Next Avenue will use Web to super-serve a (slightly) younger PBS audience

By Steve Behrens

When Jim Pagliarini and Judy Diaz say public TV should pay more attention to a younger audience, they’re not thinking of viewers in their 20s and 30s.

Their Next Avenue project, based at Twin Cities Public Television, aims at Boomers, the big generation now between the ages of 45 and 65, with its biggest numbers toward the younger end.

Boomers are a big part of the PBS primetime audience, so why not direct an online/TV service to meet their life-stage needs? That’s the message from Pagliarini and Diaz to producers and funders. (Data assembled by Next Avenue, chart by Current. In making comparisons, note that oldest and youngest age groups span longer periods than middle groups, which are 10 years each. Sources: Age data: 2010 estimate, National Academy on an Aging Society. Viewing data: 2009-2010 season through Sept. 12, 8 to 11 p.m., full week, Nielsen National Television Index, PBS Research.)

In contrast, 60 percent of PBS’s audience is over 60, Diaz says, though it has many Boomer viewers.

“We’re not reaching them, and we’re not engaging them now,” says Diaz. Boomers — “that’s an NPR audience,” she adds.

She also uses a word heard more often in public radio: Next Avenue will “superserve” its audience.

Pagliarini and Diaz developed the project as a two-person “skunkworks” during the past three years — first at PBS and now at TPT. Pagliarini is president of TPT, and Diaz was PBS’s managing director of audience and brand strategy. Within the project, he’s c.e.o. and she’s president.

They’ve raised $5 million in foundation grants and are seeking millions more from big corporate underwriters before operations begin. The target date for the site to launch is next spring.

It’s one of public TV’s first big projects that will be largely delivered online — NextAvenue.org. TV will supplement it and act as a barker, bringing people to the website. Pagliarini calls Next Avenue “a virtual ‘life coach’ for Baby Boomers,” showing them opportunities for life after 45.

The site will give people how-to advice, for example, on remaining healthy, preparing for financial security and figuring out what kind of lives they want.

The site will offer video from public TV producers and nonprofit partner organizations, plus lots of information about health and family finances from the National Institutes of Health, other government agencies and other sources. Corporate sponsors also will contribute information on the site; their information will be clearly labeled, Pagliarini told the New York Times.

One obvious potential partner is absent — AARP. The big retiree advocate, publisher and insurer talked with the Next Avenue team but is going its own way as an online information provider. “They’re doing good things,”   Diaz comments. “There’s room, especially through public media, for another player.”

Pagliarini wants users to contribute heavily to the project, as with Wikipedia. He thinks the pitch to users will go something like: “You help us write the manual about how you age purposefully and vitally. We’re writing the chapter on caregiving in February. You help us write that chapter.”

Next Avenue is working with a board of advisors including J. Walker Smith, president of the Yankelovich Monitor, and UCLA Prof. Fernando Torres-Gil, the first assistant secretary for aging in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

He says Next Avenue is “the biggest public media initiative being undertaken anywhere in public broadcasting.”

Web: best for the purpose

So far, the wherewithal comes mostly from foundations — $3.5 million from Atlantic Philanthropies, $1 million from the General Mills Foundation, and $500,000 from the Medtronic Foundation.

Those wads of cash could be funneled into some great primetime documentary production along the lines of The Forgetting, the 2004 program about Alzheimer’s disease that won awards and appreciation for TPT.

Indeed, TPT’s first move was to develop the life-stage talk show Life, Part 2, which lasted for 33 episodes and “was well done and reasonably successful,” Pagliarini says, but not the right information centerpiece for the project.

Best for that purpose would be a big website, the team decided after extensive research. “We kept coming back to the Web.”

“If you are downsized at work, and you’re 57, you’re going to go to the schedule to see if there’s a show about it?” Pagliarini asks rhetorically. “Life-stage issues don’t happen Tuesday at 9 o’clock,” he says. The plan is to use TV as the barker to bring people to the website.

An online project also would be more sustainable. “I’ve been through too many initiatives that didn’t live past their original grant funding,” he says. The project was not going to sustain itself by writing grant proposals year after year.

Instead of putting $5 million into a few hours of TV, Next Avenue is investing first in a website, building a revenue base there and maybe producing some TV later on. “We would like to have the funds to invest in television.”

Producers came up with dozens of program ideas to stimulate interest. Next Avenue hired former CPB and Devillier-Donegan program exec Greg Diefenbach to compile a list after doing interviews with 40 production people. “If the financial situation at PBS were better, I think [programming chief] John Wilson would be interested in developing one or two of those shows.”

Though Next Avenue project got its start at PBS, and Wilson and other network execs remain quite supportive, Pagliarini says, the project split from PBS last year.

When the decision time came, in May 2009, there were two options for the life-stage project, he said. “Should it be like PBS Kids and live at PBS, or should we do it as an independent organization? For various reasons, it was a mutual decision,” he says. It was not a top priority for PBS, which doesn’t have the resources to handle a lot of priorities. And Pagliarini wanted it to try life as an entrepreneurial spinoff, eventually cutting its TPT connection as well.

In selling sponsorships, Next Avenue will represent not only the site but also some partner producers who agree to let it sell a certain number of underwriting credits on their shows.

Diaz will be joined on the corporate fundraising circuit by Jim Joyella, a veteran TV ad sales exec and former WNET managing director, national corporate sponsorships. Next Avenue will guarantee to the handful of sponsors that they will be the only sponsor in their category.

Station and producer friends

Next Avenue will invite pubTV stations to become “friends” of the project. They’ll link its website with theirs, co-brand it with their names and add their own pages of local content. In 25 markets, they’ll be able to participate in Next Avenue events four times a year. And they can sell local underwriting on the site.

“Knowing the state of the stations, there has to be a financial benefit for them,” says Pagliarini.

In exchange, the project asks stations to help promote NextAvenue.org on the air and drive traffic to it, says Pagliarini.

Producers of participating APT-distributed shows including America’s Test Kitchen and Rick Steves travel programs also will promote the site in spots during their on-air credits and elsewhere in their airtime.

Next Avenue hasn’t been able to arrange for blurbs promoting its website on PBS-distributed shows, however. That would violate PBS’s longtime one-URL policy, which permits on-air blurbs to refer viewers only to PBS.org, Diaz explains. Still, Pagliarini is hoping PBS.org will share some link love with NextAvenue.org.

EARLIER ARTICLES

50+ Life Stage Initiative, now called Next Avenue, re-upped with its initial funder. The project aims to serve viewers pub TV already has, October 2008.

LINK

Next Avenue’s website.

Comments, questions, tips? behrens@current.org

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