Now that Arbitron’s new ratings methodology is providing consistent and crunchable year-to-year data on radio listening, public radio programmers and producers are getting a clearer picture of listening trends — and it’s not a cheerful one. Cume and average–quarter-hour audience for NPR News stations has been falling for a year, according to NPR data. AQH began falling in 2008, after stations in the top 48 markets began the switch from diary to Portable People Meter ratings. Weekly cumes remained relatively consistent through spring 2011, then began a sharp decline. The slides have been driven in part by a fall-off in drivetime listening.
When Public Radio Program Directors Association was formed 25 years ago, the idea that programmers should do things for an audience “felt like a complete revolution,” says Marcia Alvar in a Q&A with three of the founders.
The Season 2 finale of Downton Abbey on Masterpiece Classic, aired Feb. 19, won the biggest audience for a PBS program since the premiere of Ken Burns’s National Parks: America’s Best Idea in September 2009. Nielsen estimated that 5.4 million viewers watched the two-hour finale, giving PBS a 3.5 household rating. That doesn’t include the additional viewers of rebroadcasts, DVR recordings and online streams, PBS said. For the seven-week season, broadcast viewing was double the PBS average in primetime and 25 percent higher than in Downton’s first season.
For more than 25 years, we have been studying public television stations and programming, and for all those years we sat on one of the best-kept secrets in the system. We knew that some of the most-viewed programs on public television were locally produced shows, and the responsible stations certainly knew that piece of good news. But local shows don’t show up in the national ratings, and there are very few reliable ways for people outside of those stations to see the numbers. After years of schedule-watching, we began seeing related patterns in the stations’ performance: Many of the stations with very popular local programs were among the broadcasters with the greatest success in viewership, in community partnerships, and in public support. What was the connection, we wondered?
Every week, we and our staff at TRAC Media Services review program performance of public television stations in the 56 markets metered by Nielsen.
Through the years, we have become accustomed to seeing local programs appear among the most popular titles on many stations. And stations with the most popular local series were among the system’s most successful. What, we wondered, was the relationship between a station’s success and its local programming? This question led to TRAC’s Local Programming Initiative, which will officially launch in October. Success has different meanings at different public television stations.
The traditional pledge-drive mantra brags about a piece of public television’s ancestral DNA: “PBS — your home for quality, uninterrupted programming.”
So the public reacted fairly predictably when PBS announced at this month’s annual meeting in Orlando that it’s considering internal promotional spots as part of its primetime revamp. As one blogger quipped, “Even though it wouldn’t involve actual commercials, I honestly think that Fred Rogers wouldn’t be happy with this idea.”
But some public TV programmers have responded more with curiosity than with outrage. They realize that the PBS schedule loses hundreds of thousands of viewers between shows and has for years. And by clustering compatible programs, as PBS plans to do for the fall, stations can retain more viewers through the station break. The audience isn’t keen on sitting through the present hodgepodge of video snippets between shows: some eight minutes of national and local underwriting spots, promos, program credits, network and station branding and teases.
A new study for NPR identifies a much bigger potential news audience that would listen to public radio if the field works to break down perceptions that its programs are elitist and stuffy. Producers would have to make shows that are more lively and conversational and promoters would have to take greater care when describing public radio as “intelligent” and “serious,” according to the Los Angeles-based firm SmithGeiger.
While our audience stereotypes may be better informed than they were 40 years ago, they can blind us to our potential for growth and change, with equally dangerous consequences. Today there are many indicators that we have room for audience growth on radio if only we expand our view of the potential.