At MIPCOM, I caught up with Beth Hoppe who heads national programming for PBS.
- I had long wanted to publish a snapshot of PBS and its remarkable recent performance.
- Here we go, with input from Beth and her colleagues.
- PBS viewing held steady over a decade of erosion for broadcasters, and surged nearly 40% since 2008-09.
- The commercial free-to-air networks have experienced declines in their individual and combined viewing.
- Discovery also stalled, while History, A&E, Nat Geo and many other unscripted Cab/Sat leaders fell back from earlier gains.
- In the hard-fought struggle to attract and retain viewers, it is a fine achievement for a non-profit — and somewhat anarchic — federation of 350 public TV stations to hold its ground against fierce commercial competition.
…AND GAINING VIEWERS
And the PBS average audience compares very favorably to the US multichannel universe.
For the 2013-14 broadcast season, ending September 21, 2014:
- PBS was the fifth largest primetime household rating among all broadcast + cable nets, behind CBS, NBC, ABC and FOX.
- PBS finished the season with a 1.50 (or an average audience of 2.2 mn viewers).
- That’s a five percent rating increase compared to its average primetime household rating of 1.43 for 2012-13.
- PBS ranked eighth in 2012-13, and 11th for 2011-12.
- Across all broadcast + cable nets, PBS was one of only three top 10-rated networks (including NBC and ESPN) that saw a season-over-season increase in primetime ratings.
- (Note: These #’s are very telling, but commercial networks target demo’s and not average primetime.)
- Of the 21 hours of primetime programming each week on PBS, ratings went up in 19 hours vs last season.
- Downton Abbey has been a huge super-hit for PBS.
- But the audience gains go deeper.
- Last month, 33+ million people sampled Ken Burns’ The Roosevelts.
- The seven-part doc series, aired on consecutive nights in September, averaged 9.2 million viewers.
- The premiere ep was the highest rated of the series, with an average of 11.7 million. It beat all other broadcast and cable programs that night in total viewers.
- And the week of September 15, in which all other episodes premiered, was PBS’ most watched in 20 years.
- The full episodes were streamed more than 1.85 million times.
- Each person who watched The Roosevelts saw an average of nearly four hours of the series.
- Congrats to Ken Burns, Florentine Films, the team at WETA, the presenting station, and PBS Programming.
Here is a list of 25 recent viewing highpoints compiled by PBS.
PBS Top-Rated Telecasts of Selected Series
Season to Date 2013-14 Through July 2014
|Series Name||HH AA%||P2+ AA(000)|
|2||The Roosevelts: An Intimate History||7.47||11,703|
|3||Antiques Roadshow: Detroit||4.56||7,040|
|4||A Capitol Fourth||3.54||5,520|
|5||Carol Burnett Mark Twain Prize||3.37||5,131|
|6||National Memorial Day Concert||3.29||5,443|
|8||NOVA: Cold Case JFK||2.90||4,215|
|9||Call The Midwife||2.78||3,879|
|10||Nature: Love in the Animal Kingdom||2.38||3,457|
|11||History Detectives: Jimmy Hoffa||2.21||3,240|
|12||Secrets of Highclere Castle||2.04||3,141|
|13||Al Capone: Icon||2.02||2,827|
|14||Secrets of the Dead: JFK||1.95||2,848|
|15||Frontline: NFL Crisis||1.89||2,614|
|17||Pioneers of Television||1.86||2,620|
|18||Last Tango in Halifax||1.85||2,579|
|19||My Wild Affair: Elephant||1.85||2,641|
|20||Genealogy Roadshow: Detroit||1.80||2,536|
|23||Skeletons of the Sahara||1.62||2,401|
|24||Independent Lens: Muscle Shoals||1.29||1,784|
|25||American Masters: Hamlisch||1.21||1,616|
- By way of comparison, on a recent October night, Pawn Stars led in the unscripted category, with 2.7 mn viewers.
- Project Runway came next, with 2.6 mn.
FILLING A GAP
Why is PBS on a roll?
- Downton Abbey has been a once-in-a-generation megaphone to cross-promote the entire schedule and brand.
- Meanwhile, Discovery, History, Nat Geo and others had increasingly turned to reality series, and ceded the niche for quality, Blue Chip singles and limited series to PBS.
- That goes for imported UK drama, too.
- The Smithsonian Channel, soon in 40 million homes vs PBS’s 109+/- million, similarly benefits by targeting the gap for entertaining, content-driven docs and specials.
History, Biography, Wildlife and Science are enjoying a significant increase in commissions:
Here is more detail:
Of leading strands:
- Nova: Science originals are expanding from 18/year to 23.
- And Nature, from 13/14 to 18.
This increase in original commissions is reducing the fatigue-making repeat factor across the PBS network.
PBS National Programming has also brought more consistency to its schedule.
- It is less of a patchwork, and is increasingly structured to promote audience flow.
- For example, according to PBS, around 40% of Wednesday’s 8pm Nature viewers stick around at 9pm for Nova. Wednesday viewing is up 30% over 4 years.
PBS is on a roll.
- Its part ‘Act of God.’ Who could have anticipated Downton Abbey?
- And part because PBS is doing much better what PBS has always strived to do well.
The ‘business model’ is still a challenge:
- PBS lacks the twin ad sales and affiliate fee revenue streams of cable nets, making its recent progress all the more impressive.
- Sponsorship is a very hard sale.
- So is foundation funding.
- And the PBS audience is older and under-valued.
- For producers, commissions are highly competitive. That’s the case at the national level and for the strands like Nova.
- But as we showed in our Pilot Productions / Globetrekker Case Study, there are many ways for enterprising producers to succeed in public television.
- History made the classic shift from the ‘Hitler Network’ known for series from the WW2 archive, to a reality-based franchise led by Ice Road Truckers.
- However, its been several years since Pawn Stars became History’s last breakout hit series.
- Variety recently reported that A+E Networks recorded a ratings decline of 22% for 3Q14 vs 3Q13 for the 18-49 Demo in Primetime, which it described as ‘nothing short of staggering.’
- A+E just this week announced a rare shakeup in a senior management team that is known for its stability, as reported by Realscreen.
- According to very recent buzz from agents and producers, History is renewing calls for historically-based programs.
- Did slumping Reality ratings and The Roosevelts teach History a History lesson?
- Maybe. More to come…
Our PBS Coverage
- Dont miss Fidel and the Archive, our recent PBS / Nat Geo International Copro Case Study.
- We covered Antiques Roadshow UK, the long-lasting BBC hit and international franchise, in a fascinating Case Study.
- Read about POV and Independent Lens: their filters, selection process and funding levels.
FULL DISCLOSURE: I’M BIASED IN FAVOR OF PBS.
I arrived in NYC in January 1981, wanting to make a go of it.
President Reagan was defunding social programs. Educational media, the field where I had established myself in Melbourne, was roadkill.
I had no resume and few contacts. New York was harshly competitive.
A friend recounted a line from ‘The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas’:
“I feel like a country dog in the city. If I run they nip my heels. And if I stand still, they screw me!”
That rang my bells.
I was out of money and ready to give up when I received a callback from WNET, New York’s public television station. David Rosen hired me to work on ‘The American City’, a series hosted by John Lindsay, the patrician former mayor.
My life stabilized. Here I am 33 years later enjoying a career that could not have been replicated anywhere except in New York. Thanks WNET.
David remains a great friend, and has been a rock of support for my DocumentaryTelevision.com venture.
And years later after my turn at CBS, WNET became my first client when I launched my consulting practice. Thanks Tim Gunn!
Takeaway: I have enormous gratitude for WNET and PBS.
Upcoming Conferences / Presentations
World Congress of Science and Factual Producers
Window On South Africa
Friday, Nov. 21 09:45 am – 10:45 am
With the explosion of digital channels and web streaming, science and knowledge television is taking off in South Africa—but what about opportunities for co-production?
Pascal Schmitz, Co-Owner and Director, AAA Entertainment/Owner, Amariam Pictures + Amariam Productions (RSA)
Lehlohonolo Mokhosi, Deputy Director, Film and TV Production Incentives, Department of Trade & Industry (RSA)
Tshego Molete Khanyile, Producer, Happy Brown Babies (RSA)
Nisha Naidoo, The Creative Advantage (RSA)
Joseph Oesi, Director/Producer/Cinematographer, Hambrook Communications (RSA)
Peter Hamilton (Australia/USA)