Q&A: ‘Building on strengths’ key to PBS strategy

After stints in the cable world as producers and programmers, PBS execs Beth Hoppe and Donald Thoms returned to PBS last August to assist Chief TV Programming Executive John Wilson with primetime scheduling. They’ve also been working closely with producers to craft shows that will help build more audience flow across weeknights. With Hoppe’s expertise in science and nature production, and Thoms’ love of the arts and independent films, the pair brings passion for the programs that cover the breadth of PBS’s variety service, they said during a May 3 interview with Current. Here, the three programmers discuss their progress over the past year and their plans for the coming summer and fall seasons, including:

How strategies for presenting arts programs have evolved since last fall’s nine-week festival;
How granular Nielsen ratings numbers help them make decisions about commissioning, scheduling and promoting primetime programs; and
Why PBS stepped back from its proposal last year to insert promotional breaks into programming. This transcript has been edited.

Downton gives public TV a ratings blockbuster

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.

Downton returns, doubling average PBS evening rating

The return of Downton Abbey proved to be a ratings blockbuster for PBS, while critics  mostly heaped praise on the Emmy-winning drama’s second season. Downton’s season premiere Jan. 8 [2012] attracted an average 4.2 million viewers, not including viewing through station replays, DVRs or online streaming.  That figure was double the average primetime rating for PBS and exceeded the average rating of the first season of Downton Abbey by 18 percent, the network said. That night PBS’s audience was 64 percent larger than on previous Sundays this year, reaching an average Nielsen rating of 2.0, TRAC Media Services reported. In strong PBS cities Boston, Seattle, San Francisco and St.

Finding bright spots: cloning what works in local pubTV programs

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?

KCET briefly pulls ahead of PBS’s main station in L.A.

Though it now does without PBS programs, KCET briefly recovered its role as the most-watched public TV station in Los Angeles in June. By last week, however, it was trailing PBS’s new primary outlet, Orange County’s KOCE. Now rebranded as PBS SoCal, KOCE began winning the area’s largest public TV primetime viewership in January, and continued winning through May, measured in gross rating points, according to TRAC Media Services. It was PBS SoCal’s June pledge drive — 19 days long — that brought it down, says TRAC analyst Craig Reed. Among the four pubTV stations in the market, KCET took 38 percent of the gross rating points and second-ranking PBS SoCal had 32 percent.

Chart showing planned rearrangement of the PBS primetime hour

Flow plan would push spots deeper into PBS hours

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.

Thinking outside the core

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.

With RFP, PBS pursues ‘Explorer Archetype’ in productions

From PBS’s June 2010 request for primetime series proposals to be funded by the CPB/PBS Diversity and Innovation Fund. See also Current feature on the Explorer Archetype. The Explorer Archetype
Research shows the most successful brands embody a single archetype. To define and fully leverage PBS’s brand, we are employing Archetypal Branding, a proven strategy in which an organization aligns all activities behind a single unifying concept. We believe adopting this strategy will help us increase audience engagement, raise money and build brand loyalty.

Yes, web use is growing, but TV is still setting records

This paper began with a simple question. A station manager wanted to compare the sizes of her station’s web audience with its radio and television audiences — an apple-to-apples comparison. When she saw the results, her reaction was “OMG, why is that web audience so small?!”

‘Tent-poles’ ahead

PBS is raising tent-poles to reinvigorate its primetime lineup. Over the next one to three years, it will shrink down a number of as-yet-unidentified series to high-profile special events, then use the freed-up production money and schedule space to nurture new shows it hopes will mature into icons.

The ears have it: classical that’s upbeat, melodic, forward-moving

Looking to lift up your midday radio audience? Try some uplifting music. That’s a lesson from 10 classical radio stations that have been jiggering their midday playlists with help from a listening study backed by CPB and conducted by the Public Radio Program Directors Association. Eight of the 10 stations saw their midday audiences grow after changing their mixes of music — some grew quite significantly — and the two that lost audience suffered only very small declines. The study began in 2007 when researchers hired by PRPD played 150 half-minute samples of classical pieces for test audiences in four cities.

News cycle attracts record listening

NPR programming on public radio stations topped its previous audience record by reaching 27.5 million listeners a week during Arbitron’s fall 2008 survey period. The weekly cume audience for all NPR programs and newscasts, Sept. 10 to Dec. 10, beat the previous high of 26.4 million set last spring. It is one of several ratings gains announced March 23 by NPR Research:

Measuring audiences for non-NPR as well as NPR programs on those member stations, the weekly cume hit another all-time high, 32.7 million, 6 percent larger than fall 2007.

Surge of channels, people meter chaos depress PBS ratings

There is no shortage of factors to explain why public TV ratings have kept sliding. For one, the proportion of viewers with access to satellite and cable has increased, bringing a surge in fragmentation. Then there’s Nielsen’s audience estimation system, undergoing its own upheaval while some pubTV stations still lack the encoders that let the ratings company know they’re out there. On top of all this, some station leaders say PBS isn’t doing enough to create programming that grips viewers. Over the last 10 seasons, PBS’s ratings have dropped 37 percent, from 1.9 in 1998-99 to 1.2 in 2007-08.