PBS to track behavior of viewers pledging to core-schedule programs

By Dru Sefton

Steve Martin performs with Edie Brickell and the Steep Canyon Rangers in a March Great Performances pledge special. Great Performances is one of the few PBS series that regularly deliver programs for on-air pledging, but that will change during the December 2014 drive. (Photo: Great Performances)

Steve Martin performs with Edie Brickell and the Steep Canyon Rangers in a March Great Performances pledge special. Great Performances is one of the few PBS series that regularly deliver programs for on-air pledging, but that will change during the December 2014 drive. (Photo: Great Performances)

In an experiment signaling public TV’s resolve to address concerns about the long-term effects of transactional pledging on its donor base, PBS plans to test whether fundraising around regularly scheduled signature series can convert more viewers into loyal members and donors.

Though traditional fundraising programs generate more cash for stations, many development professional believe that pledging around core programs could yield better-quality donors who are committed to public TV’s mission.

Stations such as Maryland Public Television and PBS SoCal in Orange County, Calif., have successfully pledged series from PBS’s National Program Service, as well as popular British dramas and comedies acquired from other distributors. Their results prompted PBS to take a deeper dive into the approach.

“As we transition from a goal of gross dollars into a broader philosophy of the long-term value of donors, this seemed like a great time to look seriously at best practices with emphasis on sustaining donations,” said Joe Campbell, v.p. of fundraising programming.

So PBS has asked executive producers of its primetime series to create pledge versions of episodes from Nature, Nova, Great Performances, American Masters, Antiques Roadshow, Washington Week, Charlie Rose and PBS NewsHour.

Campbell noted that pledging the schedule “is an additional way of asking donors for money. This is not intended to replace traditional pledge shows,” and PBS also will offer the usual slate of December fundraising programs.

PBS will track results from a core group of 20 to 25 stations over three years to evaluate if members who contribute to its regular series in December become sustaining members, increase donations over time, attend station activities, turn into volunteers or respond to planned-giving requests. “We believe the possibilities are there to create a more stable membership base at stations,” Campbell said.

Rick Lore of Maryland Public Television agrees that drawing regular viewers back into public TV’s membership pool is an achievable goal. In fact, he has helped figure out how to do it. As v.p. of development at the Owings Mills-based state network, Lore introduced pledging to MPT’s regularly scheduled British drama programs in 2011. The state network’s membership pool has since grown 12 percent and renewals are up 11 percent.

A pledge supporting the NPS is “reinforced during non-pledge periods, when a donor is enjoying the programs that they’ve supported,” Lore said. “Look at any major donor survey at any station: Valued most is the impact the station has in the community, and the NPS.”

Funding those favorites

For three years, MPT has been experimenting with pledge appeals for British programming that is normally preempted during on-air fundraising: Masterpiece, a flagship of PBS’s national schedule; the mysteries it schedules on Friday nights from distributors such as American Public Television, and a popular weekday afternoon block branded as Afternoon Tea. In short breaks before each show, MPT hosts make a pitch not to interrupt the program if the show meets its fundraising goal.

The new approach has attracted more donors to MPT than regular pledge programs that aired in the same timeslots, and raised more money per minute of pledge time, according to MPT (see chart, this page). The percentage of viewers who were converted to members was 49 percent higher for core-schedule programs, and the pitch breaks were more efficient. Dollars raised per minute were 90 percent higher for regularly scheduled shows. And MPT  spent only 151 minutes pledging, compared with a drive average of 659 for the time periods— a drop of more than 430 percent.

On the final night of MPT’s most recent drive, June 15, Masterpiece brought in 207 pledges in 14 minutes — the highest total in 11 drives, Lore said. On June 13, mystery shows hit their goal in two nights instead of the usual three.

Chart about MPT pledge programming

Lore noticed another benefit to fundraising around core programs: Ratings don’t nosedive. “Viewers tune in to see the regular schedule and see something else, so most of the time they grimace and hit the remote and they’re gone,” he said. But that audience loss “is less now than before the experiment. Viewers who want the regular schedule will stay with us, although we may lose a few at the short break.” Because the breaks specifically promise to avoid pledge programs, “they might even support us.”

PBS SoCal had a similar experience in March when it experimented with pledging its regularly scheduled Sunday night broadcast of Masterpiece, said Maura Daly Phinney, v.p. of membership and on-air fundraising. “We received a very positive response,” she said, “most notably a $10,000 donation from a new donor who was pledging specifically because we left Masterpiece in the schedule.”

But Phinney cautions other stations considering the approach. “It’s not like Suze Orman,” whose latest self-help special offering financial tips was the top-grossing pledge show of the drive.

Stations trying “Fund Your Favorites,” as Phinney and Lore brand the approach, should plan to raise less money — roughly 70 percent to 75 percent of normal gross pledge-drive revenue, Phinney said. “A lot of GMs use pledge as a bank account to fund station operations on a monthly basis. The reality is, pledging the schedule brings in a lot more sustainers, so it’s better in the long-term.”

Messaging is also very important, both Phinney and Lore noted. Viewers need to understand that this is a fundraiser and not just another programming day.

Selecting which programs to pledge can also be a challenge, Phinney acknowledged. “The audience has to feel an emotional connection to a show. It’s almost a visceral thing,” she said. “That’s why Downton Abbey works well, because those fans are so emotionally attached to that. Cute animal programs work, and Great Performance shows.”

PBS, which distributed its first national pledge specials tied to Downton Abbey in November 2012, is planning a Downton Season 5 preview for December.  Downton Abbey Rediscovered will give fans sneak peeks of upcoming plot lines and interviews with show talent, similar to its top-drawing pledger Return to Downton Abbey last December.

‘We want to do what we can’

Cute animals and colorful arts programs will also be on the pledge schedule in December, thanks to Nature and Great Performances. Both executive producers have delivered pledge specials before and they know about working in that special something that provides an emotional lift for viewers.

Fred Kaufman has been putting together Nature pledge shows for about five years. Recently, “Hummingbirds: Magic in the Air,” which captured the movements of the world’s tiniest warm-blooded animals at more than 500 images a second, did quite well for many stations, Kaufman said. Ditto with “Animal Odd Couples,” which presented unlikely cross-species relationships.

To determine if a show has pledge potential, he evaluates rating performance in the series’ regular timeslot and informal feedback such as comments shared on social media.

Lately he’s also been hosting pledge breaks for WNET in New York, which produces Nature for PBS. “I can bring a perspective that an outside host can’t,” he said. “I talk a lot about behind-the-scenes work, the motivation behind the film, and what Nature brings to the schedule.”

By describing how Nature makes films, “all the time and effort, it speaks to the commitment of public television.”

Nature’s a natural for pledge,” said Great Performances Executive Producer David Horn, also at WNET. Horn should know; he’s worked on fundraising versions of GP since 1979, including the popular “Gala of Stars” specials that ran through 1986 and were hosted by opera legend Beverly Sills. More recently, Horn said, GP had success with “Pavarotti: A Voice for the Ages” pledge show.

“I applaud what PBS is doing” with the experiment, Horn said. For December pledge, GP will present a show featuring Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett performing together.

Meanwhile, Nova Executive Producer Paula Apsell is working with PBS to create a fundraising version of “Neil Armstrong: First Man on the Moon.” “We’re not experts in pledge, so we’re taking the lead from PBS,” Apsell said.

“It’s important that we participate in pledge,” she added. “We are part of the system, and pledge is extremely important to member stations. We want to do what we can.”

Along with pledge content from the PBS strands, stations will receive suggested messaging for pitch breaks, and each program will reference that it’s an example of the “regular programs” that viewers have come to expect from their local public television station.

Questions, comments, tips? sefton@current.org

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