Chart comparing present with proposed PBS primetime clock
Proportional chart by Current based on PBS graphic

Flow plan would push spots deeper into PBS hours

The traditional pledge-drive mantra brags about a piece of public television’s ancestral DNA: “PBS — your home for quality, uninterrupted programming.”

So the public reacted fairly predictably when PBS announced at this month’s annual meeting in Orlando that it’s considering internal promotional spots as part of its primetime revamp. As one blogger quipped, “Even though it wouldn’t involve actual commercials, I honestly think that Fred Rogers wouldn’t be happy with this idea.”

But some public TV programmers have responded more with curiosity than with outrage. They realize that the PBS schedule loses hundreds of thousands of viewers between shows and has for years. And by clustering compatible programs, as PBS plans to do for the fall, stations can retain more viewers through the station break.

The audience isn’t keen on sitting through the present hodgepodge of video snippets between shows: some eight minutes of national and local underwriting spots, promos, program credits, network and station branding and teases. Programmers — and sponsors — know how hard it was to win those eyeballs for the earlier show and don’t want to lose them if they can help it.

[Update: More than a week after the conference PBS released a memo pledging that it would seek more reaction to the plan before moving ahead with an on-air test. See letter at right.]

PBS had been discussing, in general terms, its plans for revamping primetime at various meetings including round robins. Details were revealed in several sessions at the Orlando conference, May 16–19.

Plans call for slicing up that clump of “business,” as programmers call it, and moving much of it deeper into the programs. Funder spots would move to shorter breaks at the 5- and 55-minute marks of an hour show. Formats for shorter and longer programs have not been discussed in detail.

Promo spots, such as tune-in blurbs, would move into the hour, to 20 and 40 minutes. Program content that would keep viewers around for the lead-out and grab viewers sooner for the lead-in would stay at the hour.  Thus the “hot switch” to prompt audience flow between shows.

PBS will try the experiment first on Wednesday nights this fall with Nova. If ratings look promising, it will add Antiques Roadshow Monday nights come winter.

“I think stations are just as interested as we are in creating a better experience for viewers so we can spend more time with them,” John Wilson, PBS’s senior v.p. and chief programmer told Current. In that way, “this is a better fulfillment of our public-service mission.”

Ideas with pedigrees, notoriety

The idea may sound familiar. Commercial networks have been hot-switching for years. PBS began inserting sponsor credits into online programs streamed from its website in 2009. And for the broadcast schedule, PBS experimented with a version of the hot switch nearly a decade ago.

The PBS initiative Reinventing Breaks recommended flow-building “sticky breaks” with some elements of what PBS is considering, but breaking into program content was still verboten (Current, July 22, 2002).

PBS doesn’t have to look into the distant past for complaints about funder credits that break into programs. It provoked a handful of viewer complaints by experimentally inserting funder blurbs into online videos starting April 20, prompting a cautionary column May 12 by PBS Ombudsman Michael Getler. Online viewers griped to him about the Goldman Sachs spots; some protested the interruption, while others cited the investment firm itself, which one viewer wrote “nearly brought down the world economy.”

Farther afield, an Australian newspaper editorialized May 9 against ad breaks inserted in PBS NewsHour broadcasts on the country’s public media channel, the Special Broadcasting Service. SBS “is doing its best to ruin its most valuable program,” The Australian admonished.

The mere thought of the interruptions and how they could undercut public TV’s reputation deeply rankles some pubcasters here as well. “The existence of these new breaks will set the stage for the appearance of commercial ads as well,” predicts Louis Wiley, retired executive editor of Frontline, in a commentary in this issue. “Whatever legal barriers the FCC may impose,” Wiley writes, “I think PBS can rely on one group to help rip down those barriers:  the members of Congress who want to defund public media.”

To others, the rearranged hour is no big deal. “It’s probably silly for us to call ourselves ‘interruption-free’ when every other month or so we get on air and interrupt during pledge breaks to ask for money,” said Kelly McCullough, g.m. of KAET in Phoenix. “That has been a false promise for quite some time.”

Nebraska’s NET has been breaking into programs for local program promos for years. “As near as I can tell, we’ve never had anybody complain,” said Terry Dugas, NET’s manager of content distribution.

Stay tuned for more

PBS’s primetime revamp calls for grouping shows of similar appeal, informing viewers that something they might like is coming up, and luring them into the next show after the hot switch.

Commercial networks have been doing that for nearly two decades. On March 21, 1993, the New York Times introduced the term “hot switch” to readers in a story headlined “As Cliff and Norm Drink Up, In Walks Seinfeld.” It’s now accepted practice: On NBC, as production credits flash on the screen, star Tina Fey’s voice tells fans to “stay tuned for more 30 Rock.” What viewers get is a final snippet of show content that carries them almost seamlessly into the next NBC offering.

As KAET’s McCullough quips, PBS’s new proposal “brings us kicking and screaming into the early ’90s as to how we present content and station breaks.”

Judy Diaz, who oversaw the 2002 Reinventing Breaks project at PBS, discovered that some viewers actually liked breaks, especially in longer shows. They saw it as “taking a breath.” Focus-group participants wanted to visit the bathroom, grab a soda, stretch their legs. Also, “people actually see show promotion as a service,” Diaz told Current. So promos are “sticky,” meaning they help keep viewers sticking around, while content is “stickiest.”

The objective, PBS execs told Diaz back then, was to get people to the next show without inserting breaks in programs. “Part of our brand has been we don’t interrupt programs,” Diaz said. “But now all that may be changing, with the use of DVRs. At that time, a long time ago, internal breaks were not up for discussion.”

So PBS’s 2002 experiment split up the clot of “business” around the station break but didn’t move the credits and promos more than a minute or two into the program. For the hot switch, PBS butted content against content by coming up with a sticky “Roadshow Treasures” segment — a two-minute glimpse of favorite Roadshow moments. The sequence:

  •  a tease for “Treasures,”

  •  a “next on” promo,

  • Roadshow closing elements and underwriting credits,

  •  “Roadshow Treasures,” and

  •  a tease for the next show.

PBS tested the new breaks at 11 stations on six consecutive Mondays in fall 2002. Outside of the experiment, between 55 percent and 70 percent of viewers went away, though the churn works both ways: Others were arriving for the next program.

Improving viewer retention gave the experimental schedule a net gain of 30 percent for the next show, Diaz said.

However, the initiative was not adopted systemwide. Wilson explained: “Our digital, containerized content process will now allow for us to implement these changes more efficiently than in 2003.”

It’s no wonder that the network focused on Roadshow for the 2002 tryout and is again planning to experiment with it — then and now, it’s PBS’s most-watched program.

The Roadshow audience typically grows steadily throughout its hour. On one Monday this February, its rating climbed from just over 2 rating points to above 4 during most of the hour. But around 8:53 p.m., just as the show begins its closing segment, the line on the graph plummets. By the time the next program begins, at 9 p.m., the rating is barely above 1.5.

As Wilson said at the Orlando conference: “The audience doesn’t drift out at the end of the show. It’s almost as if someone pulled the fire alarm and they scrambled for the exits.”

Time to do business

There’s little doubt that hot-switching and grouping shows by affinity will indeed hold on to viewers. But station leaders also want to retain enough time for their program promotion, local underwriter spots and the rest.

PBS’s primetime clock now gives stations a stretch of 3 minutes 14 seconds at the end of the hour. “All that stuff we’ve been putting in 3:14 has got to go somewhere,” said Ron Pisaneschi, Idaho PTV broadcasting director.

The new clock proposed by PBS doesn’t say exactly how much time stations would keep; it says they’d have 1:20 for local underwriting and share 3 minutes of promo time with national promos.

Wilson and Shawn Halford, PBS senior director of program scheduling, discussed the new clock and hot switch at the May 15 meeting of the Public Television Programmers Association, before the PBS meeting in Orlando.

“There was concern raised that the 40 seconds in the first and last breaks for local underwriting might not be enough for some stations,” Pisaneschi recalled. 

Wilson responded to that concern later in the PBS meeting: “We’ve heard that you want to be sure we’ve allotted enough time for local underwriting, and we’ll work that out.”

Other skeptics of the PBS proposal are wondering whether it would violate FCC rules. Under Sec. 73.621 of the FCC’s noncom station-licensing rules, “The scheduling of any announcements and acknowledgements may not interrupt regular programming.”

Michael Jones, PBS chief operating officer, told Current the network is aware there are “certain parameters” that it must work within, and it will be sensitive to those. “And as you know, public radio does these breaks on a regular basis,” Jones said.

Internal breaks would also mean that producers would need to “chapterize” their content and create “natural”-feeling breaks, as well as create 5-minute intro segments and 4:30 lead-out segments that can stand alone as bookends of the hour.

Several top producers declined to comment on the proposal. WGBH, home of many icon series, responded cautiously in a statement: “We are interested in PBS’s exploration of ways to improve the experience for viewers. As they consider the possibilities for audience flow, we look forward to hearing more about what they learn about the pros and cons of alternative program formats.”

PBS is having “ongoing discussions” with producers, Wilson said. “We’ve been speaking with folks at Nova and have had some conversations with Nature and Roadshow,” he said. “We’re in early conversations with Masterpiece. We need all their feedback” on the shape and structure of shows with breaks.

Not like clockwork

Terry Dugas at Nebraska’s NET network says he’s “very supportive of the general concept” of inserting promotional breaks, “with the understanding that PBS recognizes it can’t use a cookie-cutter approach, because not every program will work.”

NET airs local breaks in its two most popular local programs. Big Red Wrap-Up, a Cornhusker college-football show that runs August through January, has a pair of 2-minute breaks. The garden-advice program Backyard Farmer — “the longest-running locally produced show on television, for 58 years,” Dugas noted — has one 2-minute break. All the breaks are a mix of local underwriting and promos. Both hourlong shows air live. “We let the content determine where the breaks fall,” Dugas said. “Producers know to produce the show in three segments.” Generally the first break falls around 15 minutes in, the second around 40 minutes. “There’s no hard wheel that producers must follow,” he said.

That’s how Wilson sees it, too: The internal inserts won’t be scheduled to the minute, and none of the breaks will be as long as the 3:14 stretch in the present clock. With careful placement, “the audience will never be more than 1:40 from the next piece of content,” he said. “There’ll be the same amount of content. We’re just distributing it differently.”

“We realize this is a change,” Wilson said. While uninterrupted programming is an “important part of who we are, we’ll still have fewer, shorter interruptions” than commercial broadcasting. “The high-quality PBS shows are what really define us.”

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