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TOOPs: pledge comes to regular sked

Originally published in Current, Sept. 2, 2002
By Dan Odenwald

Beginning this month PBS will offer monthly pledge specials for use outside of the traditional pledge months of December, March and August. The specials, called TOOPs for "targets of opportunity outside of pledge," are designed to expose viewers to year-round membership pitches around core shows within the National Program Service.

PBSís first national TOOP is Ken Burnsís Civil War, slated for broadcast Sept. 22-26. The network also plans to feed an Arthur TOOP this month. Each will feature pre-produced pitch breaks developed by PBS. Stations using the TOOPs will insert their own phone numbers on the screen. Those not using the TOOPs will air fillers instead of the pledge breaks.

An initiative of the networkís membership reinvention project, monthly TOOPs are designed to connect pledge programming to the core PBS schedule, says Gustavo Sagastume, a programming v.p. who oversees fundraising shows at PBS. The TOOPs are intended to appeal especially to loyal PBS viewers, who are likely to respond to NPS programming as pledge vehicles.

The new TOOPs also appear to answer critics of on-air fundraising efforts, who regularly chastise PBS for its pledge fare featuring get-healthy and get-rich gurus.

But some observers worry that even the least objectionable pledge programming will alienate some viewers when it creeps into the regular schedule.

Steve Johnson, TV critic for the Chicago Tribune, sees a danger that stations will spend more airtime asking for money. "In some respects, PBS risks punishing the good people" who give during traditional pledge and donít want fundraising to encroach on the NPS, he says.

Sagastume believes such concerns are unfounded. The pledge messages during the Sunday-Thursday run of The Civil War last only two to three minutes and feature Ken Burns discussing the making of the acclaimed documentary series. Sagastume characterizes them as soft message spots. Similar breaks will be used in the October TOOP of Masterpiece Theatreís "The Forsyte Saga."

However, the November TOOP, In Concert with Josh Groban, will look more like typical pledge fare with multiple pitch breaks that go on for several minutes. PBS will pitch in the same fashion for Januaryís TOOP, Party at the Palace, featuring musical performances from Queen Elizabeth IIís Jubilee Concert earlier this year.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. PBS

PBS research shows that viewers are more alienated by pledge drives that last several weeks and employ multiple repeats than by individual pledge programs, Sagastume says. "Itís hard to imagine that a viewer will be fatigued after a two-minute break during The Civil War or more regular breaks during the Josh Groban special," Sagastume says.

But pitching around the NPS "may annoy as many viewers as it pleases," Johnson says. Yet he believes that "PBS has to break out of the cycle of the two PBSs: the smart PBS and the nakedly emotional, unthinking channel for gullible grandmothers."

"Thereís a real burden on PBS to do this the right way," he adds.

Sue Richmond, senior v.p. for individual giving at WETA in Washington, is concerned with the so-called pledge creep. Thatís why her station doesnít plan to broadcast every TOOP offered by the network. It will pass on the October special to avoid pledging every month.

At Bostonís WGBH, Roberta MacCarthy, director of marketing and development, hopes to employ TOOPs to reorganize her pledge schedule and minimize disruption of the regular schedule. MacCarthy intends to slice days off traditional pledge months and replace them with TOOPs sprinkled throughout the calendar year.

Stations need to offer viewers better customer service, she says, by pitching new shows at new times and reducing the urge to simply pledge more days to meet the bottom line.

PBS produced its first TOOP, a taping of a Three Tenors concert in Los Angeles, in 1995, according to Sagastume. Since then, the network has offered occasional TOOPs, including Cats, a James Taylor concert, and American Experienceís "War Letters."

The network raises money for TOOP programs in various ways. Some are covered by the NPS budget and others by the PBS fundraising programming department, says Sylvia Bennett, senior director of fundraising programming. The Josh Groban special, part of the Great Performances series, will be funded jointly by the NPS and fundraising department.

TOOPs are produced with prerecorded pitch breaks to minimize studio costs for stations, Bennett says. Stations need only put their phone numbers up on the screen. They can staff a phone bank with volunteers or outsource the job to call centers.

So far, the success of TOOPs depends largely on the program, Sagastume says. A recent doo-wop concert TOOP performed very well, he says. Musical TOOPs in particular could do very well, he says, and provide a much-needed infusion of cash for stations.

Because offering monthly TOOPs around the NPS is a relatively new idea, he doesnít expect them initially to produce great gobs of cash. Not only do regular NPS programs have a poor record at attracting pledges, but the forthcoming Civil War and Forsyte Saga TOOPs will feature pledge breaks that last only two or three minutes.

But these shows were chosen for both their strong emotional appeal and high quality that will reflect favorably on the PBS brand, Sagastume says. At the very least, he believes, those breaks ought to reinforce the membership message and remind viewers of the type of programming their dollars support.

The initial TOOP broadcasts wonít have the extended pledge breaks seen during traditional pledge specials, but PBS will offer each of the TOOPs with longer breaks the following weekends. Stations can also save these versions for use during pledge drives.

The Civil War, for example, will be rebroadcast the weekend of Sept. 28-29, featuring longer and more frequent pitch breaks. Stations can use the PBS-fed breaks or produce their own. Sagastume expects the weekend broadcast to raise more money than the soft message spots, which will air during the week.

Target: viewers who like normal schedule

While organized and regular TOOPing might be new to the national schedule, stations have been doing it for years, say some station execs. Last year, WNET pledged Ken Burnsís Jazz to great success, says Paula Kerger, station manager. WNET also did local pitches around Frontier House and Ric Burnsís New York.

And early research suggests that TOOP-acquired members tend to renew at higher rates than donors who join during traditional pledge months, Kerger says.

KPBS in San Diego makes use of its local programming for TOOPing. This month, the station will pledge around a documentary featuring a local artist, according to Keith York, director of TV programming.

York says TOOPs could become an increasingly important tool in balancing the books on a monthly basis. Year-round message spots and weekend mini-drives ought to help secure a stationís finances, he says.

And PBS-produced TOOPs with pre-recorded breaks help KPBS spread around some of the risk of pledging, York says. By saving the cost of firing up its own studio for pledge, a station doesnít have much to lose by splashing its phone number on the screen and hoping the dollars pour in. "If we pick the right shows and the right message points, thatís a low-risk endeavor for the potential of a great return," York says.

TOOPs also afford stations the opportunity to transmit membership pitches during the regular schedule when more viewers are tuned in, Sagastume says. Communicating with viewers outside of traditional pledge periods allows stations to reach viewers before pledge fatigue sets in, he says.

Sandy Snyder, senior fundraising producer for WLVT in Bethlehem, Pa., cautions stations from repurposing TOOPs for upcoming pledge drives.

"Every time weíve used a TOOP a month before pledge, it ended up burning us by falling flat during regular pledge," he says. "It stole the best and brightest from our monthly pledge drive."

Snyder says Cats performed terribly during the drive after its TOOP broadcast, and the same happened for the James Taylor concert. Though he plans to pledge around The Civil War this month, he wonít rebroadcast it during the December drive. So long as a TOOP remains outside of the regular pledge schedule, he believes it can perform well for the stations.

Though stations may differ on the strategy for using them, chances are most public TV execs are hoping that TOOPs will deliveróespecially as membership roles continue to decline.

"This is a sincere attempt to try and build a member base by seeing what happens when we pledge the regular schedule," says Dan Soles, WTTWís director of broadcasting. "We have to keep an open mind and see what happens."

Bailen holds "War Letters" mug with American flag printed on one side

Before monthly TOOPS begin this month, PBS tried pledging during a rebroadcast of "War Letters." Pictured: pitchwoman Cindy Bailen caressses a $40 premium.

To Current's home page
Earlier news: The drop in public TV's membership numbers has concerned fundraisers in the field.
Earlier news: About that Forsyte Saga remake coming in October.

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