Tuskegee airman Capt. Wendell Pruitt, profiled on KETC

In St. Louis, KETC aired weekly WWII stories, June through November, averaging a 2.5 rating. Above: local hero Capt. Wendell Pruitt. (Photo: KETC.)

Lessons from The War

Only some local docs caught Burns coattails

Originally published in Current, Nov. 19, 2007
By Katy June-Friesen

Many pubTV stations eagerly enlisted for The War. More than 50 produced documentaries about their communities during World War II to air before, during and after Ken Burns’ series in September, and at least 80 created online libraries of audio, video, photos and written accounts of the struggle.

It was a chance to gain viewers from the buzz of an expected national hit while creating historical online repositories and local docs with longlasting value.

On average, however, the local docs attracted no more viewers than local programming usually does, according to Craig Reed at TRAC Media, the audience research firm that works closely with many pubTV stations.

The Burns series filled 15½ hours of primetime during nearly two weeks, Sept. 23-Oct. 2 — Sunday through Wednesday of the first week and Sunday through Tuesday of the second.

Those jam-packed primetime hours presented a difficult puzzle for programmers, Reed explains. “When it came to scheduling local docs associated with The War, the stations were caught in a catch 22,” he says. The best possible time to run local docs, he says, would have been immediately after the first primetime broadcast of each episode of The War, “so that the local program could benefit from audience flow.”

But that would have interrupted the “double pump” of each episode—repeating each immediately, the same night — “and that’s something many stations didn’t want to do,” Reed says.

Most stations chose to double-pump the Burns episodes, as PBS did in its feed to the stations, he says. “The stations that created local programming were the most enthusiastic stations,” he says, “and those were the same stations that left the double-pump in place. So in the end, the local shows usually ended up on Thursday [in the midst of The War but on a night when it didn’t air] or on the weekend, where audience flow from the initial play of The War could not improve the numbers.” 

Against the odds

In cramped quarters, some program directors were able to put their local programs where they’d benefit from the “big footprint” of Burns’ highly publicized series rather than be squashed by it.

Scott Dwyer, programmer at San Francisco’s KQED/KTEH combo, was able to capitalize on the Burns audience and also use The War reruns. He delayed the repeat of The War by 30 minutes, creating an advantageous slot for a local doc. KQED also created a 7:30 slot before The War for some of its local programming — four docs made by the Bay Area stations and an interview with Burns on KQED’s The Josh Kornbluth Show, a weekly interview program. The resulting audience: nearly half a million households and an average rating approaching 2.0 — almost double what KQED local programming usually gets.

“They definitely benefited from the Ken Burns buzz and audience,” says Dwyer.

In Phoenix, KAET did exceptionally well with its five local docs. It aired them in a scheduling stunt on Thursday, Sept. 20, three days before The War, which gave the station the highest average rating in public TV, both for primetime and the full day. The stunt, called “A Night to Remember,” aired from 7 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. and included one KAET doc, two from Tucson’s KUAT, one from Tucson’s municipal cable channel and one produced by a local history professor.

KAET’s doc, part of its Arizona Stories series, featured stories about Ira Hayes, a Pima Indian who raised the flag at Iwo Jima; a Mexican-American legion post; the exploits of the Navajo “code talkers,” the 1944 escape of German POWs from the Papago Park camp near Phoenix, and the USS Arizona.

“We just felt the best way to do it was ...  to stunt [the docs] prior to The War starting, because we really didn’t want people to have War fatigue, but also we wanted to showcase our stuff,” says Program Director Nancy Southgate. Tune-in was also helped by the quality of the productions, KAET’s on-air and web promo efforts, the press coverage and community screenings held by the station, she says.

Southgate wanted to put the local content at a distance from the Burns series to avoid comparisons with the multimillion-dollar PBS series, while building on the national attention to WWII.

On average, 124,800 people watched each episode of The War’s premiere run on KAET, and nearly as many — 100,232 — had tuned in for Tucson Remembers: The Battle for Europe, in the middle of the “Night to Remember” stunt.

When KAET re-ran most of the local programs after the Burns series started, usually later each night, the local docs “just fizzled,” says Southgate.

Some stations’ local docs did well during The War’s premiere week but not right next to episodes of The War. Oregon Public Broadcasting ran Oregon at War on Thursday, Sept. 27 at 9 p.m., in the break in Burns’ series, and despite possible “war fatigue,” won a 2.6 rating.

In New York, multiple airings of WNET’s local docs gave them audiences nearly as large as Burns’s — 1.9 million total viewers watched its local docs, and 2.2 million watched primetime airings of The War.

“There was just such tremendous buzz about The War,” says spokesperson Kellie Specter, “and New Yorkers love to watch programs about themselves.” She also thinks President Neal Shapiro got their attention in an online and on-air promo, talking with his own father, a veteran of the war, and encouraging viewers to submit stories.

WNET also tried something new with one doc, New York War Stories — showcasing user-generated content on-air. The one-hour program incorporated hundreds of videos and letters sent in by viewers via the Web.

“The programs have generated ratings for WNET that have astonished us,” says Specter. “We think this points to the power of localism — for which public television still truly has a niche — and it speaks to how engaging the community in content creation ... can be something public television can do that others cannot.”

In some cases, the strength of regularly scheduled local programming bolstered the stations’ war docs. Beginning in June, KETC in St. Louis ran a WWII segment during each edition of its weekly magazine series Living St. Louis and achieved an average 2.5 rating for these episodes. The WWII episodes continue through November.

WKNO in Memphis had planned to schedule Call of Duty: WWII in the Mid-South in between the two weeks of Burns’s premiere, says Programming and Operations Manager Debi Robertson.

But when station execs found out about a joint “Music of the Greatest Generation” concert by the Memphis Vocal Arts Ensemble and the Memphis Jazz Orchestra, they decided to shoot the concert, reschedule Call of Duty, take more time to edit the music special, and run both local programs after the first run of the Burns series. Call of Duty, which aired Thursday, Oct. 4 — a night when local programming usually pulls solid ratings — got a 2.1 rating, and the following music special got a 1.5. The average rating for The War on WKNO was 2.9.

Beyond broadcast

Stations’ ambitions to tell close-to-home war stories extended beyond broadcast to the Web and outreach efforts.

About 80 stations used PBS’s StoryShare online tool to collect stories, accumulating more than 2,800 stories by early November. Many stations posted oral history interviews on their websites. Some streamed entire video docs online, and some used YouTube and social networking sites.

KETC in St. Louis posted all WWII content, including a local doc, its Living St. Louis segments and online video interviews, on YouTube. The Living St. Louis segments have been viewed nearly 10,000 times. The amount of user-produced video in the station’s area of YouTube.com is much smaller — only nine community members posted interviews.  However, KETC received about 500 written stories online, by mail and e-mail.

Arkansas Educational Television Network, which has used the Web as a major repository for its WWII project, has had 4,800 unique visitors to its site since Sept. 20, when it premiered. Most of the station’s giant oral history project — more than 300 veterans’ stories gathered over nearly 10 years — is housed on their interactive In Their Words site. Visitors are spending an average of 5 to 6 minutes on the site, which also includes WWII history resources.

AETN also made a broadcast doc about the trip they took with local WWII vets to Washington, D.C., to see the WWII memorial, which they aired at 5 p.m., right before the premier of The War. In its headquarters’ lobby, the state network has created a WWII history exhibit with contributions from veterans.

The website is the “lasting thing” of the World War II project, however, says Executive Director Allen Weatherly. He wants to keep it accessible online indefinitely.

“The oral archive idea is certainly a very live idea — not just about World War II but other topics as well, so this serves as a real template for hopefully doing more of that,” Weatherly says.

Away from TV screens and the YouTube universe, stations also engaged in a significant amount of good, old-fashioned outreach, creating speakers’ bureaus and involving schoolchildren and community groups in oral history collection.

“The biggest response we got was taking The War on the road,” says Craig Cornwell, director of programming at Kentucky Educational Television, which also produced local docs and a WWII website.

  “In the month leading up to the premiere, we held 15 preview events all around the state where we showed a long clip of the upcoming program and then welcomed the veterans in the crowd and let them tell their stories. This not only generated a lot of press, especially in small-town newspapers, but also generated a tremendous sense of goodwill and trust in KET and PBS.

Web page posted Nov. 20, 2007
Copyright 2007 by Current Publishing Committee


Stations mobilize to gather veterans' stories, February 2007.

Beyond Burns, thousands tell how it was in the war.


Fighter pilot Wendell Pruitt profiled on KETC's Living St. Louis, excerpt on YouTube.com.

KUAT's Tucson Remembers: The War Years.

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