If ratings don’t correlate to dollars at pledge time, what will?

By Andrew Lapin

Collage of pledge-special singers, 2012-13

Pledge conundrum: Performance specials reel in viewers but not so many who donate. Singers performing in three upcoming specials include Faith Marion Robinson, left, Mario Frangoulis and Buddy Holly fans Phil Everly and Chris Isaak. (Collage by Steve Behrens, Current.)

PBS began mining its national Nielsen ratings data to garner insights about the public TV pledge audience in 2009, but the findings so far haven’t begun to crack the increasingly urgent question of what to do about the decline of the public TV pledge drive.

The question came up during a PBS Research presentation at last month’s Public Media Development and Marketing conference in Seattle. Research Director Bill Merkel presented slides displaying the most-watched pledge shows and the exodus of loyal viewers during the pledge period. A station rep pressed him on the tenuous link between program ratings and viewer contributions.

“I understand that ratings don’t translate into dollars,” Merkel said. The PBS research team is working with Nielsen to analyze national ratings data alongside PBS’s data about pubTV membership. The combined data would allow researchers to track which programs members watch.

The ratings data available now show that performance programs continue to do the best job of bringing viewers to public TV during pledge drives, Merkel said. His presentation in Seattle featured ratings from pubTV stations’ March and June drives.

Big Band Vocalists, a special from producer T. J. Lubinsky that highlights popular music of the 1940s, topped the ratings chart for March pledge with a 1.1 household Nielsen rating. The median age of its audience, 74, was also impressive. “I think that’s the highest I’ve ever seen,” Merkel said at PMDMC.

Pledge viewers on average aren’t getting any younger, but at least since 2010 they’re not getting too much older either, Merkel said. The median age of viewers who tune to pubTV during on-air fundraisers has hovered around 62 for the past three years.

TRAC Media Services analyst Craig Reed described the aging of the pledge audience as a decade-long shift. Yet it doesn’t alarm him, as he sees a lot of variations in the demographics of viewers watching pledge shows.

Reed is most concerned about the long-term viability of public TV pledge drives and the 40 percent growth in on-air minutes devoted to pledge appeals since 2007.

“The pledge model is broken in that way,” Reed said. “It is far easier to add pledge minutes than it is to significantly reduce expenses. Until a major new source of revenue is tapped, there will continue to be too much pledge on the air.”

TRAC, an Arizona-based research firm that analyzes local ratings and advises stations on program strategies, has been counseling its clients to put more emphasis on “mission pitching” — writing pledge scripts that emphasize public television’s value to the community. TRAC’s March “Pledge Intelligence” bulletin advocates an even more saucy approach: positioning public TV viewing as “quality time” compared to “wasted time” watching cable.

Stations should be adopting these tactics for most of their pledge shows, Reed said, yet “not all of them do, that’s for sure.”

Do ratings matter in pledging?

Graph shows PBS primetime ratings dropping during pledge drives

PBS audiences receded during pledge drives this season, according to the network’s analysis of Nielsen primetime ratings. (Graphic based on PBS chart.)

When it comes to scheduling pledge programs, managers at two stations told Current that ratings data don’t influence their decisions at all.

Randy Brinson, executive director of programming at Seattle’s KCTS, sees “generally a negative correlation” between Nielsen ratings and pledge dollars. “Usually the best performers in the financial sense attract the smallest viewing audiences,” Brinson wrote in an email.

WSKG in Binghamton, N.Y., is in one of the nation’s more than 150 Nielsen diary markets, and it receives local ratings data the old-fashioned way: in books that Nielsen produces four times a year. The data, compiled in February, May, July and November, don’t correspond with WSKG’s on-air fundraising schedule.

“I don’t have any data, really, that reflects my pledge programming,” WSKG-TV program and traffic manager, Stacey Mosteller, told Current. “My Nielsen data is mainly for my core programming.”

Neither Brinson nor Mosteller named performance shows as their top pledge programs. WSKG’s recent hits have been locally produced documentaries, and, like KCTS, it has continued to pull in lots of donations with self-help personalities like Wayne Dyer and Suze Orman.

PBS’s Nielsen data is confirming what programmers and on-air fundraising specialists have long struggled against in planning their pitches: Viewers are wise to the pledge breaks and surf away to other channels until they end.

At PMDMC, Merkel presented a minute-by-minute analysis of viewer tune-ins during Great Performances’ “The Phantom of the Opera,” which aired during March pledge. The breakdown resembled that of a typical cable show: Viewership dips during the breaks, but climbs right back up when the station pitching ends. PBS’s most loyal contingent rejoins the program, having internalized the typical length of a pledge pitch.

These “loyal” viewers are significant to PBS. Its research team began tracking this subset of the audience, defined as the top 20 percent of all viewers in the total amount of PBS programming they watch, in 2011. Loyal viewers over 18 years old make up 83 percent of all PBS minutes watched, according to Merkel’s data.

But do even the most loyal viewers have a pledge limit? Time may tell.

Comments, questions, tips? Lapin@current.org

  • John Bell

    It’s difficult to “positioning public TV viewing as “quality time” compared to “wasted time” watching cable” when many of the pledge programs don’t reflect the quality of our usual schedule (and even some of the regular schedule doesn’t reflect quality time). 

  • Altfactor

    The reason pledge hours are up 40% in five years is simple: Many PBS member stations are having financial problems. Most PBS member stations (except most major market ones) have some sort of state ownership (state university, state educational broadcasting authority, etc.), and those stations have seen steep declines in state funding (some, like New Jersey and New Hampshire, have seen state funding vanish).

    These stations have to make up the gap somehow, hence, more pledge.

    That’s probably also why PBS has recently instituted a June pledge drive: It comes right before the end of state fiscal years and the June drive is also meant to send a message to state houses: Viewers support the state PTV network, so legislators should too.

    One problem I have with pledge weeks is that much of PBS’s regular schedule gets pre-empted.

    On the other hand, some regular shows probably would draw pledge dollars.

    As an example, were PBS to run the next season of “Downton Abbey” with short pledge breaks (and perhaps the pledge phone numbered superimposed on the bottom of the screen), member stations would probably see a large amount of contributions from viewers.

    In fact, I expect that Season Three of “Downton” will come with pledge breaks, even if it isn’t run during a pledge week.

  • Pingback: Suze Orman Show | PDA Web Geek

  • Joseph Haran

    I’m old enough to remember “Pledge Week”: one week, once a year. Nowadays, the public television station serving Portland in Oregon clobbers viewers with six (6) pledge drives per year. Six! If that’s not sufficiently absurd, each and every pledge drive lasts three (3) weeks. Three weeks! So, I’ve just had to accept the fact public television is available here for less than two-thirds of the year.

    The programming, if you can call it that, which is broadcast during pledge drives supposedly appeals to elderly people. Well, I’m elderly and I hate those never-ending “infomercials and old music” broadcasts! I tune out; and eventually there won’t be any reason to tune in, as public television becomes one continuous pledge drive of Broadway-music/do-wop specials interspersed with embrace-New-Age-malarkey/fix-your-brain/make-more-money infomercials.

    Look, this ridiculous non-stop on-air begging by public television’s management is being foisted on the citizenry due to that management’s failure to implement less-invasive forms of begging. For example: When federal and state governments were deciding to cut nearly all funding to public television (which they eventually did) high-powered bribing corporations–euphemistically called “lobbyists”–should have been immediately retained by any means possible and sent to seats of government forthwith.

    Had that been done with maximum effort, the public would still have public television for way longer than the present seven-plus months out of the year! In the event, I couldn’t care less about pledge-drive apologists’ whining: Fiscal responsibility is the job of public television’s management and shouldn’t be passed along to the public as an annoying form of punishment delivered via tedious viewership-killing pledge drives.

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