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

Program break proposal tabled in bid to rebuild primetime audience

Interview by Karen Everhart and Dru Sefton

PBS program chief John Wilson, left, says his deputies Donald Thoms and Beth Hoppe “have a keen sense of what we look for in serving our audience.”

Current Q&A 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.

Current: The PBS programming office has been restructured many times over the years — going way back to when Jennifer Lawson was appointed chief program executive in the 1990s, to the regionally based program executives hired by Pat Mitchell, to Chief Content Officer John Boland, who oversaw broadcast, web content, education and promotion. The three of you began working together last August. Can you describe how this new decision-making structure helps PBS operate in today’s media landscape?

John Wilson: Donald and Beth both have strong experience inside and outside of public broadcasting. They both have a keen sense of what we look for in serving our audience with unique programming. At the same time, they’re making sure that we’re nimble and cost-effective in making decisions. They also have contacts with a breadth of producers that we’re not necessarily familiar with.

How do you divide the work?

Donald Thoms: I bring a great passion for the arts, independent films and diversity. In essence, this is my beat. I work closely with the producers of performance programs and dance programs. I’ve seen nearly every Broadway show there has been. I am a television junkie, I like music and I bring that passion to the program schedule.

The last time I worked at PBS — about 12 years ago — I actually created Independent Lens. I knew that we needed to present more independent films. Independent producers bring great diversity to our schedule, and their films attract a different age group of viewers.

When John said that I’d be working on these programs, I said “Really? You want me to do art, to work with independents and work on what might be a diversity strategy? I’m in.”

Beth and I have both worked in TV production, and when working with other producers and directors, we share their passion. I love to sit in meetings with Beth and filmmakers talking through their ideas. If I have doubts about what they’re proposing to do, Beth can suggest five ways that it could work, and I get to see that in action. And when I was a producer, that’s kind of feedback I was looking for.

Beth Hoppe: We all share passion for this work with producers who bring us their programs. What Donald and I do is zoom out and look at the bigger picture for the primetime schedule. In the last couple of years, John has been working hard to develop a new strategy for primetime programming. We were brought in to help execute that strategy.

Donald is working on the program genres he’s described. My portfolio includes science, which I had a long history in as a producer; history, which I’ve also done a lot of work in; news and public affairs; and natural history.

During the most recent Public Media Futures forum, which focused on local programming strategies for public TV stations, one of the speakers said the decline in public TV’s audience and membership renewals over the years reflects the field’s inability to respond to competition from cable. That may be an oversimplification of what’s happened over decades, but it is the conventional wisdom shared by pubcasters who aren’t inside PBS. John, could you respond to that?

Wilson: In the late 1980s, the average television household had something like 18 channels available to it. Over the years, the number of channels available in American homes increased to where we are now — something on the order of 120 or more. The natural diffusion of audience across all those channels has impacted every broadcaster who existed before those channels came on: NBC, CBS, ABC, PBS.

So that is a rational explanation to where audiences have gone. In some ways, we have given birth to entire cable networks that were built on genres that public TV pioneered — observational documentaries, how-to programs . . .

Hoppe:  …cooking channels, natural history . . .

Thoms: … and health programs, health and science. One of the reasons Discovery hired me was because I had worked at PBS, and we were producing good medical and health programs here in public television.

Wilson: Public television has certainly lost some share of audience through the growth of TV channels, but the commercial networks lost far more viewers than we did. The audiences for NBC, CBS and ABC have dropped by more than 20 ratings points. Now they’re renewing shows that get a 5 rating. Twenty years ago, a show that earned a 5 rating wouldn’t have made it through the next commercial break. It would have been cancelled. So by that comparison, PBS audiences remain very strong.

PBS remains in the top 10 of all English-language television channels in primetime, general audience viewing. And some of the cable channels that took their brand identification from genres that PBS pioneered, have, to some degree, left those genres to us. The History Channel has left blue-chip, smart, good history to PBS; they’re doing what they’re doing. They’ve got to deliver the bottom line. And the same is true for so many of these channels.

So in some respects, PBS competed quite well during the growth of cable. I’m proud of what we’ve done, particularly in the last couple of years, where we’re one of a few — among broadcast and cable networks — who are actually seeing audiences grow. Now the mature cable channels are experiencing audience erosion. They’re cannibalizing themselves to some degree.

The point about cable disrupting public TV’s audience is mathematically true — as audiences fragmented across more channels, everyone sees their share of viewers go down. That we have held on to more of our viewers over the long term — and been able to see our audience grow over the last couple of years – is actually something to be proud of.

Beth and Donald, having worked in cable TV and returned to PBS, how do you see public TV’s response to the rise of cable? 

Hoppe: I came back because PBS never lost sight of its mission, which was real quality programming. Having been at an independent company that made shows for cable, and then at a cable network, I witnessed what drives those channels. It’s about eyeballs and the bottom line, and not necessarily blue-chip-quality programs. PBS just never lost sight of that.

There were rough years when a new channel had launched for every genre, and we were the only variety service. For me, the opportunity to come back to the place where it’s all about producers with passion and a shared mission, and a focus on excellence, quality and accuracy — I could not be more thrilled.

Cable channels aren’t doing anything bad — they have a different set of standards to meet, and those standards serve the niche audiences they’re after. We’re still a variety service and really, truly serving what really matters and something that can be of value to all viewers.

Thoms: I’ve worked on the launch of a cable channel. When we first started, there was an interest in quality to help promote the brand. But when the ratings numbers started to come in, the emphasis really changed. We changed titles of programs to make them stand out, and the shows themselves became different. We were watching quarter-hour ratings like we lived and breathed them.

The one thing that distinguishes PBS — no matter what show we’re doing — is the quality of the program, and making sure that we’re serving the audience we’ve promised to serve. If the show rates well, we are happy about it. If it doesn’t rate well, we still know that we’ve got a great show, it’s got online and educational components that are going reach more people. It’s not all about TV.

Beth and I look at numbers like anybody else — that’s part of what we’re here to do — but we also make sure it’s a good program.

Working with the filmmakers as we do, a show becomes our product too. That’s one of the reasons we were brought on. So we’re not just reacting to the things they send us. We ask to look at the rough cut and say, “Let’s all work with this together.”

Producers are saying, “Oh, great — you actually want to be a part of it?” Absolutely, we want to be a part of it, too.

Wilson: You don’t have to trade quality content to attract an audience that’s appropriate for public TV. No one here is trying to compete with Fox or something like that in terms of audience size. We’re operating within a reasonable range of expectations. But we are competitive folks. We like working the numbers, and we’re delighted to have the new Nielsens that give us a much more complete look at the audience and a sense of how the audience moves from show to show. That intelligence helps us create a better schedule, promote it better and even do a better job of shaping a show. When you look at minute-by-minute ratings, you can see ways the audience comes and goes.

What we’re trying to do is use this medium and these tools as a public service, as opposed to as a conduit for commerce. That intention matters.

Hoppe: I also think entertainment is in our mission. We want numbers, and numbers usually come from some combination of entertainment and information. That’s where we have a shot at really hitting the sweet spot. And when we do it, it’s great.

Can you talk about how you’re using the numbers? You’ve talked about audience growth, and being involved in direct discussions with producers about their shows. Give us an idea of what you’re seeing with this new Nielsen data, what you’re finding about your audience performance.

Wilson: The biggest change in the ratings information we have now is just the completeness of it. On demographics, it goes to a level that allows us to see what the audience looks like, and how it’s comprised among different age groups, ethnicity and so forth. You can track how the audience builds throughout the night, and see the audience flowing from one show to the next, minute by minute.

Before, we had access to some of that data one week per month. It’s what we used to refer to as “survey week.” It was a little like trying to look at a ballroom through a keyhole to see who’s in there, and it was frustrating. It only gave you that cross-section at that particular moment in time.

Having this more complete information available to us 365 days a year has done a few things for us. We can look at how audiences between and among shows relate and interrelate. This allows us to craft a better schedule and put shows together that have audience affinity. If you’ve got an audience watching Program A, there’s some likelihood that they’ll want to stay tuned for Program B.

Mike Quattrone, the Discovery Channel programmer who was a consultant on our primetime strategy, often says, “The best audience to attract is the one you’ve already got.” The idea is to keep them, hold them from point A to point B, even as you try to draw in others. That helps us construct a schedule.

It also helps us be smart about promoting. If we know that people who are inclined to watch Program A also watch Program B, then put the promotion for Program A over here, at the end of Program B. It’s simple — kind of TV 101 stuff. But rather than being hunch-based and intuitive, you can back it up with data.

Having access to this research year-round has helped us understand how the audience moves from the so-called “regular” schedule to the pledge schedule. Now that we understand the relationship better, we can deflate myths about the “regular” audience and the pledge audience. The audience that watches the regular schedule behaves quite similarly when it comes to the pledge schedule. The size of the audience is on a different scale, but it’s not as if alien beings show up for pledge drives.

The fact of the matter is — the people who watch during pledge are our audience. They’ve had some level of viewing experience with us throughout the year. For whatever reason, the pledge schedule delivers the right show, the moment when they decide, “I’ll support this.” They don’t parachute in and suddenly elect to support us out of the blue.

That myth never stood up to reason for me when I was a station pledge producer and programmer. And to now have that 365-day-a-year view, it makes sense and helps inform pledge scheduling.

We’re only beginning to come to grips with the implications of this, and how to convey it to stations. During pledge, stations have more control and autonomy over scheduling than any other time in the year. And there’s an established practice of front-loading every pledge program to see what works, and then repeating only those shows that work. So some programs never get a shot because the station’s schedule has been front-loaded, and then it goes into repeats of those shows that work.

One of the things we want to convey at the Annual Meeting is that the new data are telling us how we could shape a pledge schedule differently. We can take advantage of shows that are working, play them often enough to get value from them, but we’d like to make sure that we’re not unintentionally precluding other things from being tried out.

The list of top-performing pledge programs from the last couple of fiscal years — I would bet the last 10 years — is dominated by performance programs, what we would think of as arts programs.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that we see a way to make a connection between serving the arts with a robust, diverse lineup of arts and artists in the regular schedule, and allowing that to materialize during pledge and attract member support.

To us, it makes sense to become even more deliberate about scheduling arts content around the calendar, and then creating an opportunity for the audience to support it in pledge.

You launched the Arts Festival on PBS last year. What are your plans for this initiative going forward?

Wilson: The festivals are a subset of our year-round arts schedule, and give us a way to shine a spotlight on the arts in bursts. The first festival was last fall and we have another coming this summer. We’re learning as we go about how to present these.

Thoms: We learned quite a few key things from the fall festival. It aired over nine weeks, and featured shows came from multiple cities. The footprint was massive on Fridays: two to three hours of programs with multiple hosts. We had a different host for every show, and every show had a local component to it as well.

Stations produced their own local 12-minute mini-doc. To be quite honest with you, a lot of our stations told us it was exhaustive.

So for this summer, we have one host, Anna Deavere Smith.  Most of the shows are one hour. And over the festival, we’ll get a great look at arts throughout the country, coming from independent filmmakers and some of our local stations. This makes it so much easier for stations to schedule, because they won’t have to wipe out their entire night. It’s on at 9 o’clock, and stations still have the option of producing their own local segment.

Thoms: There’s also going to be a two-minute-and-seven-second local opt-out, so stations can go to their local viewers for either fundraising breaks or to spotlight arts from their communities.

For some stations, arts programming is second nature to them. When I worked at Maryland Public Television 20 years ago, we featured arts on both Thursday and Friday nights. For stations that don’t want to use the local breaks, we’ll still have material there.

One of the challenges of scheduling arts programs is that viewers have narrow tastes and interests. Someone who watches a classical music broadcast wouldn’t be interested in a dance program.

Thoms: We’ve found that people tune in out of curiosity — “What do they have?” They know that somewhere along the line it’s going to be something they like.

WHYY’s documentary on Philadelphia art collector Albert Barnes will air during the PBS Summer Arts Festival. (Photo: WHYY.)

This summer’s arts festival is not pure performance. We’ve also got stories about artists and art. There’s a show titled, “The Barnes Collection,” produced by Glenn Holsten for WHYY in Philadelphia. It’s about art collector Albert Barnes and his $25 billion collection.

Viewers get to see the art in his collection, but they also learn how Barnes traveled the world to buy art, and why he chose those particular pieces. It’s a good story, and through that story you get to see the art.

That’s a key theme of this arts festival — art revealed through storytelling.

Wilson: You’re right about arts programming being a mile wide and a mile deep. That is the nature of the arts.

By organizing it and creating a consistent place for it in our schedule, we can give the audience the opportunity to know where they can find it, check it out, come and visit.

How is the audience responding to that scheduling strategy?

Wilson: Our audience estimates showed that something like 19 million viewers sampled programs in the fall festival, and 40 million sampled over the whole year. The fall arts festival brought in around 3.7 million new viewers. These are viewers who hadn’t sampled PBS in the previous four weeks.

Our goal is to both attract and retain those folks, and something like 13 percent then came back within the next two weeks. So they hadn’t visited us within four weeks leading up to the show; they sampled it and were back within two weeks. That’s impressive. And it demonstrates that organizing the programming in this way encourages them to sample and gives them a sense that there’s more on PBS to come back to.

What other performance measures did you set for the arts festival?

Wilson: By arranging the programs in this way, we were able to identify where the gaps are in our content pipeline, and take a more deliberate approach to bringing a greater diversity of shows into the lineup. Donald has reached out to the minority consortia and other producers, and invited them to bring shows to us.

Another measure that I think is impressive isn’t a Nielsen number. When we created those local options in the fall, stations in something like 50 out of the top 100 markets made use of that. And that’s a very high take rate.

Generally when we offer stations the opportunity to do outreach or engagement, or to insert local content, you’ll get participation by 20 or 30 stations. To have 50 stations out of the top 100 — that was really remarkable.

Do you think you can replicate that success going forward, given what stations said about the festival being a bit much?

Thoms: A lot of stations have told us they’ll use the two minutes and seven seconds, because it’s not a lot to do. Marketing folks at stations get excited about arts programming because it is one of the things they can pitch to banks, local museums and donors. And being able to point to Friday nights as the time to find the arts on their station — it makes it that much better.

Wilson: When we surveyed stations after the fall festival, many of the stations that didn’t pursue the local option said it came too late in the broadcast. Viewers saw the body of the show, then the mini-doc and then the local option. Stations said their moment in the sun was too far down the list. And so we’ve moved it to follow the main body of the show. We took into consideration some of the feedback we heard from them.

The NEA’s latest grant round included big cuts in the Endowment’s funding for Great Performances and American Masters. Do those cuts affect the viability of those series? Is PBS going to have to step up and commit more funding to sustain those shows? Will it affect the arts festival?

Wilson: We’re all going to have to step up — the producers, PBS and the other funders of the arts. Right now that’s where we’re turning our attention. We’re huddling with producers of those key series to determine what it means. They have relied on NEA funding for years. How can we make a concerted effort in reaching out to other potential funders to help fill that space? We’re in the thick of working through it.

Did the NEA cuts come as a surprise to you?

Wilson: It came as a surprise to us.

Thoms: It came as a surprise to the producers.

Wilson: The NEA really works directly with those producers. PBS has gotten a little bit of direct funding from the NEA, most recently around the arts effort. But that grant is only a fraction of what we’re talking about. Producers apply for and receive those grants; this was a surprise to all of them. [For details of NEA grants to PBS and other public media outlets, see separate story.]

How do you balance those needs, for ongoing support to icon series and for new content? The fiscal 2013 draft budget says the $7.8 million allocated for new content is “insufficient to fully address the primetime reinvention strategy.”

Wilson: This is PBS. This is what we’ve done for years. The need both here at PBS and at the stations has always outstripped the supply or the ability to pay. We have to strike a balance between maintaining the strength of our legacy programs and the audiences they have, and our ability to try new things, take some risks and put new things out there. That tension is central to PBS, and has been around as long as I have.

What would we do if we had more money? We’d have the ability to assist our ongoing series, the legacy series — which are often stressed in finding other funding sources. They rely on National Program Service funding much more now than they have in the past. This has happened over the past several years.

We’ve been balancing that — firming up those shows as we can — with the need to put more new content on the schedule. We need to try different things, even though they are often likely to fail.  Doing that allows us to find the next new thing.

Such as Market Warriors, the new companion for Antiques Roadshow?

Wilson: Yes, maybe like Market Warriors.

Any other network would be probably going to bat with a new show 10 times a season, not just once. Even if you strike out two or three times, you still wind up with a couple of things that worked. The odds of any one thing connecting are stacked against you. It’s just a very tough world.

How did you fund production of Market Warriors?

Wilson: It was totally funded by the NPS, by the program dues paid by all of our stations. We asked WGBH to develop the show as part of our strategy to build an audience. This gives viewers of Antiques Roadshow a reason to stick around for the next hour.

The budget proposal for next year describes a similar plan for a new show to accompany also Nova and Nature.

Hoppe: Nature and Nova moved from the timeslots they’d been in for many, many years to Wednesdays — Nature is at 8 p.m. and Nova is at 9 — and we’re looking at the 10 p.m. slot. The Nielsens showed us the strong affinity between viewers of those two shows.

We can look at the ratings chart and see that Nature brings them in and then Nova keeps them. So for that 10 o’clock slot, we’re looking to build on that — creating a lineup that keeps and continues to build that audience over three hours.

With comparative anatomist Joy Reidenberg dissecting large animals, Inside Nature’s Giants performed well at 10 p.m. Wednesdays. (Photo: Windfall Films.)

We’re looking for different things that we could do at 10 o’clock. We’ve tried a couple of shows in that slot. Inside Nature’s Giants followed comparative anatomist Joy Reidenberg as she went out in the field to dissect big animals. Each of these “giants” had died naturally, so we were able to learn something about their evolution and lifecycle. That was pretty exciting, and it did really well for the timeslot.

We also have Nova Science Now, the magazine show. It’s coming back this fall with David Pogue as the host.

We’ve also taken advantage of some timely opportunities. We presented a show about [Apple founder] Steve Jobs, based on the unbelievable public reaction to his death. We see that 10 o’clock slot as a place to put those kinds of programs, and we’re actively seeking series . . .

Are you looking for limited or ongoing series?

Hoppe:  Limited is always a good way to start, to test it. It’s also a way to keep the cost reasonable. And then if it strikes a chord, let’s look at how we might be able to blow it out across 10 o’clock. We’ve also found that the 9 o’clock history slot on Tuesday flows really nicely into Frontline at 10 — and it’s improved the 10 o’clock slot. Frontline being firmly at 10, and everyone knowing it’s at 10, has brought the timeslot up 20 percent, and their series numbers are up close to 10 percent. So that was a good move, and it turns out that there’s a nice audience affinity with history and Frontline’s investigative reporting. It may better than what we had before with Nova and Frontline.

Thoms: The content strategy is really exciting for us. Producers these days have 12 different programs to pitch, and now we can tell them specifically, “We’re looking at Tuesdays at 8, we’re looking at Sundays at 8.” The shows that don’t fit into our content strategy, they can take them someplace else. Designating these hours as priorities focuses the work across PBS. We work with marketing and communications, looking at the same nights, and thinking about how we build these nights so that an audience will come in at 8 and stay until 11.

Hoppe: Building on the strengths of our genres is one of the key tenets of the strategy. Nature is at 8 on Wednesdays because natural history is one of the genres we’ve always done really well with. It’s part of an on-air strategy that’s organized in a way that we can articulate.

Nature had been on Sundays forever. How does the audience hold up with the new timeslot?

Hoppe: The last numbers I saw were from February, and it was on par with last season when it aired Sundays at 8. The producers were nervous about the change, but I think they were pleasantly surprised.

The budget also describes your interest in being “a premier showcase for independent films and documentaries.” PBS’s commitment to independent films has been questioned recently. What is your plan to make good on that pledge? Can you talk about what’s behind that statement?

Wilson: PBS has a genuine legacy that’s decades old of being the only home for independent films, and this is about continuing our commitment to independent film. Independent Lens joined the schedule 10 years or so ago, and, amazingly to me, POV is celebrating its 25th anniversary. We’re committed to making sure there’s a regular home in primetime for those independent film series. And it goes beyond that — so many of our series rely on independent filmmakers to populate their strands. We’re going to continue down this path, and soon we’ll be rolling out a going-forward plan with our partners POV and Independent Lens. [For details of the new scheduling plans for independent films that PBS announced last week, see separate story.]

Did the reaction to the scheduling issue surprise you? All of a sudden there was an online petition campaign and the filmmakers organized to protest the series’ move from Tuesdays to Thursdays.

Wilson: We were working on this with POV and Independent Lens even before that reaction manifested itself. I won’t say I was surprised by the passion of independent filmmakers. It’s a defining characteristic of those artists, the passion and inspiration that drives them to do what they do. So it doesn’t surprise me that they feel deeply about this and want the best for their films. If anything, it just underscored the importance of the work that was already under way.

Thoms: We air independent films 52 weeks a year, and nobody else that can say they do that. And not just in those two series. We do a really, really good job of exploring and showcasing independent works — not just on the TV schedule, but online.

We just presented a huge online film festival with POV and ITVS and the minority consortia. So I’m not buying it when people say we don’t air enough work from independents. We air a lot, peppered throughout all of our strands — from American Masters to American Experience, Nova and Frontline.

One proposal for improving primetime flow involved inserting internal breaks within programs. Where does that stand?

Wilson: The notion of restructuring program breaks was a tactical component of our strategy to make our lineup more flow-friendly, and to make it easier for audiences to stay with us. If they watch longer and more frequently, it creates a greater sense of loyalty to a station and engenders support.

A bigger piece of the strategy involves lining shows up in the schedule appropriately, so that one program flows into another in a way that makes sense to the audience. Another component is talking to the audience while their eyes are on the screen, using smartly placed lower-third screen messages about the show they’re watching, what’s coming up next, etc. We’ve acted on those elements of the strategy, and we’re going to continue working on them. We’ve seen evidence that they’re succeeding.

The next technical step of restructuring the program breaks even more vigorously        — where you have a hot switch from one program to the next at the top of the hour — that is something that we’re going to step away from for the moment.

There are still many reasons to recommend doing it, but we want to make sure there won’t be unintended consequences.  Closing that gap at the top of the hour could end up dislocating local stations’ break material, or disrupting stations’ abilities to secure local underwriting.

We’re continuing to focus on getting the schedule right, talking to the audience while their eyes are on screen and doing everything that we can to make it easier for the audience to stay tuned in. We’ll see whether these other notions are worth exploring down the road.

We started out talking about cable. Nielsen just issued a report about the decline of the number of households with televisions. What patterns are you seeing with online viewing of PBS programs? How fast is it growing, and do you have a sense of who is watching online?

Wilson: One of the things I find frustrating about this is the difficulty of measuring the complete picture of online and on-air viewing. It’s clearly growing. It can’t not grow. Just in your own personal behavior, you see that folks are consuming content on their schedules and in places that works for them. Right now it’s difficult to determine if this is additional viewing or new viewing.

There’s a lot of solid circumstantial evidence that says it’s additive. The Venn diagram of overlap between the broadcast audience and online audience shows that it’s generally not a lot of new viewers. But we don’t know that for certain. So that’s one thing I’d love to know more about. As the measurement and metrics for online viewing get better and more refined, we’ll be able to really answer that even more explicitly.

But one of the things that we are seeing from the Nielsen information is the lift that DVR viewing is providing. It’s really phenomenal — something like 24 percent for Downton Abbey. For so long, audiences have had to choose: “Now I’m either going to watch this thing I want to watch on PBS, or I’m going to watch this thing that’s heavily promoted and up against it on something else.” Now they don’t have to choose. They can watch both, and I think that’s great.

Right now, about 41 percent of U.S. households have DVRs. So it’s providing that 24 percent lift from 41 percent of the U.S. households.

That’s within-the-week viewing on DVR?

Wilson: Yes — it’s what Nielsen calls “Live Plus 7.” So who knows what’s happening for folks who get around to watching it eight days later. Those viewers aren’t counted, but they’re still watching.

Thoms: The audience for the first PBS Online Film Festival, which ran from late February through March, was very, very young. We were introducing younger audiences to the PBS brand. We’ve also found that Downton helped get younger people onto those shows.

Hoppe: This younger audience is finding what they want to watch online. Just anecdotally, at the Sherlock premiere event in New York last night [May 2], the crowd was really young. The age range was something like 17 to 27 year-olds — not your grandmother’s PBS.

The kids were all tweeting at #SherlockPBS. They know what PBS means now, and maybe a few years ago they didn’t. At the beginning of the event, clips ran from a lot of different PBS content, and they screamed like Beatles fans every time that Benedict Cumberbatch, the new Sherlock, was onscreen. Frontline was another show they screamed for. They screamed — screamed.

Stations have a unique opportunity to cultivate this audience, the viewers who came in from the Internet. Many of them are producing events around Sherlock, and we all need to pay attention to how this works. We’ve got younger viewers watching a couple of things, and we’ve got a shot at keeping them, of growing the audience with viewers who come in online.

EARLIER STORIES

PBS establishing theme nights to improve audience flow between programs.

PBS stepped back from its plan to move promo spots to internal breaks within programs. The proposal, floated last year, included a “hot switch” between programs, and aimed to improve audience flow during primetime.

The new, more detailed Nielsen ratings initially created confusion at stations

Question and answer with John Boland, May 2007

As an executive producer at WNET nearly a decade ago, Beth Hoppe created the 1900 House and Frontier House reality series.

In his last stint at PBS, Donald Thoms was a program exec under then-program chief Kathy Quattrone in 1996.

RELATED LINKS

PBS announces its hires of Beth Hoppe and Donald Thoms in August 2011, who would be “working in collaboration with producers.”

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