences, Moroney said.
Only 47% of nonmember PBS app users were familiar with Passport, down from 62% in 2021. Stations have traditionally promoted Passport heavily on air, but with linear TV viewership declining, Moroney hypothesized that some viewers may be seeing fewer messages about Passport.
“It might not be a bad problem to have,” she said. “There might just be more people who are aware of the app that we now need to make aware of Passport. … There’s room for growth here.”
The survey also found that 75% of nonmembers are aware of the PBS app but only 15% use it regularly. Lack of awareness was the top reason respondents hadn’t installed the app. Thirty-seven percent said they weren’t aware of it, 34% said they prefer to watch PBS content in other ways and 22% said they have too many other apps. Eight percent said they couldn’t find programs they liked.
Nonmembers who use the app tend to act like bingers, downloading it to access specific programs, Moroney said. Sixty-one percent in 2023 said they got the app to access a particular program, up from 55% in 2021.
Nonmembers wrote in suggestions for improving the app. They generally wanted more content. “I would like to see more shows produced by my local PBS station,” one said, while another asked for more programs like Masterpiece.
One user asked PBS to “increase the length of time shows are available after airing,” while another simply said they wanted “all episodes of all shows.”
The research showed that members and nonmembers may have different interests in the kinds of programs they want, requiring PBS to strike the proper balance among what it promotes, Moroney said.
“As you might expect, drama is the top genre among our Passport members, but it actually only ranks third among our nonmembers. For nonmembers, history is actually the top genre, followed by science and nature,” she said. “These results have us thinking not only about what new content to add to the library but also how to curate and market to different audiences.”
Among suggested improvements to the app’s interface, nonmembers said they want recommendations for what to watch, similar to what Netflix offers, and a continuous play feature that starts the next episode of a program after one ends, which most streaming services already provide.