When PBS airs three series pilots next month, it will be testing new approaches to science programming — and new ways to get viewers to check them out.
The pilots, commissioned this spring as part of a research-driven solicitation for new science series, will be promoted on-air, streamed and podcasted on the Internet and broadcast at 8 p.m. on three consecutive Wednesdays, Jan. 3, 10 and 17 .
Qualitative and quantitative studies commissioned by CPB and minute-by-minute Nielsen ratings of the broadcasts will help network programmers decide what to do after the pilot tests. Through a series of on-air promos and e-mail invitations to its 4,000-member online viewing panel, PBS will encourage viewers to watch the programs and submit comments via the website pbs.org/science.
The pilots are contenders to be the first PBS series born from CPB’s 2003-04 research on primetime viewing and the strategic priorities developed from the study. Creating new science programs, particularly those that would increase viewing by a key audience segment identified in the research, is a top priority for PBS and CPB.
PBS hopes to attract a broad general audience to the science shows, but it designed the pilots to appeal to a segment called “innovating and inclined.” These are relatively young viewers, ages 18-49, who innovate in their media use and are “inclined” to enjoy pubTV programs, though they watch less than PBS’s core audience does. These viewers, one of eight audience segments identified in CPB’s study, told researchers they want to see more PBS science programs.
“These are the pioneers for public television,” said Nicholas Schiavone, strategic research consultant to CPB. “They are building the future of public television through their appetites and viewing behavior.”
Since accessibility is a key issue for these viewers — both in terms of the time they can devote to TV watching and their ability to find the PBS programs they like — PBS’s pilot test tries to lower both barriers, said John Boland, chief content officer.
“We want to make these accessible and easy for them to find — between the streaming, the regularly scheduled broadcast and the subject matter,” Boland said. “We’re hoping this will fit the bill.”
The aspiring series are hourlong:
National Geographic Television, which had been commissioned to produce a pilot, withdrew from the slate.
In commissioning the pilots, Wilson said, he wanted “to get different ideas and different approaches on the air.” His objective for the test phase is “to find a single winner that can attract an audience and build a franchise.”
After evaluating the research and viewer feedback, PBS will decide in March which program gets full production backing. Its first season of 10 programs will debut in fall 2007. Wilson said the cost will be comparable to that of History Detectives .
Wilson plans to evaluate the winning show’s performance before commissioning 20 more episodes.
PBS acquired rights to distribute the pilots via several on-demand platforms, but for the test run it will experiment with Internet streaming. All three shows will be offered as “featured sites” on pbs.org/science as of Jan. 1. Visitors can watch video streams of the full programs or subscribe to free podcasts at iTunes. The website will include a feedback form for web viewers to share their reactions.
The network will also send e-mail invitations and reminders about the science pilots to members of its online viewing panel, a group recruited from PBS.org that shares characteristics of the “innovating and inclined” audience group. Later the panelists will receive e-mails asking them to take an online survey about each pilot. Those who watch all three shows will be asked to pick a favorite.
Boland emphasized that viewers’ responses won’t supersede the professional judgments of PBS programmers. “This is not a vote that we’re going to tally up,” Boland said. “All of these feedback loops will inform good decisions by John [Wilson] and his team.”
Some of the feedback will be highly detailed: PBS has commissioned minute-by-minute Nielsen ratings for each of the pilot broadcasts.
CPB, meanwhile, is fielding two studies over the next several months. The first, already underway, includes in-depth interviews with viewers who fit the profile of “innovating and inclined” viewers. Researchers from City Square Associates, which led earlier phases of the primetime research project, will be talking with viewers in five cities about their lifestyles.
“This will give us a multi-dimensional understanding of who are the viewers who are likely to fall into the segment called ‘innovating and inclined,’” said Terry Bryant, CPB v.p. of media strategies.
In January, City Square continues the qualitative study, asking focus group participants in five cities what they mean when they say they’d like more science programs. The focus groups will include, but won’t be limited to, “innovating and inclined” viewers, Bryant said.
CPB also recently solicited proposals for a quantitative study that will coincide with the pilot broadcasts. “The goal is to be as close to the real-time pilot testing as possible with a national probability sampling that is truly projectable across the entire adult public television viewing population,” Bryant said.
“I think what we’re learning is going to have implications beyond a new science series,” Bryant said. “We are creating a lot of new working knowledge about primetime viewing and have learned that there are lots of applications for it if we do a good job of telling the story and sharing the learning.”
posted Dec. 5, 2006
Copyright 2006 by Current Publishing Committee