New channel in Pittsburgh: All-pledge, all the time

WQED has come up with an idea that initially might make some public broadcasters cringe: an entire multichannel fully devoted to fundraising.

Yes, all pledge shows, running 24/7.

That's exactly what WQED Showcase will be. The Pittsburgh station will debut its fourth channel possibly as soon as November.

Station President Deborah Acklin came up with the concept for the potential revenue stream, which appears to be a pubcasting first. She said it seemed to her like "an obvious answer in a very tight revenue market."

Besides, "a lot of people really like pledge programming, and we forget that sometimes," Acklin said. "I'm always pleasantly surprised when people ask me when we'll be having those great music shows again, and they mean pledge programs."

It may indeed be a logical move for the station, which is a standout in local pledge production. "Our archive of pledge programming is substantial," said station spokesperson George Hazimanolis, with "several hundred hours" of shows such as QED Cooks with Chris Fennimore, which date to 1993, and quirky travel and Pittsburgh-centered documentaries by producer Rick Sebak.

Linda Taggart, WQED's senior director for on-air fundraising, sees Showcase as an opportunity to run content she can't fit on the main channel. "Many times I'd have to wait until the next pledge period to run programs because we just didn't have the space for them," she said.

Broadcast rights won't be a problem with WQED's own shows but could prove tricky for shows from other sources. Some pledge programs are licensed only for specific periods and numbers of repeats. But in July, a number of stations had unlimited rights for 87 fundraising programs, according to Kristen Kuebler, director of station research at TRAC Media Services, who counted them for client stations. PBS, a major distributor of pledge shows, said it does not keep track of how many of its packages come with unlimited release rights.

A lot of decisions about WQED Showcase are still pending, such as scheduling. One option would be to program Showcase like WQED Neighborhood, a channel of local programming scheduled to air in blocks for a month, Hazimanolis said. "Viewers can watch every night at the same time and not see a repeat within one week," he said.

Pledge calls will be handled by an outside vendor. Premium fulfillment shouldn't be a challenge as many items are already in the Shop WQED inventory. The station is also talking to American Public Television about using Showcase as a sort of pledge testing ground.

Taggart doesn't expect the new channel will cannibalize the main WQED channel's pledge revenue, but said she'll monitor that closely. During pledge on the main channel, Showcase will simulcast pledge on the main signal, which WQED runs about 60 days a year, she said.

Capacity for the channel was squeezed from the station's existing DTV streams. Engineers took .5 megabits/second from each multicast channel — the main HD channel as well as Neighborhood and Create, APT's packaged lifestyle channel. WQED's main channel now runs at 12.7 Mbps and the others use 2 Mpbs each.

WQED no longer has a second broadcast TV channel, which it leased for years to home shopping networks, most recently ShopNBC. In November it sold WQEX to Ion Media for $3 million after a long, fruitless series of attempts to sell it for more, including a complicated $17 million proposed deal more than a decade ago (Current, Jan. 24, 2000).

Acklin envisions Showcase revenues going toward the station's education efforts. "That's the whole purpose of us being here," she said. "We're an educational media company." WQED's education initiatives include the iQZoo project with the Pittsburgh Zoo, which uses QR (quick response) scanner labels to pick up biological info for children using smartphones. The app became available to stations nationwide last month.

Just how much cash WQED will make on the all-pledge channel remains uncertain. Kuebler said several stations are now pledging on second channels, with "varying results."

"If a second channel has good content, most are getting about 5 percent of what they get when pledging their main channel," she said. For a duopoly — a licensee operating two separately programmed stations in a city, such as Boston or Milwaukee — the figure on one of those stations could rise as high as 30 percent to 50 percent, "but that would be for very mature services with highly differentiated content," Kuebler said.

Fundraising consultant Michael Soper, a past PBS development chief, remains skeptical. He thinks a better move might be in the opposite direction: Promoting multichannels as totally pledge-free. "So the message to our core audience is, 'We're not all-pledge, all the time, everywhere,'" he said.

But Patricia Callahan, a longtime system development professional who is now director of membership at Arizona Public Media in Tucson, is intrigued with the possibilities. "How clever," she said. "And WQED is uniquely poised to do this, with their strong local pledge programming."

Callahan realizes that some in public broadcasting disdain the programs that stations air to prompt pledging. "Quite frankly, I've always thought the opposite," she said. "I think it's some of the best local programming we can do. And it's a good way to talk to our constituency and explain our mission, if we do it well."

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