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PBS may rely on rating floors to cull series

Originally published by Current, April 26, 2004
By Karen Everhart

PBS program execs plan to begin a formal process of judging primetime programs by predetermined goals, including minimum ratings levels, outreach successes and other factors. Programs that fail to meet goals may lose PBS funding or slots in the schedule.

The proposal in PBS’s 2005 programming strategy responds to station leaders’ concerns that the network’s current evaluation standards aren’t rigorous enough.
“They want us to use audience estimates as part of our criteria for green-lighting shows or continuing them,” said John Wilson, co-chief program exec.

Wilson and Jacoba Atlas, PBS’s other co-chief programmer, spoke with Current for a Q&A [text in large file], discussing their shortage of risk capital for innovation, efforts to bolster public TV’s cume with more appealing “format” shows, the values that distinguish PBS’s style of “reality” programming and plans for the proposed Public Square public affairs network.

PBS needs to state goals for programs before broadcast because its after-the-fact use of ratings — and other measures of success tracked through a system called Points of Impact Beyond Broadcast — operate more like a “rear-view mirror,” Wilson said.

“All of our programs are excellent, are educational. That’s a given,” said Atlas. “Where some of our programs are not as strong as we’d like is in their ratings—a highly contentious issue in the system.”

“We think the right thing to do is to create a ratings floor for all of our programs,” Atlas said. PBS would set a minimum rating based on expectations for each individual series, but this would be one of several goals set for programs under the new system. PBS proposes to establish the new standards by fall.

As a way of being accountable to stations, PBS will apply the standards particularly to primetime “common-carriage” programs that the network asks stations to carry on specific evenings, Wilson said.

“Evaluating programs against these measures may result in the elimination of several familiar and longtime programs or series,” PBS warns in the program plan, which was sent to general managers with its proposed 2005 budget. “It must therefore be done very carefully and in collaboration with various stakeholders.”

The proposal surprised public TV execs who advise PBS on program strategies, although they acknowledged that station leaders have been pushing for a more concrete method of measuring programs.

During a meeting last summer of the Major Market Group of big-city stations, general managers told PBS President Pat Mitchell they want PBS to use ratings as a criterion in program evaluations, said Al Jerome, president of KCET in Los Angeles. Ratings “are an important factor in how we evaluate programs and when we talk to corporate underwriters it’s something that we use.”

He supports PBS’s right to cancel a show once there’s been a good faith effort to help it succeed.

But Jerome and others who had read but not heard details of the PBS plan were uneasy about using ratings as the deciding factor in canceling shows. PBS should consider other factors such as whether a program fulfills public TV’s mission creatively and whether it is scheduled and promoted effectively, Jerome said.

“The question is how much weight will be put on the shoulders of ratings and ratings alone,” said Margaret Drain, national production chief at WGBH in Boston. “I’m concerned about shows that may not have the widest audience that nevertheless are important and have an impact.”

Drain pointed to “The Murder of Emmett Till,” an American Experience documentary that won “just about every award that it could win.” But it drew a smaller-than-
average audience for the series. “Imagine if that would be a reason not to do a show like “The Murder of Emmett Till” again,” Drain said. “That’s exactly the kind of show that public TV should be doing.”

“How to value and rate ratings is a perennial question at PBS—and how to do it in a way that responds to the mission of public TV,” said Cara Mertes, executive producer of P.O.V. “There’s been a real commitment at PBS to see that it is not numbers-driven.” Mertes backs a holistic evaluation of impact that takes into account service to mission and community uses of programs.

Web page posted May 3, 2004
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Copyright 2004


In 2001, PBS declares goal of increasing primetime average rating to 2.3 by 2004. But audience fragmentation drives it down to 1.6 instead.


Wilson and Atlas discuss ratings floors and other program criteria in a wide-ranging Q&A with Current, April 2004.


PBS leaders warn stations that underwriting shortfalls may knock familiar series off the air.