Listeners & viewers

Audience as donor pool

Pledge trends are worrisome, or at best unplanned

Originally published in Current, Dec. 16, 1996

By Steve Behrens

On the surface, pledge drives are a robust and growing part of pubcasting's revenue mix. Viewers and listeners provide about $400 million a year--more than a fifth of the field's income--and a big chunk of that came from pledge.

The March drive, biggest of three in public TV's year, brought in $50 million for 155 reporting stations--up from $44 million the year before and $20 million back in 1980.

But some analysts see troubling signs in the statistical innards of pledge, both in TV and radio.

"Basically, pledge isn't real healthy, and its audience is decreasing, its efficiency is decreasing," says Craig Reed of TRAC Media Services, the major audience research firm serving public TV.

"We're not saying this is terrible," says TRAC Co-director Judith LeRoy, "but we're saying this is not planned, it's never been looked at."

TRAC found these trends in national PBS data from the last 17 March pledge drives [table]:

  • Total dollars collected seems to be up, but when you adjust the figures to take inflation into account, March pledge revenues are flat. The 1980 average per station was $200,538 in adjusted 1983 dollars; the total this year was hardly higher at $207,978 in "real" (inflation-adjusted) dollars.
  • To keep pledge revenues up, stations have had to expand their minutes of fundraising breaks by some 60 percent since 1980. In dollars pledged per minute, adjusted for inflation, pledging is becoming less efficient. The average station's dollars per minute in 1980 was $149.80; this year, it was $94.60. Stations have cushioned pledge by offering premiums and pushing up the amount of the average gift.
  • The size of audiences tuned in for March pledge--a vital factor affecting pledge--has dropped generally from a national primetime rating of 3.2 in March 1986 to 2.0 last March.
  • The drives are collecting fewer names for stations' fundraising machines--one of the major objectives of on-air pledging. The number of pledges per station has dwindled from a high of 5,298 in 1985 to 3,895 this March. "The lifeblood of stations is getting these names," says LeRoy.

TRAC presented the data at its spring 1996 meeting for public TV programmers in Santa Fe.

Efficiency down in radio, too

Similar warning signs can be seen in public radio pledging, despite its strong dollar growth. Radio doesn't have years of national pledge statistics comparable to TV's, but audience analyst David Giovannoni says that radio's real membership income per listener-hour, adjusted for inflation, peaked in 1988 and has declined since then. Underwriting income per listener-hour, also adjusted for inflation, peaked in 1990 and also has declined.

Giovannoni will present the findings in a forthcoming report for CPB and will explore the situation in the Audience '98 study, also for CPB.

One reason public radio is getting less support from listeners for the size of its audience is that station development staffs and other fundraising resources have not grown as fast as the audience of potential donors, Giovannoni suspects.

Another reason may be that public radio, as it expands its reach, has begun courting potential donors who are harder to persuade than the members already on board. "All the easy public radio listeners have been gotten," as Giovannoni says, "and the easy money has been gotten."

This could also explain why TV's March pledge has gotten longer and longer.

"I don't think [pledge is] sick," says Helen Kennedy, a partner in the Portland, Ore., consulting firm of Lewis-Kennedy Associates. "I think there are other things going on here."

Declining numbers of pledges is a normal effect of a market maturing, she says. With some stations now claiming one-sixth of their viewers as members, it's harder to push deeper into the population.

If stations are harvesting fewer names from pledge, that isn't a disaster, she says, since stations are widely acquiring prospects from rented lists and other sources. At Oregon Public Broadcasting, where she was membership chief, almost half of new members come in through direct mail.

Fewer watch, but they pledge big

The pledge results tie back to the kinds of programs aired during the drives, TRAC analysts suggest.

"The number of program types in March is generally half of what you find in other months," says LeRoy. During pledge drives, programmers nearly triple the time they give to music/dance. There's less public affairs, nature/science and drama and more comedy, travel, health and self-help, TRAC found in 1993-94 figures.

A musical program like the "Les Miserables" concert or a self-help show may appeal to a much narrower audience than other genres, but the programs hold great emotional appeal for those fans, who pledge heavily, especially when offered a videocassette or other related premium, according to LeRoy.

This helps explain why the average March pledge gift to public TV more than doubled from $33.90 to $83.10 since 1980 (though when adjusted for inflation, the growth is a smaller 26 percent).

Kennedy applauds the confident fundraisers who offer high-priced premiums and push up the average gift. "We're not a poor little grassroots organization any more," she says.

She acknowledges that many of those high-pledgers are indeed "transaction-oriented," interested mostly in the premium, as LeRoy points out, and not highly likely to renew their memberships. So it's just as well that the station asks for substantial sums from them when it has the chance, Kennedy says.

Pledgemasters are getting better at giving viewers a reason to pledge, and attractive premiums are one reason, says Malcolm Brett, development chief and acting station manager at Wisconsin PTV.

The Wisconsin network offered The Civil War on boxed videocassettes at $500, and the "Three Tenors" disc and videocassette for $180. "Ten years ago, we didn't have the confidence or the experience to ask for those gifts."

"The people who come into the [membership] file through pledge respond deeply to the program and the moment at hand," says Brett. They don't respond well to direct-mail attempts at renewal. "They do need different care." Wisconsin sometimes sends them postcards to alert them when their favorite program types are scheduled.

The downside is that March pledge audiences are falling--faster than in other months, according to TRAC--and fewer people per station are pledging.

Some stations were already responding to trends that turned up in the TRAC analysis. Rochester's WXXI, for instance, reduced its minutes of March pledge breaks from 2,733 to 2,171 this year, says Rick Hicks, v.p. of marketing and development.

While dropping the least productive pledge breaks, WXXI reduced viewer fatigue, earned more money and drew only 1 percent fewer pledges.

"It's easy to forget that pledge has two primary purposes: to bring in net revenue now, and to put people in the file for renewals and additional gift letters," says Hicks.

"Sometimes it might serve the station's interest to suppress the average gift by concentrating on [premium] levels that will bring more people in."

Fundraisers should be spending more time figuring out the tradeoffs involved in that kind of decision, according to TRAC.

"In pledge, things are done sort of because it works in Fresno, so we'll try it," says LeRoy. The TRAC data show that pledge is changing, but she'd be more comfortable if the changes were happening because they were planned that way.

Many of the figures from on-air fundraising continue to rise, but others indicate problems in this important leg of pubcasting's financial support.


Warning signals in public TV's March pledge statistics?
Year Total dollars
of pledging
station "real"
station "real"
dollars per
1980 $20.56M $171,311 4,741 $200,538 $149.80 $33.90  
1982 $28.7M $205,559 4,844 $217,726 $147.20 $42.50  
1984 $31.25M $231,350 4,891 $230,731 $131.60 $48.40  
1986 $37.11M $254,723 5,058 $245,389 $133.90 $52.80 3.2
1988 $38.35M $290,959 4,662 $220,937 $113.10 $55.20 2.6
1990 $34.96M $283,164 4,011 $189,985 $95.90 $61.00 2.4
1992 $39.33M $285,593 4,603 $210,696 $98.90 $65.20 2.2
1994 $38.20M $315,707 3,889 $192,234 $79.70 $72.80 2.3
1996 $50.19M $340,795 3,895 $207,978 $95 $83.10 2.0
Data compiled by TRAC Media Services from PBS statistical reports and Nielsen Media Research ratings.
* "Real" dollars are 1983 dollars, adjusted for inflation.


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