PubTV tests new approaches for fundraising with kids’ TV

By Elizabeth Jensen


A series of special events featuring Mr. Steve — PBS Kids host Steve Roslonek — “bolstered people’s perception of the value of our Kids Club,” Simmons said. (Photo: Kylea Knecht/BYU.)

During pledge drives, public television stations routinely ignore one of their biggest audience draws — the daytime PBS Kids block — deeming the meager returns not worth the effort of disrupting the viewing habits of children who watch each day. But ongoing financial challenges at many stations have prompted some to test new approaches for tapping into the strong affinity for the shows.

Across the nonprofit world, children are a powerful draw for charitable contributions. Many top U.S. charities highlight the impact their services have on children, even if kids aren’t their primary beneficiary, Lesli Rotenberg, PBS senior vice president of marketing and communications, told general managers at a meeting that preceded last month’s PBS Annual Meeting in Denver. Not so public television stations.

This reluctance to fundraise around children’s shows is “a conundrum,” Rotenberg said in an interview. “Kids’ programming is probably the most recognized and valued service that we offer, so central to our mission that it seems like we should be leading with it in our appeals. And yet it seems that, as a community, we shy away from it.”

Neither should appeals for financial support be directed exclusively to parents. “We have adults of every age who support our mission as it relates to children, who we are probably not reaching in the traditional way,” she said.

In public TV’s earliest days, the children’s service was a core fundraising draw. Hudson Stoddard, former development exec for WNET, recalled persuading wealthy New Yorkers in the late 1960s to donate $265 for each of the 100 color TV sets placed in home daycare centers to build an audience for the brand-new Sesame Street. “Donors were seemingly sympathetic to our mission,” he said in an interview taped to mark WNET’s 50th anniversary.

With the huge popularity of Barney & Friends in the early 1990s, pledging around children’s shows became very popular — so popular that child advocates complained about stations pushing plush dolls to children in exchange for parents’ pledges. “We had some actors who were using practices that really may have been too commercial, and we were being criticized by watchdog groups, so we got very pure,” said Tom Axtell, general manager of Vegas PBS. But without incentives of plush, cuddly premium gifts, pledge income from kids’ shows dropped sharply.

Accordingly, stations tiptoeing back into the space are steering clear of transactions, instead casting the appeals as “a philanthropic discussion,” said Jennifer English, PBS Kids’ senior director, promotion and partnerships.

During the Annual Meeting, PBS shared four of 15 case studies it has prepared examining station fundraising around children’s programs. Only one of the four stations — Vegas PBS — has tested new approaches for soliciting donations during children’s programs. Others have developed approaches that make the case for financial support off-air.

At Vegas PBS, children’s programming is central to its experimental Do Your Part premium-free pledge service. In breaks between shows, viewers learn how much it costs the station to air the daytime children’s block based on the ratings: $65 per household per year. Viewers are asked to give something, no matter how small. “It doesn’t matter what you give, it matters that you do something,” said Axtell.

Now in its second year, Do Your Part has particularly resonated with parents. Kids’ shows — which brought Vegas no pledge revenue previously — now account for nearly 9 percent of the station’s on-air fundraising, according to a case study PBS distributed in Denver. A total of 821 pledges came in from December 2010 to March 2012 to support the program block, and 352 of these — nearly 43 percent —were from new members. “The loyalty of stay-at-home moms toward our children’s programming is very high,” Axtell said.

The renewal rate for kid-focused Do Your Part donors is good so far, but Axtell cautioned that it’s too early to assess their long-term support. He’s encouraged by the willingness of young mothers to provide their email addresses that allow for ongoing off-air communication, unlike older donors. Online giving has gone up significantly, he said. “We’re beginning to think it’s part of retraining the expectations of our donors,” he said, referring to the premium-free campaign. “You don’t always have to get a gift from us.”

Denver-based Rocky Mountain PBS has been testing door-to-door canvassing for viewer support. The station took up the new fundraising tactic this fiscal year after lower direct-mail response rates shrank its donor base. It made its children’s programming a key message point for these face-to-face appeals.

Armed with scripts and fact sheets highlighting PBS Kids, professional canvassers were deployed at strategic locations at the annual Denver Kids Fun Fest event, attracting more than 80 new Kids Club families and $4,000 in membership revenue — far exceeding results from the previous “membership information” table. Door-to-door canvassing, meanwhile, generated 692 new Kids Club families, at $40 each.

WQED in Pittsburgh has expanded community support for kid-focused engagement programs, including a reworked young writers contest, through a campaign called “iQ: smartmedia.” For 15 years, WQED participated in the Reading Rainbow Young Writers and Illustrators Contest with no outside funding, according to Jennifer Stancil, executive director of educational partnerships. The contest ended after Reading Rainbow went off the air in 2009, and when PBS and Buffalo’s WNED created its successor, the PBS Kids Go! Writers Contest,  “we saw an opportunity to put corporate dollars behind it,” she said.

Over three years, local energy company EQT Corp., which supports education for children as part of its community programs, has contributed volunteers and $202,500 in increasing increments to support the now year-round event. Some 1,300 local stories were entered in the most recent contest. Each entry is published digitally, some are turned into a puppet play that is performed citywide, and winners record their stories for radio air and for playback in libraries. When EQT wanted to reach a wider geographic area, the contest was expanded to West Virginia Public Broadcasting, and, in the third year, Penn State Public Broadcasting.

Other iQ: smartmedia initiatives include a math and science gaming institute for
middle-school aged students, for which WQED is close to securing funding, Stancil said. And an anonymous foundation donor just gave a major grant to create a parenting institute, with on-air, online and community workshop components.

“The strategy iQ: smartmedia has made our case compelling to different types of people,” including local and national foundations, Stancil said, adding, “We’ve clarified a vision and a strategy and a community engagement model that people believe in.”

In Utah, KBYU in Provo built community engagement and appeals for financial support around a series of literacy-themed community events. It brought in a PBS Kids host for Read Along Sing Along with Mr. Steve events and tied his appearances to a family fun event and a meeting for local philanthropists and nonprofit partners. “It could have been just a concert,” said Rotenberg, referring to the performance by TV host and musician Steve Roslonek, “but they were able to build partnerships that are going to last beyond the event.”

KBYU, whose signal overlaps with that of KUED in Salt Lake City, hasn’t pledged kids’ shows for several years due to dwindling returns. Although not primarily designed for fundraising, the Mr. Steve events spurred new donations because Kids Club members got first crack at free tickets. More importantly, the events “bolstered people’s perception of the value of our Kids Club as well as started some new relationships with community organizations and underwriters,” said Diena Simmons, station manager. “We wanted to move into being seen as a community content-services partner, not just a media partner.”

A breakfast for community leaders highlighting KBYU’s efforts to address literacy issues helped bolster the station’s relationship with the United Way, which in turn connected KBYU with Women in Philanthropy, a new group of potential major donors with which KBYU hadn’t been able to establish a relationship on its own. Simmons was subsequently invited to join the United Way’s EveryDay Learners board.

While stations have done the on-the-ground work, PBS has taken on the role of curator, pulling together case studies, station working groups and other resources, focusing particularly on work that the stations would find cost-prohibitive to undertake on their own. PBS created templates for fundraising around the upcoming fall premiere of the new preschool show Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, and in May, PBS and direct-mail vendor McPherson Associates partnered with six stations — WQED, Twin Cities Public Television in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Rocky Mountain PBS, Wisconsin Public Television, WGBH in Boston and Austin’s KLRU — to test a direct-mail piece featuring public TV’s service to children. Results from the direct-mail test, expected later this summer, will be shared with stations through webinars and on an internal website that PBS created to help stations with fundraising around their kids’ services, PBS spokesperson Jan McNamara said.

PBS also commissioned research on stations’ Kids Clubs, examining what combination of benefits and services would entice parents to pay an annual fee to sign up their kids. Researchers found interest among a majority of survey participants whose children watch PBS Kids, but their preferences for the benefits packages varied, according to McNamara. PBS also wants to work with stations to test social-media strategies for engaging parents and developing audiences at the local level.

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