Yet another puzzle for public TV fundraisers

Donors who give the most watch the least, study shows

By Ben Mook

ATLANTA — Turning conventional wisdom among public media fundraisers and researchers on its head, a recent PBS Research analysis found that donors who contribute the most money to public TV rarely if ever watch its programming.

PBS Research Director Bill Merkel presented the surprising finding July 11 during the annual Public Media Development and Marketing Conference in Atlanta.

The study combined Nielsen ratings with a customized MRI/Fusion database, Merkel said. Many of its conclusions confirmed what professionals in the field already know about the basic demographic profile of PBS contributors: Their average age is 69, nearly 60 percent of them are female and most are well-educated and affluent.

But when Merkel took a deeper dive into the data to examine their media habits, he found a big surprise: More than a third of those who donate — 39 percent — reported that they hadn’t watched PBS at all during the previous month; another 6 percent were among the lightest viewers of PBS. Meanwhile, the most loyal PBS viewers make up 25 percent of donors.

“It was very surprising — this really broke the chain of what we’re looking for,” Merkel told PMDMC attendees. “It shows that loyalty is not the best indicator of contributions and that it’s harder for us to reach contributors because 40 percent of them don’t even watch PBS.”

The study’s findings added another riddle to the increasingly perplexing conundrum of how to rebuild pubTV’s membership revenues, which have been in decline for more than a decade. Stations have adopted new practices, such as door-to-door canvassing and monthly “sustainer” giving programs, while receipts from on-air fundraising continue to fall.

On-air pledge results from the fiscal year that ended in June appear to have continued this trend, according to a report delivered by Joseph Campbell, v.p. of fundraising programs. During the most recent pledge periods — in March and June — total dollars raised were off by at least 10 percent, he said during a July 13 session, “PBS Pledge: What’s New and What’s Next.” During fiscal 2013, he said, total pledges dropped 10 percent to $119 million, and the total number of pledges slid 9 percent to 836,000. But despite the decline in dollars raised and pledges committed, the average pledge during fiscal 2013 remained relatively static at $142.

There was one caveat to that steadily reassuring data point, however: During the recently concluded June drive, the average amount pledged dropped to $136.

“We haven’t seen this big a drop in average pledge in quite a while,” Campbell said.

Tried-and-true or something new

During the March drive, the show that drew the biggest response from viewers was Magic Moments: The Best of ’50s Pop, a 2004 special from pubTV oldies-music producer T.J. Lubinsky, which brought in pledges totaling $1.42 million.

During a Q&A with Campbell, an audience member asked why PBS’s pledge lineup for December includes so many repeats. She pointed to John Sebastian Presents: Folk Rewind, a “reup” from 2010, and a new program of a Barbra Streisand concert that will have been recorded more than a year ago by the time it airs. PBS has big hopes for the latter show, Barbra Streisand: Back to Brooklyn, to be presented by Great Performances during December pledge.

In securing shows for the drive, Campbell said, his team sought to deliver a variety of programs at a low cost. “I don’t want to spend a lot of your money on Christmas shows,” he said. “This is a way to get you shows without spending a ton.”

Other key offerings for December include a new Deepak Chopra self-help special, What Are You Hungry For?, and performance shows featuring The Mavericks, Il Volo and gospel music.

PBS will also appeal to fans of its British dramas with a new Downton Abbey pledge special to be hosted by actress Susan Sarandon. It will focus on the strong women characters who drive the show. “[I]t’s going to be tailor-made for pledge,” Campbell said. In addition, a Christmas episode of Call The Midwife will release for broadcast Dec. 29.

Campbell’s team is also assisting stations that want to fundraise around programs in PBS’s regular schedule. Upcoming shows with pledge potential include an American Experience about the Wild West; Nature’s “Earthflight,” featuring people flying alongside birds; and a Frontline documentary about concussion injuries in professional football, produced in collaboration with ESPN.

As PBS and its member stations work to tailor their on-air pitches for the new realities of pledge, fundraisers are weighing how to cultivate more sustaining donors, who contribute small monthly gifts, while still attracting viewers who are willing to pay a big lump sum for DVDs and other expensive premiums. During Campbell’s session, public TV development pros debated the effectiveness of philanthropic messages versus pitches aimed at transactional donors.

“This is something we are really struggling internally with,” Campbell said. Referring to the research presented by Merkel, he added: “As we learned earlier, people who give the most are people who like us but don’t watch us much.”

Two pending studies should provide guidance, Campbell said. TRAC Media is researching the future of premium gifts and how other nonprofits are raising funds; Forest Incentives is looking at the best approach for delivering premiums. “We are really trying to figure this out,” he said.

The positive associations that public radio listeners have with corporate sponsors and underwriters of public radio are as strong as ever, according to a report presented July 11 by radio analyst Paul Jacobs.

Results of the 2013 NPR Underwriting Research project showed that the so-called “halo effect” that companies gain from public media sponsorships has not changed since 2010, the last time researchers looked into it.

A 2003 NPR study first identified the power of public radio sponsorships to influence listeners’ perceptions of the quality of the companies who pay for them.

“We’re seeing absolutely no decline in how your listeners feel about you,” Jacobs told PMDMC attendees. “Despite the fact we live in a time of media fragmentation, one of the constants you have is that your audience loves you.”

“You have something that money can’t buy — your listeners trust in you so much that that trust transfers to the companies that sponsor you,” Jacobs said.

The study was conducted from October to November 2012 in collaboration with WFYI in Indianapolis, KPCC in Los Angeles and WLRN in Miami. The 140 participants were evenly split by gender. Twenty percent were members of their local station; the remaining 80 percent were not.

Participants listened to commercial advertisements and sponsorship messages and registered their like or dislike by turning a dial. Researchers also convened focus groups and interviewed some participants one-on-one.

Restrictions on the content and length of noncommercial sponsorships appear to be helping public radio, Jacobs said, as commercial broadcasters add more and more ads to their breaks. He played video clips from focus-group sessions and interviews to highlight his point.

“Commercial radio seems to yell at me,” one Indianapolis interviewee said.

“They come off as sponsors, not advertisers,” one Los Angeles interviewee said of the companies running spots on KPCC.

Session panelist Lori Zoss Kraska, corporate support director at Cleveland’s ideastream, encouraged development officers to highlight the study’s findings as they talk with clients.

“This truly is the best piece of information that you have in the toolkit,” she said.

Questions, comments, tips? mook@current.org
This article was first published in Current, July 22, 2013.

  • Bill Tutuki

    I never donated to PBS or NPR but I watch them the most and bought DVD’s released by PBS in the Past. I will volunteer for NPR and PBS affiliate someday.

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