Listeners & viewers
Looking back at the audiences of public broadcasting
This Briefing pulls together articles and statistics on public broadcasting's audiences from Current Newspaper.
Despite their reputation for low ratings, sizeable numbers of Americans use public TV and radio, even compared to most mass and specialized media. More people watch PBS primetime in a week than see most hit movies in months, buy the bestselling record or book or subscribe to any magazine or newspaper. Far more listen to NPR's Morning Edition or watch The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer during a week than subscribe to Time magazine.
Sixty percent of U.S. households with TV sets watch public TV in a week (the so-called "weekly cume," winter 1996), and about 9 percent of Americans listen to public radio (spring 1995).
The only media with larger audiences than public TV are the largest commercial broadcast TV networks and the biggest hit movies. In primetime, each of the big-three commercial networks has about 9 percent of all TV households tuned in, on average (the "average primetime rating"), compared to about 2 percent for PBS.
Steady at that level, public TV is holding its own against the competition of cable in the 1990s. Public radio's weekly audience meanwhile has nearly quadrupled since 1980 with the establishment of new stations and the development of strong programming, including national news programming.
They're demographically like the country, overall
People of every age, income and ethnic group watch public TV and public radio, in nearly the same mix as in the population. When you look at breakdowns of the audience and the population, there are discrepancies of only 2, 3, 4 or 5 percent.
Public radio audiences also are quite representative of the general population. Though they are skewed somewhat toward men, 40-somethings, and the middle class, all kinds of Americans are substantially represented in the audience. In other ways, the audiences don't fit the stereotype.
Where there are skews in the audience, they often reflect program specialties. Public TV strongly attracts the old and the young. In the evening it has many viewers in their 50s, 60s and 70s because older adults tend to take an interest in public affairs and other informational programs. Some stations also cater to older viewers — unwanted by the advertisers on commercial stations — with programs like The Lawrence Welk Show reruns.
And public TV has strong children's audiences, who come to TV for different kinds of programs as their developmental needs change. (Some of the programs are so successful at not talking down to kids that hundreds of thousands of single adults and teenagers are regular viewers.)
Public radio and TV also have a mandate to air programming of special interest to ethnic minorities. NPR is in the early stages of developing a new diversity initiative to build public radio's minority audiences. CPB has also backed the creation of satellite networks for Native American and Latino public radio, and funds programming by, for and about various minorities.
Public radio's audience is smaller than public TV's, but faster growing, better educated on average, and more heavily weighted with younger adults. For many young adults, as several speakers indicated at the Public Radio Program Directors Conference in 1999, and in consultant Ken Mills' commentary in Current, public TV is out-of-it, on the downswing and losing its place in their hearts.
The audiences are generally appreciative of the service
It's a case of simple supply and demand: pubcasting's listeners and viewers place a high value on good programming that is scarce on the air. They attest to their appreciation (and sometimes outrage) in a wide variety of letters and phone calls. The audience ranges from casual tune-ins to the most loyal of fans.
When federal aid was under fire in 1995, polls indicated that most Americans wanted Congress to continue appropriations to help the field. When asked to compare public radio and TV with other public services they rated them more valuable than all except the armed forces and law enforcement.
When the Roper Poll asked Americans whether public TV, network TV and cable TV were "educational," "informative" and "important," they gave public TV much higher scores.
Relations with these people are so important that some stations assign audiences services specialists to represent the viewers within the station.
They provide an increasing share of support
Public radio and TV tend to serve audiences small enough to need the service and big enough to help pay the bills. In this country, public broadcasting has the mandate to supplement commercial broadcasting by serving audiences that NBC or Tribune or Fox will not or cannot serve profitably. But pubcasters generally need aid from their audiences to continue operating.
Listeners and viewers voluntarily give more than $400 million a year to support public broadcasting. And Americans politically support additional backing of more than $250 million a year from Congress and $500 million from state and local governments. [Table of revenue sources.]
With operating costs growing faster than government aid, pubcasting increasingly relies on "audience-sensitive" revenues: direct audience support such as pledging, plus corporate underwriting that's attracted by audience.
Though some stations survive without holding major pledge drives or pushing for more audience, others are more aggressive. A half-dozen big-city public TV stations take part in an intramural competition at the top of the field's ratings charts.
Stations have been able to boost membership revenues partly by stretching pledge drives longer and longer, but analysts see troubling trends in recent results.
In public radio, the move toward self-sufficiency is ironically causing stations to streamline their audiences. Audience researchers find that stations can draw more satisfied listeners by specializing in fewer types of programs.
The latest comprehensive study of public radio listening — David Giovannoni's CPB-funded Audience 98 project, rolling out in late 1997 and 1998 — will look closely at costs and revenues for specific programs and kinds of programs. The findings can be expected to encourage more "effective" programming that people want to hear, but also undercut highly specialized programs.
The trend toward dropping programs with the narrowest or most inconsistent appeal is encouraged by new CPB criteria for its grants to stations, which were adopted to show Congress that all stations receiving aid are worthy.
Changes in radio schedules, which typically remain fixed for years, often lead to outcries by loyal listeners as the stations' audience strategies collide with their listening habits. Fans of a canceled program in Boston continue to pressure WGBH-FM for reconsideration after many months, and the producer of a former Wisconsin Public Radio program is leading an offensive against the network in the state legislature.
The bitterest conflicts have occurred around Pacifica Radio, a left-wing chain of public radio stations. Some volunteers and listeners have clashed with its national management over program changes intended to enlarge its reach and over charges of union-busting. The national head of Pacifica, Pat Scott, says Pacifica must work efficiently to serve its purposes.
Now there's competition for small audiences
Are commercial media now able to fulfill the small-audience role of public broadcasting? It's been a repeated question since the rise of specialized national cable networks like the Discovery Channel and Nickelodeon.
Public TV has a wider reach than cable. Ninety-nine percent of households can receive public TV, either over the air or via cable, while cable channels can be received only where people subscribe to cable or DBS (direct broadcast satellite) services like DirectTV. Discovery, A&E and Nickelodeon each reach about 70 percent of households (Nielsen, November 1996). The cost of subscribing to cable or DBS, often more than $300 a year, is a major factor limiting their reach.
It's not clear how the further fragmentation of viewing will affect the quality and appeal of cable programming. Cable networks individually spend less on programming per hour than public TV. Some are now defensively subdividing into more channels, and cable networks that do so may not have incentives to equal public TV's per-hour program investments and may choose to serve more popular tastes, according to some media economists.
In radio, it's also not clear that commercial broadcasters will be able to serve small audiences that are public radio's specialities.
It's unlikely that any business would spend enough to offer an in-depth news service like public radio's. Audiences for classical music and jazz are too small to interest commercial broadcasters in all but the largest metro areas. But Sony is trying to make a go of classical music on commercial stations. The next challenge to public radio, and to all local radio stations, will be nationwide digital radio broadcasting from new satellites expected to be launched in several years.
Comparing primetime ratings Network Rating Cume PBS 1.9 29.5 ABC 8.8 70.5 CBS 8.6 66.5 NBC 10.5 72.6 A&E 0.9 14.1 Bravo 0.1 1.5 Discovery .8 16.1 Learning Channel 0.3 10.6 Nickelodeon 1.2 16.3 Source: Nielsen Media Research,
Monday-Sunday, 8-11 p.m.
April 1-June 23, 1996. In 1997,
the new UPN and WB networks
have had average primetime ratings
Rating = percentage of households with TV sets that are tuned in to channel at any given time during the time period (full-day, primetime, daytime or other daypart).
Cume = cumulative percentage of households with TV sets that tune in to channel for at least six minutes during the time period (usually a week).
Comparing the public TV audience with adults at-large Percentage within
public TV audience
Spanish origin 7.5 7.3 -0.2 Black 11.3 10.7 -0.6 Less than 4 years
18.2 17.7 -0.5 Professional-owner-
23.9 25.2 1.3 Income less than $20K 30.6 28.4 -2.3 Income more than $60K 22.6 25.3 2.7 Kids age 2-5 6.4 9.2 2.8 Women age 65+ 7.3 10.0 2.7 Men age 18-34 12.5 9.6 -2.9 Source: October - November 1996 Nielsen data compiled by PBS.
Comparing the public radio audience
with adults at-large
Male 47.87 59.05 Age 18-34 35.95 32.31 Age 35-49 29.66 35.89 Age 50+ 34.39 32.09 Household income
42.51 32.07 Household income
13 18.24 Conservative 30.68 33.44 Middle-of-road 29.42 26.22 Liberal 22.27 26.06 Reader's Digest
21.57 22.11 New Yorker
1.51 4.04 Member of
5.05 7.01 Reside in suburbs 47.77 51.68 Source: 1993 data from Simmons Market Research
Bureau, published by NPR.
Comparing public attitudes toward
various kinds of TV
Public TV scored higher: Educational 65 18 29 Informative 47 29 34 Important 26 17 16 Imaginative 22 10 18 Stimulating 20 8 16 Public TV scored lower: In bad taste 1 17 16 Too simple minded 2 15 16 Getting worse 3 29 17 All the same 4 23 10 Source: Roper Poll taken February 1996
To Current's home page
On public radio talk programs, the audience is the program, and it's a different kind of program from commercial radio talk.
Web site of Audience Research Analysis, David Giovannoni's radio audience research firm, including the Audience 98 study.
Web site of Radio Research Consortium, which crunches Arbitron ratings for public radio.Web page created April 5, 1997
Revised Oct. 7, 1998
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