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In an Errol Morris spot with PBS's new tagline a girl demonstrates curiosity by dumping caviar into a fishbowl. Will the fish eggs hatch?

Viewers put in ‘curious’ position
PBS hopes its new tagline will invite them in

Originally published in Current, June 19, 2000
By Stephanie Lash

A girl runs out to a barn in the middle of the night to see if her flashlight can make the rooster crow (he does). A boy gets an inside view of a dishwasher by putting a camcorder inside. A man speaks backwards on a tape to see how it sounds when played normally.

Why? They're curious.

And PBS is hoping they see themselves that way, too. The scenes are parts of the network's new positioning campaign to target an audience that wants to figure things out. That, PBS says, is what the service can do best.

"When we spoke with stations, they said [PBS offers] programming that is supposed to satisfy curiosity," said Judy Braune, v.p. of strategy and brand management. "This positioning taps into that. It's friendly and inviting."

The new positioning spots, developed by the Minneapolis-based ad agency Fallon, feature the tagline "Stay curious. PBS." Braune and John Ruppenthal, director of creative services, unveiled them during the organization's annual meeting in Nashville last week.

"Creatively, the research seemed to indicate that the word that kept coming up was curious," said Tom Epstein, PBS v.p. of communications. "Our viewers are curious about the world, our producers felt they were producing for curious minds, and all roads led to that one word."

Each spot shows an individual conducting an experiment as a way of satiating his or her curiosity, be it through dumping caviar in a fishbowl to see if the fish eggs will hatch or assembling a flip-book of self-portraits to coincide with a recording of an operatic solo.

John Forde, executive producer and host of Mental Engineering, a public television program evaluating the psychology of advertising, lauded the spots that showed children experiencing the wonder of discovery. But he questioned the effectiveness of the ads depicting the adults, saying they seemed to be "self-involved" and emotionally unconnected with viewers.

"It's hard for the enthusiasm for the spirit of PBS to be infectious when you can't witness that kind of transfer," he said.

Buckets of praise

Forde's comments were in the minority, as many attendees gushed with enthusiasm for the ads, directed by filmmaker Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line, Fast, Cheap & Out of Control). Michael Killen, a producer for WDCN in Nashville, said they neutralize the perception that PBS is stuffy. They are "hip and fresh, and that's the direction they should be going in," he said. Kate Domico, a multimedia production manager for WPSX, University Park, Pa., called the tagline "direct and nonelitist." And almost everyone had something complimentary to say about the spots involving children.

In another PBS image spot, a curious boy puts a camcorder in a plastic bag to run it through the dishwasher.

"People just love it," said Laurie Nichols, KTWU promotions director, of the campaign. "It's so much more open and inviting than the other one."

The other one — "If PBS doesn't do it, who will?" was "no longer appropriate in an era of copy-cat cable channels," Braune said.

Research with focus groups found there were many people who should have been viewers but weren't, said Bruce Bildsten, group creative director for Fallon. "We'd begun to lose to cable alternatives like Bravo, Discovery, A&E," he said. "What we found out was that of those, PBS is highly regarded and the quality is recognized, but some people, especially the younger ones, saw it as 'the educational station' and remembered it a little too much for the BBC dramas. ... When we'd prompt them and ask them if they had seen current programs, they'd say 'Oh, yes, I saw that and that was wonderful!' This campaign is to reach out to those people and say this is the place to satisfy your curiosity."

In a media environment where niche cable channels have carved out specific programming areas that overlap with public television, branding becomes even more crucial for the industry's success. That point was driven home by Jack Myers, c.e.o. and chief economist of the Myers Group, who addressed the annual conference with findings of his brand research involving 6,500 television viewers. In the study that probed 26 aspects of media image, PBS ranked fourth among 70 media brands, with the Discovery, Weather and Learning Channels on top. Myers urged public broadcasters to maintain PBS's brand equity by reconnecting with viewers, demonstrating the relevance of programming to their lives.

"When you're relevant and connecting with people, then you're creating value," he said. "We have lost those connections. It's time to reconnect to their identities."

Myers also pressed stations to use their relationship with PBS as a crux in their branding strategies, noting in a review of station web sites that few were co-branding with the network in a way that would capitalize on its media value.

"When you have a strong PBS brand, it's an association well worth connecting with for viewers and underwriters," he said, adding that stations' relationship with PBS should be a "source of pride."

Through the peephole

The new spots are part of PBS' positioning strategy, but its new promotion campaign includes many additional elements that incorporate many of the same strategies: bringing a fresh new image to public television. In the fall, PBS will roll out a new primetime animation package for station breaks. The hot design firm Razorfish worked in conjunction with Fallon to develop the package. The positioning spots all begin with a widening "peephole" into the action on the screen, and the animation packages allude to the motif with brightly colored circles in various sizes. The packages will be fed by satellite to stations in July.

PBS has also increased its promotional budget by 50 percent to around $25 million and is targeting its advertising resources more than it has in the past, Epstein said. Major funding will go into Napoleon, Ken Burns' Jazz, and Bill Moyers' On Our Own Terms this season. They will receive "event-style" publicity and targeted advertising, Braune said. PBS will also give heavy promotion to The American Experience, with special advertising in such publications as Smithsonian, Harper's and TV Guide.

Epstein said that the pilot schedule is entwined with this strategy. As research shows that the public finds PBS difficult to use and hard to find, the pilot project is directed at consistency and making shows easier to locate, he said. With the increased promotion for shows like The American Experience, PBS is hoping to attract even more regular viewers. That translates into a blanket of ads.

"You'll start seeing 'stay curious' everywhere," Epstein said. "You'll see it in magazines, you'll see it on air, and you'll see more of it than you're used to, because we'll be spending more money on it."

. To Current's home page
. Earlier news: PBS's former promo chief, Carole Feld, discusses plans for a new slogan in an interview before leaving the network in March 2000.
. Outside link: Biography of the filmmaker Errol Morris on the site of his recent film Mr.Death.

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