Dallas audience passes milestone for public TV
In the world of public TV's relatively small audiences, KERA (for now) tops the handful of stations that push hardest for ratings
Originally published in Current, March 17, 1997
By Steve Behrens
When flowers arrived from Tucson, Acting Station Manager Bill Young knew that KERA had broken the 5,000 barrier. In the February ratings period, the main public TV station in Dallas piled up more gross rating points (GRPs) per week than any public station ever before.
One of a dozen or so public TV stations that repeatedly score high in the ongoing intramural audience-building contest [table], KERA got the flowers Feb. 27  from TRAC Media Services, the Tucson-based ratings consultancy headed by David and Judith LeRoy.
TRAC staffers knew KERA was on a roll. It had achieved the system's highest GRPs in May 1996, and Young had been alerting them as rating points piled up higher during February, says Craig Reed, v.p. of research at TRAC. "He was really into it."
The people of Dallas know, too. KERA calls itself "the most-watched public television station in the country" in every ad and promo where the brag fits. "We get that message out every place we can," says Jonnie England, v.p. of corporate communications.
"It's at a point that now it can feed on itself," says Young. He's beginning to hear people refer to the achievement when they talk about KERA.
A snowball phenomenon takes over, says Judith LeRoy, co-director of TRAC. "You can generally watch it continue to do that. We've never figured out why. It may be word-of-mouth or share-of-mind."
Hitting 5,000 GRPs (pronounced "gurps") is an arbitrary milestone, like the stock market reaching a certain Dow Jones Average, Young acknowledges.
GRPs is only one of many audience measures by which a station can excel. Oregon Public Broadcasting's Portland station, for instance, has higher GRPs if you count only primetime. When you include non-metered markets, Tucson's KUAT frequently ranks high in GRPs. Miami's WLRN boasted the fastest-growing GRPs in January. San Francisco's KQED often comes in highest in another audience measurement, the weekly cume.
And if you're talking absolute numbers instead of percentages--ratings, GRPs and cumes are percentages--New York's WNET has everyone beat, by far, with a weekly cume last year of 2.7 million households.
But GRPs do have a powerful meaning of their own. When they go up, it means KERA "is getting people to watch them more often and for longer periods of time," says Craig Reed. And 5,000 GRPs is an achievement in public TV, where the average station receiving overnight Nielsen ratings has fulltime GRPs of around 3,000.
GRPs measure what the LeRoys call "tonnage" of viewing: a simple sum of the ratings achieved for every quarter-hour during the broadcast week. (Sometimes GRPs count half-hours; those figures are lower, but the idea is the same.)
Each rating point accumulated in the GRPs represents 1 percent of households in the viewing area. When a month is done, there's a whole pile of GRPs.
KERA has steadily boosted its GRPs--23 percent between 1991 and 1995, based on October data, and then another 20 percent in the single year of 1996, according to TRAC. In February, icy weather kept Dallas indoors and helped push the numbers up some more, Young suspects.
The real prime time
Primetime is the key to a big audience for some top-rated stations. Oregon Public Broadcasting's Portland flagship KOPB, for instance, accumulated more than a third of its total GRPs during primetime, while KERA gathered just a fifth in that daypart. Evenings have been the strength of stations in San Francisco and other "natural public television markets" like Portland and Seattle, according to LeRoy.
KERA, also, is strong in primetime, occasionally beating the CBS affiliate in Dallas. Its primetime average rating is about 3, compared to about 2 for the average public TV station. But KERA works hardest outside of primetime.
"We try to focus on every daypart there is," says Young. "A 4 rating in late night is as good as a 4 on Saturday afternoon."
The real prime time for public TV, says LeRoy, is often these other dayparts, when aggressive programmers draw in kids, men and younger adults. KERA runs how-to programs for 11 hours on Saturdays, getting frequent 3 and 4 ratings in the afternoons, and blocks of British comedies on weekend nights that draw ratings of 4, 5, or even 9.
These would be pitiful-to-average ratings for commercial TV, but for public TV, ratings this high are a new phenomenon.
Audience-building stations get the biggest boost by plugging in successful repeats and acquisitions they know will work in their markets, says Craig Reed. These sometimes replace PBS feeds that are played later or not at all.
Where programmers have the freedom, they create far more fluid schedules than the usual, sometimes floating Frontline from 9 to 8 or 10 p.m., depending on its topic, says Reed.
Trying to maintain a torrent of audience flow from the previous program, schedulers like Young create "theme night" stunts with promotional potential. When Young saw that PBS would be feeding Nature's "Victims of Venom," he tacked on Georgia PTV's "The Joy of Snakes."
"He knows his market well," says Craig Reed. "Snakes are going to work in Dallas. Opera does not work there."
"Probably the one thing [top-rated stations] do is spend an awful lot of time knowing the market they're in," says Young. Dallas viewers love Britcoms, though he doesn't know why, while they generally can do without British drama. Last October, Dallas gave Masterpiece Theatre ratings of 2 to 4 while San Franciscans gave the series 4 to 12.
Asterisks be gone
The Dallas station and its friendly GRPs rivals in Chicago, San Francisco and Seattle also score high in weekly cumes. In October, 62 percent of Dallas households tuned to KERA, compared to 53 percent for the average station in TRAC's figures.
Succeeding in both GRPs and cumes isn't surprising, since GRPs are determined jointly by the cume and the average length of viewing.
Twenty years ago, cumes for a week or a month were all that public TV had, because its audiences were so small at any given moment. Its ratings books featured rows of asterisks, meaning the audience at any given moment was so small that Nielsen couldn't reliably judge its size.
WHA, Madison, dispatched grad students to examine the actual ratings diaries for written comments and other clues to viewer preferences, recalls Wisconsin PTV exec Larry Dickerson.
It was a time for real jubilation at Chicago's WTTW when the asterisks disappeared for a whole week of primetime, remembers Senior Vice President Dick Bowman, who programmed the station for more than a decade starting in 1972. By the late '70s, there were no asterisks all day long, though there were still plenty of lowly ratings.
A few young academics led the way into audience research--Nat Katzman, who was later program director at KQED; David LeRoy, an early deputy research director at CPB; and LeRoy's wife and partner, psychologist Judith LeRoy. In 1977, the LeRoys picked up Katzman's number-crunching business and, in conjunction with the Pacific Mountain Network, founded PMN TRAC -- now TRAC Media Services.
From the start, the LeRoys preached the idea of watching and building GRPs, says Judith LeRoy. Pubcasters had to learn a new acronym and to pronounce it "gurps" instead of "grips."
But cumes remained in the spotlight as they soared during the 1970s. WTTW's rose from 29 percent to 58 percent in that decade--and then grew more slowly in the 1980s, levelling off as high as 70 percent in the late 1980s. With cumes high and stubbornly steady, programmers recently have focused on GRPs.
Bowman--the LeRoys' first client--was one of the earliest public TV programmers to aggressively seek to know what the audience wanted and try to deliver it, while minding public TV's mission, says Ann Engelman, programming v.p. at Maryland PTV.
When Bill McCarter took charge of WTTW in 1972, and assigned Bowman to manage its schedule, the station was best known as "the station that has an annual auction," Bowman recalls. "Now people know our programs."
Bowman was soon sharing strategies with a new generation of public TV program directors, including David Liroff, David Othmer, Larry Dickerson, John Felton, Kay Ingram and the late Jerry Trainor.
And they became mentors to others, says Engelman. "When a lot of us were first starting, we were able to call Dick and say, 'I'm thinking of doing this kind of scheduling--what do you think?' And Dick always took the time to walk around in an idea for you."
For his own station, Bowman and his successors, Andy Yocom and Dan Soles, formed a team to follow city events and public thinking and apply the knowledge to every schedule and promotion decision.
As programmers developed their art in the 1970s and '80s, they began to realize some basic things that are old news today: that public TV has huge audiences of the old and the very young; that good audience flow would build time-spent-viewing; and that sharp station breaks and promos could build station identity. And they recognized gold in their shelves of repeats.
"The concept of a schedule that built on cumulative audience appeal--I remember that being a light bulb that went off," recalls PBS programming chief Kathy Quattrone, who learned from Bowman, Katzman, Liroff and others.
"One of the things Dick Bowman would always try to get across to us when I was coming up was that there's no such thing as a repeat," says Young. "If you have a successful program that got a 5 share of the audience, there's still 95 percent that didn't see it."
Nielsen gives Bowman--and counterparts in other big cities--two major advantages by using meters to estimate audiences, instead of diaries, which are the only method elsewhere. First, the meters capture many more tune-ins, especially non-primetime, than diary-keepers remember to jot down, says LeRoy. Last October, KERA's cume was just 46 percent, as estimated from Nielsen diaries, and 62 percent based on Nielsen meters.
Second, the meters give next-day feedback to programmers about what the audience likes and dislikes, permitting quick tryouts and fixes. In markets where the audience is known only through diaries, programmers must wait months to the see ratings.
Overnight ratings from the meters let WTTW know that Antiques Road Show was a hit with viewers when placed after Wall Street Week, and the station was able to immediately plan repeats, says Bowman.
When programmers first began watching ratings closely, they faced showdowns with pubcasters who regarded the Nielsens as tools of the devil. The mere use of ratings is less controversial today, says Engelman, but many programmers will still sacrifice GRPs to carry programs like Bill Moyers' Genesis, which drew a small but deeply engaged audience.
Bowman says WTTW always wielded its scheduling wizardry to match high-quality programs with their best audiences.
"None of this is as important as the quality of the programming itself," he says as he prepares to retire to his Michigan retreat on May 2. "We tend to lose sight of the fact that a good program is much more important than where you place it and how you present it."
To Current's home page
Current Briefing: Glimpses of the listeners and viewers
of public broadcasting.
Web page created April 5, 1997