Wednesday, March 01, 2000

PBS pledge programs carefully aim for emotions

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        NBC never pulls ER off the air in sweeps month, so why does public TV yank your favorite shows during pledge periods?

        No Nature. No Nova.

        Why does public TV look so radically different during pledge, which starts today on WCET-TV (Channel 48) and Dayton's WPTD-TV (Channel 16)?

        It's a matter of dollars and sense, says Scott Elliott, Channel 48 station manager.

        “The kinds of programs it takes to motivate people to pledge are different from the normal programs,” he says.

        That's why concerts by Paul Anka, Roy Orbison, Steely Dan, Don McLean, Four Tops, the Irish Tenors and Doo Wop 50 fill the airwaves this month.

        Not Masterpiece Theatre. Not Mystery!

        The pledge strategy is no mystery, however, if you understand who contributes most to public TV. The big givers are 55 and older. People with a few extra bucks now that the kids have moved out. Those whose first kiss came in the '50s to a doo wop or Paul Anka song.

        “Pledging is a very emotional process,” Mr. Elliott says. “People enjoy and like our shows in other parts of the year, but it takes something very different to motivate them to call.”

        Four broadcasts of Doo Wop 50 raised $42,684 in December. That was 20 percent of the $215,703 pledged by Channel 48 viewers. Three more Doo Wop 50 repeats Feb. 5-6 brought in $44,000 in pledges. (Membership revenues account for $2 million, just under one-third of the station's $6 million budget. Of that $2 million, about 25% comes from on-air campaigns.)

Welk is big
        A decade ago, big-band shows and Mitch Miller sing-alongs were the most lucrative pledge programs. They struck a chord with people who were young adults in the '40s. Lawrence Welk specials still rake in lots of cash from older viewers.

        During pledge month, PBS stations also try to reach a younger audience — we mean 40-year-olds, not teens — with Steely Dan and Don McLean.

        Past pledge drives have rocked with Eric Clapton, the Grateful Dead, Rolling Stones, Eagles, Dave Matthews, Billy Joel and Bob Dylan. Big bucks didn't always roll in, but PBS stations expect those concerts to pay huge dividends in a decade.

        “I don't expect Steely Dan to do much, fund-raising-wise, because they're too young,” Mr. Elliott says.

        Pledge month self-help shows also tap a nerve — and our checkbooks. Dr. Wayne Dyer, whose spiritual well-being advice generated $31,000 in December, will return with two shows March 12. Suze Orman: The Courage to be Rich, which earned $47,235 in five plays last March, will be repeated three times in two days (March 9-11).

        Channel 48 viewers also will see specials on Spontaneous Healing (9:05 p.m. Thursday), Eating Well for Optimum Health (1:30 p.m. Saturday), baby boomers' Age Power! (noon Sunday), Fannie Farmer's 20th Century Kitchen (4 p.m. Sunday), Your Diet, Your Health (7:30 p.m. Tuesday) and Get Healthy Now! (9:30 p.m. March 15).

        Loyal viewers won't see HealthWeek, Cook-Off America, Justin Wilson or Yan Can Cook.

        Only a couple of regular PBS' shows will appear during the 21-day campaign. Behind-the-scenes of Antiques Roadshow debuts 8-10 p.m. today, with three repeats through Monday, and a Red Green Live '00 (Uh-Oh!) premieres 9 p.m. Saturday.

        “It doesn't mean (the regular lineup) is not an important part of our schedule. It is. That's why it's there. But it is not an effective use of our pledge time,” Mr. Elliott says.

No control
        Even within the Public Broadcasting Service, pledge is a totally different animal. The PBS scheduling office which puts Frontline, The American Experience and other series in prime-time has no control over March, August and December pledge periods.

        PBS' Station Independence Programming (SIP) office, with a separate budget and staff, creates pledge programs for the 346 noncommercial stations.

        Through SIP, stations share e-mails about which shows jammed phone lines. The instant feedback enables Channel 48 to drop the turkeys, and repeat the plums, during a drive, as it did in December with Doo Wop 50.

        SIP feedback also helps Channel 48 folks pick shows to repeat as the “Best of WCET48'' as the campaign ends (March 19-21).

        The reality is: Pledge specials, and annoying begging breaks, do the job. Pledging during Mystery! or The American Experience could be a dreadful experience.

        “Those shows don't have the emotion tied to them to be a successful pledge program. We'd have to do more pledging, and nobody wants that,” Mr. Elliott says.

        “We keep asking ourselves what we can do to generate the most funds. We really don't want to do any more of this than we have to.”

        If that's the bottom line, I say: No Nova? No Nature? No problem.

        John Kiesewetter is Enquirer TV/radio critic. Write: 312 Elm St., Cincinnati 45202; fax: 768-8330.