Next, PBS Tuesday schedule goes for the flow

By Barry Garron

If this is Tuesday, it must be history. At least, that’s what PBS hopes viewers think as the service moves forward with plans to identify specific program genres with days of the week.

John Wilson, PBS program chief - Photo by PBS“People have had difficulty navigating through our schedule,” Kerger told TV critics gathered in Pasadena, Calif., for the Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour, where PBS previewed content Jan. 4 and 5. “Being able to build destination nights and really build programs that link well together on a single night seems to be working out quite well.”

PBS says its move of Nova from Tuesday to Wednesday, its new science destination, has encouraged it to create more theme nights.

Monday:  During the past year, airing a pair of Antique Roadshow episodes back-to-back pushed ratings up 33 percent, said John Wilson, PBS chief programming executive. So PBS hopes the Monday audience will grow even stronger this year when it pairs Roadshow with a new antiques-related reality series, Market Wars, from the same WGBH team headed by Marsha Bemko.

Tuesday: The night will become a beacon for history and public affairs programming, including both American Experience and Frontline. “We’re not going to actually devote an entire night to history . . . but there’s a great affinity, according to the research that we’ve done, between people who are interested in history and people who are interested in a series like Frontline,” Kerger said. “What we’re trying to do is really figure out how we can get people to watch and then focus on keeping them through the whole night.”

Wednesday: As a result of adding Nova to Nature last year, Kerger said, Wednesday night viewing is up 47 percent on average, or about 700,000 viewers. This year, PBS will add limited series to the science night at 10 p.m. Those short series this year will include America Revealed, a look at how the nation’s infrastructure provides food, transportation, electric power and goods to the country, and Inside Nature’s Giants, which examines the mysteries of large mammals.

Thursday and Saturdays: Except on rare occasions, as when a Ken Burns series comes sprawling, these two nights will be reserved for stations to allocate without common-carriage pleas or incentives from PBS. “One of the things that was really important to [station execs] was to make sure they had a place in primetime during the week that they would have access to,” Wilson said. “Thursday night remains that place. Thursday at 8 o’clock is truly a no-fly zone for national carriage.”

Friday: Last year, PBS began converting Friday nights from a stack of public affairs shows into a venue for arts programs. “We’re running 500 hours of arts programs a year, but they were put on the schedule on various nights,” Kerger said. “It just pained me that we would bring wonderful programs . . . and then people would have difficulty finding them because there wasn’t a regular destination. So we talked to the programmers of our stations around the country and settled on Friday night.

“That’s worked pretty well, so we are going to stick with Friday nights and see how this next year plays out.”

Sunday: The first hour of Sunday, which has benefited from a ratings surge for Masterpiece, will be the time for new genres and ideas, Kerger said. That includes the 10-part series, Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates Jr., which premieres in March.

The idea of clustering a block of like programs is far from revolutionary. It’s been a strategy of commercial broadcasters for decades, and PBS increasingly is going with the flow.

“One of the things that has changed for us in the last year or two is we now have audience analysis tools that allow us to move these changes from the hypothetical,” said Wilson in an interview with Current. “We can now track the audience from Show A to Show B and from Minute 1 to Minute 2. That ability . . . has really allowed us not only to act on this theory but to demonstrate the results to our stations and ourselves.”

The hardest part about changing the schedule for PBS is persuading its member stations that the change will benefit them, Kerger said. “Remember, we’re not a network,” she said. “They have their own scheduling needs, particularly around local content and things they acquire, so we need to work with them to try to build out a schedule that makes sense.”

Although building genre nights is a priority, Wilson said he is also paying attention to how the schedule flows during the same time period across the week.

“We can look at things from that direction as well,” he said. “We also want an audience that comes in Sunday night to see a Masterpiece to know what else they can come back for later in the week.”

EARLIER STORIES

Plan to improve audience flow would push promotional spots deeper into PBS hours, May 2011

Q&A with PBS chief Paula Kerger: With projects on hold, PBS hunts for spendable cash, tweaks primetime schedule, May 2011.

Viewers say they want programs on regular days, 2006.

RELATED LINKS

PBS.org displays local station schedules.

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