PBS goals: reverse slides
in audience, membership
Network will invest heavily in program development
Originally published in Current, April 23, 2001
By Karen Everhart Bedford
PBS pledges to reverse recent audience and membership declines over the next three years in its proposed strategic plan and budget.
The multifaceted plan calls for a major overhaul of PBS's primetime service that will distinguish public TV from look-alike cable channels and build support among a target audience of "social capitalists"some 24 million civic-minded Americans who are active in their communities.
PBS executives presented the plan to stations in an April 17  teleconference and in hefty notebooks crammed with strategies and budget details. Station execs on the PBS Board will elicit stations' feedback on the plan in coming weeks. The board will vote on it June 13.
The proposed plan is the first multiyear strategy and budget articulated by President Pat Mitchell, who called for a bold reinvention of PBS when she joined the network more than a year ago. To help PBS clearly differentiate public TV from its competitors, the network asks stations for part of their anticipated CPB funding increases for 2002-04. Stations' annual National Program Service fees and member services dues would both rise 5 percent. Expecting limited growth from its revenue-generating businesses, PBS looks to foundations, national underwriters and strategic partners to expand its funding base.
PBS sets out 'measures of success'
Stations will be able to judge PBS's success by several concrete benchmarks named in its strategic plan. The network aims to develop other measures of effects on "social capital" and brand image.
Fiscal year targets 2001 est. 2002 2003 2004 Ratings Primetime 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Kids 2-5 4.3 4.3 4.4 4.4 Kids 6-8 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 Web usage Page-views per month 130M 140M 172M 205M Membership growth (above 1999 levels) Station membership growth 0% 2% 3% 4% Member revenue growth 3% 5% 6% 7% Educational materials Number of people reached 2.0M 2.3M 2.5M 2.7M
The plan dramatically proposes to measure PBS's future success in terms of direct benefit to stationsincreased ratings in primetime and among preschool and school-age audiences, and growth in membership and member revenue, among other criteria (see table).
Into the bowling leagueWith the plan, PBS adopts new lingo to express public TV's role as a public service content provider. PBS proclaims that its top objective will be to develop programming to build "social capital," embracing a term given new currency in Bowling Alone: Collapse and Revival of the American Community, a 2000 book by Harvard Prof. Robert Putnam on the decline of civic participation in American society. In the 2001-02 programming plan that accompanies its budget, PBS takes up Putnam's call to reinvigorate civic engagement. "Public televisionperforming from its platform of noncommercial public service and utilizing its abundant wealth of trust, goodwill and proven performancecan, should and indeed must play a significant role in the reestablishment of social capital within our society," PBS says.
The network proposes to cultivate "social capitalists"individuals who vote, volunteer, and attend cultural eventsas viewers and members of local stations. Of the 24 million of these individuals in the U.S., PBS estimates that 37 percent already watch public TV, but only 16 percent contribute to their local stations. PBS identifies a secondary audience of 145 million Americans who are community-minded but less active.
New programming, a burnished image and enhanced local/national connection in content are the tools through which PBS plans to engage these viewers. In its strategic plan, PBS declares that by 2004 its content will be "clearly differentiated from other content providers, relevant to and [influential] on individuals and communities, and [attractive to] a diverse audience with a valued experience."
PBS asserts that public TV must develop new series to achieve its audience and membership goals. In the programming plan, PBS cites as examples American High and Senior Year, two reality-based series on teenagers; Life in Bold, a show debuting this fall about "social capitalists in action"; and Public Square, a concept that will "redefine and reinvent" public affairs programming. An Americanized Mystery! and American Family, a drama about a Latino family by Gregory Nava, are among PBS's newest initiatives in fiction/performance programming.
PBS recently negotiated two-year contracts for seven primetime signature series and The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, according to the programming plan. But the plan offers no hints on the future of Washington Week in Review and Wall Street Week, a Friday-night pair with a loyal following among current public TV donors.
The proposed NPS budget for 2002 lays out how PBS plans to fund its new programming. Nearly half of $136 million to be spent on programs will go into program development; the network will trim funding of ongoing series by 8 percent, to $69 million. PBS also proposes to spend 17 percent more on interactive content, and 7 percent more on advertising and promotion. PBS projects that funds from strategic partners will more than double to $16.3 million.
Building more local connections to national programs is another key element of the proposed strategy. PBS plans to deliver three major series with local/national connections next yearup from one in fiscal 2001. "What we're really talking about are things of very significant size and stature, like Jazz and On Our Own Terms," explained John Wilson, co-chief content officer. "We're not talking about outreach circa 1985, when stations felt compelled to support several different under-funded, under-promoted local/national outreach initiatives."
The network will offer online toolkits that they hope will assist stations in developing local web elements tied to national programs and thereby boost page-views of these localized sites. PBS plans to deliver 24 toolkits next year.
Net business revenues flatten
The proposed strategy is especially bold given the overall financial picture for the organization. Early this year PBS realized that expected shortfalls in non-station revenues and increasing costs for merit raises would run up a 20 percent deficit next year. Some 60 employees at Braddock Place were laid off in February. The restructuring enabled PBS to request a 5 percent increase in member services dues in 2002, rather than a politically untenable 20 percent hike. PBS projects a 5 percent increase of the separate member services dues for 2003 and '04.
Revenues from PBS moneymaking businesses rose rapidly through the late 1990s, but officials predict that net income from activities such as home video and underwriting will drop nearly 10 percent to $17.5 million next year, and then stabilize in 2003-04.
PBS plans to boost its gross underwriting sales 20 percent in '02 and 10 percent in both 2003 and 2004, but this won't boost net income over the three-year budget plan. PBS's underwriting reps had better-than-expected sales this year, boosting net revenues to a projected $5.4 million.
In 2002, PBS predicts a 25 percent drop in net underwriting income as Judy Harris, new executive v.p. of PBS Business, hires an underwriting team working from Braddock Place. Net gains from underwriting recover with 10 percent increases through the last two years of the budget.
In its 2002 education budget, PBS stops funding operational expenses of PBS You, a digital channel carried on DBS and on analog and digital channels of some 20 PBS stations. The network is negotiating with CPB and other groups that might back the service in the new fiscal year. Board members are also talking with stations about a separate assessment to keep the channel running if outside funding is not secured. Operating the channel this year cost PBS $850,000.
PBS You launched in 1999 as a DBS educational set-aside channel, and PBS backed it with funds designated for multicasting initiatives. PBS said it couldn't find underwriting that it had hoped would cover the channel's operating costs.
Courting the foundations
Foundations are key prospects for new funding in PBS's strategic plan. PBS sets ambitious foundation revenue targets of $5 million for 2002, $15 million for 2003 and $30 million for 2004.
Working with the PBS Board, Robert Altman, PBS's development chief, developed a plan to seek direct support for PBS from major national foundations. PBS has vetted its plan with APTS, CPB and NPR, and its own Development Advisory Committee. "We honestly think the industry is ready to more cohesively at the national level to address its relationship with foundations," said Wayne Godwin, executive v.p. of station relations. "To date, there's been a willingness to allow this to move forward without significant push back."
PBS plans to convene a meeting with senior foundation managers later this year. The meeting would be "orientational," and describe "what public television is doing, and make them aware of the potential within our digital conversion," said Godwin. "We also want to gain an understanding of their priorities."
"After that, we'll see what happens," he added. "Indications are that there is an interest there."
Producers traditionally seek direct funding from national foundations for specific program proposals. PBS does not intend to set up an "us-versus-another-organization-versus-producing-stations" conflict, Godwin said.
. To Current's home page . Earlier news: Mitchell's plans taking shape after first year at PBS. . Outside link: What is all this about "social capital?" See TRAC Media's site on the concept, Public Television in Civil Society.
Web page posted April 25, 2001
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