The oft-repeated concern at TV stations about running specialized programs during pledge is that the features on advice spanning from financial to health (and even quasi-spiritual) alienate the core PBS audience, which is an arts and culturally-oriented intellectual. Yet there are donors who call in and say the pledge programs are the “best” the station is airing. What’s happening here is fueling not just conversation but actual change at some stations and even PBS itself.
“We’re not just serving one audience; we’re serving many audiences,” is how Michal Heiplik aptly described it to Current for the article Rolling Back Transactional Pledge Requires Focus on Off-Air Strategies. The donors who come in through pledge drives have very low retention, especially when compared to direct mail which is at 70-80%. But the gift amount is much higher than what is typical, making the pledge donor worth 2-3 years of giving via direct mail.
Switching to core programming in order to keep the ethos of the PBS brand alive brings along with it the concern that although the retention of the donors acquired might be higher, it won’t be as successful at bringing in the high donations that specialized programming delivers, resulting in a NET loss overall for the station.
Late last year PBS rallied 17 stations from various markets and began testing to determine whether pledge could work building around core series rather than specialized programming. The programs included some compilation-style efforts from Antiques Roadshow and Nature, while American Masters and Nova created special debut programs. Joseph A. Campbell, PBS vice-president for fundraising programming, recently told Current that the programming was designed to be fluid and in alignment with the regular programming schedule. Messaging within the breaks helped maintain consistency throughout the 90 minutes which followed the standard pledge format of 60 minutes of content and 30 minutes of preproduced breaks.
Measuring the success of this test is a matter of some patience, of course, because assessing retention of donors acquired will not happen until 15 months out. CDP is currently partnered with PBS to analyze the data collected from this test and final results will take a while to ascertain as the analysis is ongoing. PBS’s intent is to dig deeper into what works and how to best formulate future drives.
KLRU switched to a core programming format back in 2011 and so far it is working for them; their audience has responded positively. Susannah Winslow tells Current that although the fundraising around core programs doesn’t raise as much money, KLRU has “found ways to supplement the dollars we don’t get on air around core shows through online campaigns, challenge matches and other fundraising strategies.” Winslow recently spoke at NETA about KLRU’s practices in a session entitled “Wash, Rinse, Repeat. How To Fail and Succeed With Experimenting and Improving.”
If you want to read more about PBS’s initial test lineup, there is an article from November 2014 in Current linked here. In-house PBS ombudsman (say that three times fast) Michael Getler also posted audience critiques online in August of 2014, which you can check out here.
Listening to the hilarious radio pledge promos created by WNYC with Alec Baldwin back in 2010 certainly illustrates that a unique approach that is both modern and matches public media ethos can be achieved.