TJ Lubinsky has a long, successful track record of producing music specials for public TV pledge drives.
His first, Doo Wop 50, was a bonafide sensation when it premiered in 1999. Featuring performances from the Platters, the Skyliners and the Penguins, among others, it raised more than $75 million for stations and set a new record for the highest-producing public TV pledge show.
The hits kept rolling for the 75 or so pledge specials Lubinsky has produced since then, including Doo Wop 51, This Land Is Your Land and a bevy of PBS-distributed fundraising shows presented under the title My Music. With each, Lubinsky attempted to capture the soundtracks of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, bringing performances by one-hit wonders and cultural icons to TV screens of viewers who loved the music and the trips down memory lane.
Now Lubinsky is drawing from his deep archive to give viewers and stations a new look at his body of work. The Oldies Show With TJ Lubinsky, a series of half-hour episodes to be delivered in batches of four to eight, will feature artist interviews recorded during production of his performance specials. Due to format and run-time limitations of pledge programs, much of the interview footage never made it into the fundraising specials.
“When I was making each show … we also had two or three days of prerecording,” says Lubinsky. “While that was going on, I was doing interviews with each member of the group or the group together.”
“I got to really talk to them about their songs and about what was happening in their lives at the time that they were on the radio,” he adds. “I’ve recorded thousands of interviews now, many of them who have since moved on to another plane.” His archive includes interviews with Aretha Franklin, Glenn Campbell, Judy Collins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Burt Bacharach and Ronnie Spector.
Stories behind the songs
The Oldies Show will premiere with episodes focusing on the “legends of R&B,” Lubinsky says. They’ll be designed to air weekly and seamlessly lead up to a March pledge rebroadcast of something like R&B 40, his 2002 pledge special. Episodes will tell the stories of the songs audiences love while building anticipation for the upcoming pledge drive, Lubinsky says.
The Oldies Show will also explore the social and political currents that determined which songs, and which artists, got radio airplay. For instance, Lubinsky says, music lovers might remember “Only In America,” a song released in 1964 by Jay and the Americans. But they might not know that the track was originally recorded by the Drifters, the quartet of Black vocalists whose doo-wop and R&B hits include “There Goes My Baby” and “Under the Boardwalk.” Record executives at the time decided that the Drifters’ version could alienate record buyers, he says. “So they … gave it to Jay and the Americans, who recorded it and had it become a big top 10 hit.”
“It was always a Drifters song, though,” Lubinsky adds.
In his interviews, Lubinsky asked members of the Drifters and Jay and the Americans how they felt “now that they know the song’s true history,” he says. “And then the big payoff is that we’ll get to see both groups together singing the song for the first time on television.”
Episodes planned for next April and May will feature pop and rock legends of the ’60s and build anticipation of eventual rebroadcasts of Lubinsky specials such as ’60s Experience from 2005, 2009’s Ed Sullivan’s Rock and Roll Classics: The ’60s from 2009 or Rock Rewind: ’65-’67 from 2015.
Lubinsky envisions The Oldies Show as a series to be scheduled in early evening time slots on weekends, “when the older generation is coming home from early bird dinner and there’s nothing on television for them.” Those viewers, Lubinsky says, are the most likely to identify with the songs and artists they’re seeing.
“Try to look at the specials through the lens of someone … looking back to when they were starting a family or when they just came out of the service,” he explains. “They had their whole lives ahead of them. Now they might have children or grandchildren who they want to share memories with, and nothing helps do that like music.”
Nostalgia is his secret sauce
Phil DiComo, a former public broadcaster who worked with Lubinsky in the 1980s and ’90s at south Florida stations WPBT and WXEL, credits his onetime protege with crafting shows that “hit our deepest memories as viewers.”
“No matter where you are in the age spectrum, one of his programs hits those days for you,” DiComo says. “It’s emotional, and it makes people feel good.” DiComo now practices law and represents Lubinsky’s TJL Productions in contract negotiations and on trademark and copyright issues.
“Nostalgia is one of the really good drivers of a solid pledge program,” says Kristen Kuebler, director of client services for the public TV research firm TRAC Media. It’s not just the retro content of Lubinsky’s shows that can get audiences pledging, she says, but also their memories of first watching the specials years ago.
Every year for at least the past decade, at least one and as many as three TJL-produced specials have ranked in the top 10 of most-watched shows across PBS member stations, says Kuebler, who analyzes performance of pledge shows at TRAC. Station rebroadcasts of some specials have helped make some of them into hits, she adds. Last year, three of Lubinsky’s older specials made the list: This Land Is Your Land from 2001, Magic Moments: The Best of ’50s Pop from 2004 and My Music: ’60s Pop, Rock & Soul from 2011.
“TJL Productions has done a great job of honing in on nostalgia and music and creating a whole brand, really, for public television,” says BaBette Davidson, president of the Programming Service for Public Television, which provides program scheduling and pledge-planning services to more than 50 PBS stations. She hasn’t seen episodes of The Oldies Show yet but said she definitely will when screeners are available. Her interest stems from TJL’s reputation for success and the interests of her client stations, many of which recognize how much their viewers value nostalgic programming.
The Oldies Show has the potential to help stations “fulfill the promise we make to audiences,” Davidson explains.
“During our pledge drives, we always say ‘This is your way of letting us know what you like,’ and this kind of show keeps the pipeline of that content going,’” says Davidson, who also appears as on-camera talent in public TV pitch breaks. “It’s really important for stations to be able to say, ‘You’ve given us your money for this type of content, and we want to deliver on what you were interested in.’”
In focus groups, public TV viewers recognize Lubinsky and his performance specials, Kuebler says. “When we get people who really liked those shows or have pledged for them in the past — they absolutely know who TJ is,” she said. “They look for his shows because they generally enjoy them.”
“Even if they don’t pledge for every single one of them, they’ll watch and enjoy them,” Kuebler adds.
An indie endeavor
After a career of producing fundraising programs for PBS, Lubinsky went indie about five years ago and now self-distributes his specials directly to public TV stations. The change enabled him to connect directly with individual fundraisers and programmers at stations and learn about what works best in their markets.
He developed The Oldies Show in response to programmers who said their viewers want to watch programs like his performance specials year-round. The goal is to get those viewers to keep tuning in enough that they’ll pledge ongoing support or make a more sizable donation to their local station, Lubinsky says. The Oldies Show and My Music will also be available for on-demand viewing via PBS Passport, and some episodes will be remastered in widescreen, he says.
“It’ll be really interesting to see how this plays from a fundraising standpoint,” says DiComo, Lubinsky’s mentor-turned-attorney. “Does it ultimately increase the number of phone calls or the number of pledges so that we increase the amount of gifts that stations get? I have no idea, but I think it makes sense in the evolution of the whole pledge concept. You have to experiment and do it smartly, but let’s see what works.”