Barney returns to PBS, pulls pledge dollars

Originally published in Current, Aug. 24, 1992

By Karen Everhart Bedford

Responding to clamorous outcries from PTV stations, angry parents and disappointed tots, PBS officially reversed its decision not to renew Barney and Friends this month. [Earlier story on cancellation.] The preschool series mustered a groundswell of support during its 30-episode spring debut.

The purple dinosaur will return to PTV next fall with a new season of 18-20 programs. PBS will pay $1.75 million for the renewal package, which extends stations' exclusive rights to broadcast both seasons through April 1998.

"The rights are really important because of the way stations use preschool programs,'' said Kathy Quattrone, new v.p. for programming for PBS. Stations can air kidvid programs over and over because the audience keeps changing, and preschool viewers don't mind watching the same shows again.

John Felton, v.p. for programming at WPBT, Miami, saw another advantage: "We're pleased that we get extended rights so that it doesn't end up on Nickelodeon in a few years.''

After the original decision to drop Barney as a continuing series, the dino's appearance on other networks became a real possibility, according to Sheryl Leach, co-executive producer for the series. The Lyons Group, which coproduces Barney & Friends with Connecticut PTV, discussed syndication deals with CBS, Time-Warner and 20th Century-Fox, among others. "We had a lot of interest and were evaluating all of those options when PBS decided to reconsider.''

The PBS deal, she added, is "the best match for Barney.'' As an educational publisher, her company wanted the series to remain on PTV because "it's something that we believe in and is very synergistic with what we're doing.''

Leach was not surprised by the vociferous viewer reaction to PBS' earlier decision, which was announced on June 5. "We were very aware of the response to Barney. Our fan club base is now 120,000 kids.'' She credited PBS for responding positively to the hullabaloo: "They could have taken the position that that's their decision. It's a compliment to them that they listened to parents, educators and stations and reversed, based on that feedback.''

Kevin Harris, program director for KQED, San Francisco, was exuberant over the reversal. "I'm thrilled, and my little son is thrilled. That's something I really wanted to stay on the air.''

He's also "thrilled'' at the way PBS handled the decision. "One of our biggest concerns about moving to the CPE model was there was no way of having input into programming decisions; or, better yet, having impact on decisions.'' PBS's top programmers Jennifer Lawson, John Grant and Mitch Semel (who worked out the renewal agreement before departing PBS for Time-Warner's Comedy Central cable net) "all did a good job of listening to everyone, working with Connecticut and bringing Barney back.''

Borrowing from 1995

Having emphasized all along that the roadblock to renewing Barney was the question of how to pay for it, PBS programmers continued to underscore that financial strain.

In an Aug. 3 DACS message to stations, Semel elaborated: PBS has "been supportive of this series but concerned about the financial ability of the National Program Service to fund all three new preschool series ... without having a negative impact on other critical programming needs.''

In a year-long experiment to revitalize its preschool fare, PBS last year funded new seasons of Shining Time Station, Lamp Chop's Play-Along and Barney, scheduling them successively in the same weekday morning strip. Right after Barney completed his debut run in early June, PBS announced its decision to renew Lamp Chop and Shining Time, but not Barney.

"By devoting money to provide Barney, those dollars aren't available for other things,'' explained Quattrone, Semel's successor. "It's hard to say what those would have been, whether children's programming or any other type.''

PBS came up with renewal funding by commiting $900,000 from its fiscal 1994 spending and up to $850,000 from fiscal 1995--well before executives complete the system's budget process for those fiscal cycles.

The 1995 budget allocation was necessary "because we were late to the party,'' explained Larry Rifkin, v.p. of programming for Connecticut PTV. "That's how they were indicating to us that they were able to do it.''

While acknowledging the budgetary stretch required to renew Barney, Harris expressed little worry about sacrificing other programming needs. "I don't think you deal with it by not renewing a success.... PBS needs to look at some of the strands that have been in the schedule for a long time and start reevaluating them,'' he said.

"Phenomenon beyond belief"

Harris did not flinch at including PTV's kidvid signature series Sesame Street and Mister Rogers' Neighborhood in that category.

"[Barney] is now our number-one children's show. It outscores Mister Rogers and Sesame Street.'' A Sunday morning stack of five Barney episodes pulled in $21,000 during KQED's August pledge.

Meanwhile, on the East Coast, Barney's in-studio appearance at WLIW, Long Island, this month created a "phenomenon beyond belief,'' according to Ronni Amster, director of development. Barney appeared with the station's on-air talent during a four-episode, Sunday morning pledge marathon, and viewers shelled out $21,000. The station drew the names of 21 kiddies who lucky enough to join the purple dinosaur for lunch, get a hug and kiss, and have their pictures taken. "We had people beating down the doors to be here. It was a wonderful, wonderful morning.''



Earlier story

PBS amasses biggest reserve yet for new shows
Barney, The '90s zeroed out; Reading Rainbow and Victory Garden take big cuts

Originally published in Current, June 8, 1992

By Karen Everhart Bedford

National public television series that emerged from this year's renewal process with their funding intact can consider themselves lucky.

When PBS announced its 1994 funding agreements for 21 continuing series in late May, 11 series had sustained cuts averaging 21 percent. Funding for the remaining 10 stayed flat at fiscal 1993 levels, and PBS declined to continue its limited funding for The '90s, one of the two showcases for independent productions in the present schedule.

And last week PBS said it couldn't afford to keep the preschool show Barney & Friends for a second season.

In May, the network committed $68.5 million of fiscal 1994 monies to renew 20 "signature'' series in five areas-- documentary, drama and performance, news and public affairs, how-to and children's. That freed up $21.3 million for decisions on new programming initiatives. This was almost triple the $7.7 million that it set aside last year for new shows.

On June 5, PBS drew that reserve down to $17 million, spending $4.35 million to renew Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? and Reading Rainbow.

While withdrawing funds for Barney, PBS announced renewals for two other new preschool series, Shining Time Station and Lamb Chop's Play-Along, from budgets of both fiscal years 1993 and 1994.

"The reason overall was that they couldn't afford to fund all three,'' explained Larry Rifkin, v.p. of programming for Connecticut PTV, Barney's coproducing station.

"I don't think coming out of the gate last helped the series,'' he added. Once the rating books and demographics are compiled for Barney's first run, the data will demonstrate "how successful Barney was, particularly with the younger ones, the two- and three-year olds.''

"We had a conundrum,'' explained John Grant, v.p. for scheduling at PBS. When PBS funded three preschool children's series with fiscal 1992 monies, "our goal at that time was to be able to fund one of those'' in the next renewal cycle. As the series began airing, "all three generated significant responses. The stations' feedback was positive on all three.'' But after looking for ways to continue funding all three, PBS programmers determined that, "with Sesame Street and Mister Rogers, to bring two into the corral'' was the most PBS could do.

Limiting factors

In a DACS message to general managers, Mitch Semel, v.p. of programming, listed three factors that limited the programming dollars available for 1994: the economic climate, cuts to PTV stations' state and institutional funding, and "increasing demands on [National Program Service] funds.'' Uncertain about stations' ability and willingness put more money into the NPS, and mindful of the need to develop new programming, Semel elaborated, "PBS has worked to reduce the overall NPS commitment to ongoing series'' for the past three funding cycles.

But this renewal process marks the first year that, under Chief Program Executive Jennifer Lawson, PBS aggregated double-digit millions for new programming.

PBS "tried to do two things'' throughout this year's decision-making process, Semel said in an interview. "In our overall approach to the entire package, we asked ourselves repeatedly if, for the amount of money we're considering, are we getting the best mix? To be fair to the individual programs, we also looked at each show on its own, asking tough questions about program quality--is it distinctive in the marketplace? And the number of original episodes being proposed--is that the optimal amount that we need?''

Many--but not all--of the series that took the biggest reductions will have fewer episodes for fiscal 1994 than for 1993. Great Performances, for example, will receive 21 percent less funding and produce 13 episodes--five fewer than planned for 1993. New episodes funded with fiscal 1993 monies will begin airing this fall.

The reduction in PBS funding for Great Performances "pretty much'' reflects the lower number of episodes for the series, according to Harry Chancey, senior executive in charge of national programming for WNET, New York. Although several WNET-produced series came out of 1994 renewals with substantially less PBS funding, Chancey was eager to put a positive spin on the outcome. "Renewal is really only part of a much larger picture. There's only one way to look at all the decisions and that's with great optimism.''

He pointed to the new popular music series that the Great Performances team is developing for debut this fall. "Great Performances ... may only be producing 13 episodes, but the pop music series puts that unit of producers working on more episodes than they've ever had in the past.''

Tentatively titled Front Row Center, the new series targets 35-49-year-olds with performance programs featuring big-name talent. In March, CPB awarded WNET's team $2 million to produce the series, and WNET now is seeking corporate underwriting for Front Row. PBS listed this new initiative as one contender for a portion of its reserved 1994 funds.

"There's pain. There's also growth,'' Chancey said of this renewal round. "I have to look at both of those things.''

Taking it on the chin

Producers whose series took the biggest cuts in the May renewal announcement--The '90s and WGBH's Victory Garden--found it hard to be optimistic about what this renewal round portended for their futures.

"We exist for now, but I can't say where we'll land,'' said Joel Cohen, producer of The '90s, which got no 1994 funding. "That's concerning and at least upsetting. They kept $21 million in reserved funds; it wouldn't have been that hard to say, 'yes.'''

At PBS's request, the '90s team submitted a proposal to deliver four specials for $400,000 in fiscal 1994.

"It was one very tough decision,'' said PBS's Semel, and was based on the "original thinking'' that brought The '90s--previously distributed by the Pacific Mountain Newtork--to the PBS line-up. "The hope was that the series would catch on more in national distribution. Clearly, The '90s never caught on in carriage rates and time slots.''

Many stations chose to keep The '90s in late-evening slots because that was where the series fit best before it joined the PBS schedule, according to Tom Weinberg, executive producer."With PBS funding came the requirement that it has to be a primetime program. A lot of stations left it where it was--which is okay because that helps to build an audience.'' PBS, on the other hand "moved it from one year to the next, put it in the worst possible time slot--10 p.m. on Fridays.''

"All the development money, the promotion budget, [The '90s] put up themselves,'' said Dee Davis, whose Kentucky-based Appalshop media collective frequently contributes to the series. "The show goes out there, shows some success with limited help, then they pull the plug on it.''

"What determines a successful program, it's hard for us in the hinterlands to determine,'' Davis added. "It seems the benchmarks keep moving. It seems like they just want to make the world safe for The Frugal Gourmet.''

Even staple series weren't exempt from funding blows. "As a percentage of our budget, we really took it on the chin,'' said John Pelrine, series producer for The Victory Garden. After 15 years on the network, the series saw its PBS funding cut in half for fiscal 1994. PBS also informed the producers that they could expect "half that again'' in the next renewal cycle.

"This is consistent with their plans for how-to programs. They assume we can secure more money in the corporate sector,'' said Pelrine. "That's a potentially devastating blow.''

"We don't see how we can make up that money,'' he added. "We made a decision to associate ourselves with [underwriters] who will be perceived as good relationships,'' as opposed to pesticide manufacturers. "The horticultural industry is made up of small players.'' Two of Victory Garden's three corporate underwriters already commit their total underwriting budgets to the series--from $200,000 to $250,000 each.

"Our response to PBS is, given the amount of cutbacks, all we can do is deliver 26 programs next year.'' That's a reduction from the 35 new episodes that WGBH's how-to production team proposed to deliver for $900,000. Pelrine said the series would have to make additional cutbacks to stay within their budget for 1994.

Perline rejects the cost-saving option of eliminating Victory Garden's regional reporting. "We are determined to keep that,'' Pelrine explained. While costly, the regional coverage enables Victory Garden to "strike a chord in different regions of the country.''

Pelrine said it was "puzzling'' that PBS is reserving funding for new how-to shows by taking "what could be a crippling amount from one of its most successful series. PBS feels the need to breathe new life into the system ... that makes good sense. What makes less good sense is chipping away at something tried and true.''


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Current Briefing: Kidvid that's good for kids?

Later news: The dinosaur becomes the center of "Barneygate" -- a parental furor over his appearance in pledge drives.


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